Later this morning, the various committees that make up the MTA Board will meet for their monthly sessions. Ahead of next Sunday’s fare hikes, the news probably won’t be rosy for the financially-troubled transit agency. While we will await the meeting to assess the MTA’s bleak economic outlook, there is one storyline that warrants a preview because it will have an impact on both the MTA’s finances, the face of Brooklyn and the power real estate moguls have over this city.
Earlier this month, I explored how Bruce Ratner wanted a sweeter sweetheart deal for the Vanderbilt Yards, the MTA-owned railroads that make up a large chunk of his Atlantic Yards development. While the MTA originally agreed to sell the land rights to Ratner for a below-market $100 million, the Ohio native wants to pay just $20 million for the land. After all, the bad economy impacts him as well.
Over the last few weeks, Ratner has been utterly skewered for this move. In the four years since he first earned approval for the project, he has scaled back nearly every aspect of it. Just recently, he announced that Frank Gehry would no longer be designing the planned Nets arena. Instead, the venue would look like Any Sports Venue, USA. It’s boring and not worthy of New York City.
Recently, Atlantic Yards Report has wondered what — other than 8.4 acres worth of railroad land — $20 million can buy in the city. Norman Oder, the author of the Atlantic Yards watchdog site, has noted that $20 million can’t buy two sites in Alphabet City, can buy a 50-foot-wide piece of land in Chelsea and 46,000 square feet in Manhattan, among others. Needless to say, the $20 million offer is a joke.
Meanwhile, this debacle is going to come to a head today and Wednesday. On the one hand is the MTA. The transit agency has been working with Bruce Ratner to modify the agreement to better the suit the desires of the developer. The Finance Committee will see the amended agreement during their 11:45 a.m. meeting and will recommend it to the full Board for a Wednesday vote. On the other hand are our elected officials who are trying to stop the MTA.
Last week, a group of New York politicians sent a letter to the MTA (available here) in protest. “We respectfully suggest that a hasty decision to modify the obligations of the developer could be detrimental to the needs of the mass transit system and that any decision should only be made after the public and elected officials have had a fair opportunity to present their views,” the council members, State Senators and Assembly representatives wrote.
It doesn’t end there. State Senator Bill Perkins has also asked the MTA to delay voting on the deal, and Chris Smith of New York Magazine wrote a must-read piece on how the MTA is set to screw itself on this deal. He writes:
As disappointing as the cash may turn out to be, there’s another significant change in the works. “The thing to watch is whether the MTA gets screwed on the rail yards,” one party to the negotiations says. Ratner had agreed to build a new and improved rail yard for the LIRR. But he’s trying to cut back there, too, possibly delivering a new yard with 25 percent less capacity than the existing facility. “That would be a real loss,” the official says. “Ratner is supposed to build a rail yard that’s worth $200 to 300 million.”
This deal has the potential to be a flat-out giveaway. The MTA is going to give away valuable public lands. They’re going to give away provisions requiring a modern rail facility. They’re going to gift wrap this for Bruce Ratner.
The MTA has long suffered from a credibility problem. People don’t understand why the fares have to go up. They don’t understand delays and service advisories. What New Yorkers see is this blatant back-room bargaining. No wonder, as I said three weeks ago, few trust the MTA. They’re on the verge of squandering a public asset, and we’ll have to see if they can step back from this brink before it’s too late.