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"Why should people get to see plans? This isn't a public project."
Bruce Ratner in Crain's Nov. 8, 2009

Norman Oder on Prokhorov, Ratner and Atlantic Yards in the NY Times

Norman Oder, who began his Atlantic Yards reporting as a critic of the NY Times faulty coverage of the controversial project, has an oped in today's NY Times sports section. Kudos to the paper for holding back ego and publishing one of its chief critic's columns. But shame on the paper for waiting until the Atlantic Yards horse was so far out of the barn.

Oder offers a synopsis of the Atlantic Yards rip-off, honing in on the public subsidies and government support benefiting one of the richest men in the world, Mikhail Prokhorov, and the fawning press gaggles that followed every little joke and cute remark by the oligarch during his whirlwind April visit to New York.

The question remains: would the Mayor and various governors have propelled Atlantic Yards forwards with all of its public favors if it were a project driven by and owned by Russia's wealthiest man? We doubt it, but that is what has occurred, in the end. Understanding that this would be unseemly, Ratner and the insiders held back the change in team and arena ownership until all final project approvals were made, because it is difficult to go to the government with your hand out when you are partnered with one of the richest men in the world.

We re-post liberally from Oder's essential column below:

A Russian Billionaire, the Nets and Sweetheart Deals
By Norman Oder. New York Times

The Russian billionaire Mikhail D. Prokhorov, the Nets’ new majority owner and the N.B.A.’s first overseas owner, magnetized members of the news media during his recent whirlwind tour of New York.

Prokhorov, a 6-foot-8 kick boxer, international playboy and shrewd businessman, did his best to make people forget the team’s performance last year at the dreary Izod Center in East Rutherford, N.J. He was droll (“America, I come in peace”), playfully evasive about changing the team’s name and confident of a championship in five years “maximum.”

As Prokhorov, Russia’s second-richest man, dangles cash for a coach, free agents and first-class facilities, let’s not forget the money that he and his business partner Bruce C. Ratner saved because of taxpayer help for the arena under construction in Brooklyn. The help includes eminent domain, major subsidies, a naming-rights giveaway and bad, undemocratic urban planning.


Prokhorov considers himself a “self-made man.” But his purchase of the metals firm Norilsk Nickel came about because of a process that was probably not even legal under Western standards, a business partner told “60 Minutes.”

In Brooklyn, the arena process passed legal muster, as courts generally defer to state agencies. Still, as I’ve written for more than four years in my blog, Atlantic Yards Report, it was an insider’s game.

Ratner, whose company spends a lot on lobbying, needed a key piece of public property, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Vanderbilt Yard; city and state officials signed on without putting the site up for bid.

When the M.T.A. belatedly sought bids, the sole rival developer offered three times more cash than did Ratner’s firm. Yes, Ratner’s overall bid was seen as more valuable, but the agency chose to negotiate solely with Ratner. Last year, when Ratner’s firm hit cash-flow problems, the M.T.A. agreed to sweeten the rail yard deal even as it cut services.

The arena could not be built without eminent domain, the power of the state to take private property for public use — or “public purpose,” as it has evolved — with just compensation. The problem? The justification in Brooklyn was the removal of blight, which the state describes vaguely as “substandard and insanitary” conditions that bring a neighborhood down. There were luxury condominiums inside the Atlantic Yards site. Many remain nearby. State claims of high crime at the site? Actually, the high crime nearby is at Ratner’s malls.

“Sports entertainment corporations” (an apt term from Bettina Damiani of Good Jobs New York) have been quite successful at getting the public to pay for sports facilities. The financing for the nearly $1 billion Barclays Center is more subtle, but the public still pays significantly.

Consider that the state and the city each allotted $100 million, ostensibly for infrastructure like utilities. The city’s subsidy, part of which could be used for land, went solely to reimburse Ratner for property he bought from residents and businesses.

Later, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg allotted $105 million for infrastructure. That was not enough; Bloomberg agreed last year to shift $31 million from that sum to land, making it likely that future mayors will be asked to pay more for infrastructure. The New York City Independent Budget Office calls the arena a net loss for taxpayers.

A more direct gift involved arena naming rights, once reported at $400 million, now at least $200 million.

Why do the arena operators keep the naming-rights revenue for what the state calls a publicly owned arena?

“It’s part of the financing for the project,” according to a representative of the Empire State Development Corporation, whose unelected board approved the project, overriding local zoning.

The fig leaf of public ownership allows Ratner and Prokhorov to benefit from $511 million in tax-free bonds for the arena, saving them perhaps $150 million in a type of financing structure the Treasury Department now disallows.

Prokhorov’s strategy, off to a flying start, is to build a dynasty, become a household name in North America and open investment opportunities.

But the arena process should have been fair, and he should have paid full freight. Surely he can afford it.

Posted: 6.21.10
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Eminent Domain Case
Goldstein et al v. ESDC
[All case files]

November 24, 2009
Court of Appeals

[See ownership map]

EIS Lawsuit

DDDB et al v ESDC et al
Click for a summary of the lawsuit seeking to annul the review and approval the Atlantic Yards project.

Appeal briefs are here.

Appellate Divsion
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What would Atlantic Yards Look like?...
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