New York Skyline in the Balance As Real Estate Titans Square Off

By Nathaniel Popper

Published August 05, 2005, issue of August 05, 2005.

It is a battle that has involved collapsing buildings, racially-charged protests and two of New York’s most powerful Jewish developers, pitted against each other for the future of New York’s skyline.

At stake, say community activists, are the characters of two iconic, heavily Jewish New York neighborhoods known as bastions of middle-class liberalism.

The main battlefield is a plot of land in downtown Brooklyn that has been opened for development by New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority. The authority agreed last week to enter exclusive negotiations for the site with Bruce Ratner, a well-connected scion of Cleveland’s most prominent Jewish family, who is planning to build an arena and move the professional basketball team he owns from New Jersey to Brooklyn.

Ratner is facing heat from a competing developer: Gary Barnett, a reclusive, publicity-shy Orthodox Jew. Barnett’s proposal has won over some community activists who complain that Ratner’s mammoth plan to remake 21 acres of Brooklyn ignores the character of the storied neighborhood, in the heart of a borough that still calls itself “America’s fourth largest city.”

The Brooklyn battle, however, is not the whole story. While Barnett is depicted as a concerned citizen in Brooklyn, he is the subject of protests 10 miles north on the Upper West Side, the traditional nerve center of New York’s Jewish cultural elite. Opposite a synagogue on 100th Street, Barnett’s company, Extell Development Corporation, is building two high-rise apartment buildings that activists say will destroy the character of the quiet, middle-class neighborhood in the shadow of Columbia University.

Adding to emotions, the project is a partnership between Extell and the Carlyle Group, an international investment firm that has close ties to President Bush, and was famously portrayed in Michael Moore’s film “Fahrenheit 9/11” as a tool of Texas and Saudi Arabian oil interests.

“What’s really interesting here is that there’s a Jewish man in bed with the Saudis to build this project,” said Miki Fiegel, the head of the main community group, who was interviewed at a protest at the building site last week. “The profits are going to go back to Saudi Arabia — a country that wants to push Israel back into the sea.”

Similar criticisms of Barnett have been voiced at community meetings in Brooklyn by Ratner’s supporters, even though Carlyle is not involved in that project. A spokesman for Barnett, Bob Liff, dismissed the criticism as “beneath the people who are raising that kind of comment.”

The construction of the two Upper West Side towers was temporarily halted by the city July 14 after an existing building on the site collapsed during demolition work, injuring five passersby and garnering international headlines.

It is the proposals in Brooklyn, however, that have attracted the most attention, primarily because of their scale. At issue are the Vanderbilt Rail Yards, an 8.6-acre expanse of train tracks that the Brooklyn Dodgers once hoped to convert into a new stadium before they left for Los Angeles.

Ratner’s plan would create a new arena for the New Jersey Nets basketball team, which he bought last year. His proposal extends far beyond the arena, however, to include a string of apartment and office buildings designed by the pop-architect Frank Gehry. Gehry’s vision would reshape Brooklyn’s downtown, currently an aging district dominated by pre-World War II architecture, with new structures rising as high as 60 stories.

The transit authority has been negotiating with Ratner for more than a year, even though the project was officially open for competing bids. A community group opposed to Ratner — called Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn — sent letters to 100 developers asking them to submit alternative bids. Barnett was the only one to respond. Following the activists’ guidelines, he submitted a plan that would cover only 8.5 acres and have buildings rising to 28 stories.

The transit authority was not impressed. On July 27, it entered exclusive negotiations with Ratner for 45 days to hammer out a deal. Ratner has offered $50 million for the site, far less than Barnett’s $150 million. The authority hoped to push Ratner higher. Barnett’s spokesman said his bid remains on the table.

Ratner’s opponents come mostly from Prospect Heights, a gentrifying enclave just south of the rail yards. It sits at the edge of Park Slope, a sprawling neighborhood second only to the Upper West Side as a bastion of Jewish liberals.

Facing the protesters, Ratner has lined up his own cadre of community activists from mostly minority districts further east, who say his plan would do more for minorities. He has signed an agreement promising to give 35% of construction jobs to minorities. His plan also offers 2,500 middle- and low-income apartments, as compared to Barnett’s 573.

At one community hearing, Ratner’s supporters called the Jewish spokesman for the don’t-destroy group a “trust fund baby,” according to the New York Sun.

“I don’t want to make this out to be a black versus white situation,” said James Caldwell, president of a pro-Ratner group called Build, “but it seems like that’s what it’s turning out to be.”

Daniel Goldstein, the spokeman for Develop Don’t Destory, said the racial language is “a deliberate attempt by this developer to divide communities.” Goldstein pointed to the black clergy group working with his organization, as well as to three local black politicians who have opposed Ratner.

On the Upper West Side, Barnett has made some effort to reach out to community members. At a community board meeting at a local synagogue, Barnett presented his plans for the two towers — one 31 stories and the other 37 stories — and then listened to two hours of criticism from community members.

The Upper West Side has undergone rapid change in recent years, as an influx of lawyers and bankers has driven up prices and forced out many of the middle class Jewish intellectuals and artists who long dominated the neighborhood. Community activists said Barnett’s project, a mile north of other such high-rises, was one more sign of unruly development in the area.

Unlike Ratner in Brooklyn, Barnett does not have community members arguing his case on the West Side. However, he has secured the necessary legal rights and permits, making his plan all but unstoppable.

In a further irony, he won the right to exceed neighborhood height limits in part by acquiring air rights — the trading of height limits between adjacent properties — from a parcel recently sold by the cash-strapped Jewish Theological Seminary of America. The seminary had sold the parcel to a church.

In response to criticism that the towers hurt the area’s character, Barnett’s spokesman said: “People have a right to say their piece. It’s important to note that everything has been done by the book. It will continue to be done by the book.”

The collapse of the building has fueled opponents’ hopes of winning changes in the zoning laws that allowed Barnett to win his building permits. The city is investigating whether criminal charges should be brought against the demolition company hired to take down the previous structure. A city spokesperson said construction will likely resume after the investigation ends.

The community activists who are backing Barnett in Brooklyn say they don’t plan to join protests against him on the Upper West Side.

“Every large or medium developer in New York has problems with the communities they are trying to build in,” said Goldstein, of the anti-Ratner group. “It’s a much lesser of two evils here in Brooklyn.”

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