"Why should people get to see plans? This isn't a public project."
— Bruce Ratner discussing Atlantic Yards in Crain's Nov. 8, 2009
Forest City Ratner is the Brooklyn-based division of Cleveland-based Forest City Enterprises which is a publicly traded corporation listed on the New York Stock Exchange (FCEA). Bruce Ratner is its CEO.
FCE is not a charity or a non-profit organization. Like any other publicly traded corporation they endeavor to make profits to increase shareholder value. They do this through development deals always infused with large taxpayer subsidies and gifts, which often benefit from eminent domain powers used by political friends. Broadly speaking, they are corporate welfare kings and eminent domain addicts. As such, they have served their shareholders well.
So when Bruce Ratner told Crain's that Atlantic Yards is not a public project, and demanded to know why people should get to see his plans for the project—he wasn't kidding, it's not a public project.
By nearly every standard Atlantic Yards is, indeed, a private project. But Ratner's honest, foot eating comment could not have pleased his public relations people or attorneys who have spent six years trying to convince politicians, the public and courtrooms that Atlantic Yards is a great public project, a grand civic gesture out of the goodness of the corporation's heart.
In an October 2007 eminent domain court argument, the Empire State Development Corporation's attorney Preeta Bansal told a federal appellate court, "This is a valid public project."
But Bruce Ratner, this week, clarified things: "It isn't a public project."
What else, besides a private project, could you call a plan that was initiated, and has been run and controlled by this private entity, Forest City Enterprises, while it is completely dependent on public resources and government actions? Sure, we, along with the state agency, or puppet, purportedly overseeing the project—the Empire State Development Corporation—can mouth the words "public-private partnership" until the Dodgers return, but it doesn't make it so. Better to call it, simply, good business sense.
The public part of the "partnership" consists of well over $1 billion in taxpayer support, free or cheap public land, eminent domain and kowtowing to everything the private part wants. That Ratner finds it an affront to even be asked to show his plans is evidence that Atlantic Yards is a private project that should be laid at the feet of the ESDC for not requiring it before giving clearance to the project. (Six yeas into the Atlantic Yards saga and nobody knows what any part of the project will actually look like if built.) To paraphrase New York state appellate judge James Catterson, the public has been used as a tool by the private. It is not the other way around. In marriages or relationships the word to describe such a "partnership" would be "abusive."
The problem, for Ratner and the ESDC, is the murky world of eminent domain abuse. Truly public projects have no difficulty passing themselves off as "public use" as required by the New York State and federal constitutions. And undeniably private projects aren't proffered as public projects and therefore don't even attempt eminent domain.
It is only when eminent domain is used for projects characterized as "public-private partnerships" that controversy arises. And that leads to where we are with eminent domain and Ratner's Atlantic Yards proposal—in New York's Court of Appeals.
Had Bruce Ratner put into the legal record that Atlantic Yards is not a public project, rather than the ESDC's ludicrous, and contradictory argument that the project's proposed basketball arena is publicly owned (and therefore a public project) because New York state would "lease" it to Ratner for $1 per year, then the case against eminent domain for Atlantic Yards would have been decided a long time ago.
But he didn't.
It is only since the legal record has long since closed that he has had the chutzpah to shoot straight and tell the truth in the public record. It shouldn't be ignored.
Since Atlantic Yards "isn't a public project," as Ratner now proudly claims (and most would agree), then he should return the public's money and renounce his attempt to seize properties like my home and my neighbors' homes.
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