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Ratner Opponents Move to Block Building Demolitions

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New Jersey Nets owner Bruce Ratner is preparing to do battle on another kind of court – one where the referee is wearing a black robe and pounding a gavel instead of blowing a whistle. Opponents of the Forest City Ratner Companies (FCRC) plan to develop the Atlantic Yards filed a lawsuit seeking to annul the company’s plans to demolish six buildings on the site it already owns. “We believe that the demolition of the buildings before the completion of the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) process is a violation of the law and will act to promote and pre-determine the outcome of the environmental review,” said attorney Jeff Baker, of the law firm Young, Sommer, who represents the group. “We will seek injunctive relief prohibiting demolition of the structures until the court determines our claim and will seek an order providing for an independent inspection of the buildings by a structural engineer,” he added. The move comes about a month after FCRC announced plans to demolish six buildings, contending they are structurally unsound and pose chemical hazards such as being built utilizing asbestos, which is deemed to be medically unsafe. The buildings includes the Underberg Building at 608-620 Atlantic Avenue; 461, 463 and 585 Dean Street; and 620 and 622 Pacific Street. After announcing the demolition, FCRC reportedly first agreed to City Council member Letitia James’ demand for an independent engineer to review findings that the buildings need to be demolished. However, they later agreed to allow James to tour the buildings, but refused to have another engineer examine the sites. The groups signing onto the lawsuit include Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB), the Fort Greene Association, Boerum Hill Association, Society for Clinton Hill, Pratt Area Community Council, Fifth Avenue Committee and Prospect Heights Action Coalition. Additional plaintiffs include the Atlantic Avenue Betterment Association, Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council, East Pacific Block Association, and the Dean Street Block Association (4th to 5th Street). All have been highly critical of the project. Also named in the suit is the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) for allowing the demolition plans. The suit also seeks the disqualification of ESDC’s special outside counsel, Sive, Paget & Riesel (SPR) on the grounds that SPR represents FCR and has previously represented FCR on the “Atlantic Yards” proposal, constituting a serious conflict of interest. “It appears that the ESDC may be breaking the rules of the state’s review of the proposal. The plaintiffs question the integrity of a process that relies solely on Ratner’s engineer’s report and Ratner’s former lawyer for approval of the demolitions,” said DDDB Spokesperson Daniel Goldstein. “It is deeply troubling that the state agency charged with an objective review of the proposal is represented by Ratner’s lawyer. It throws the entire review process into question,” he added. Additionally, opponents of the demolition say that some of the buildings had businesses and residents in them as little as six months ago and nobody ever deemed them structurally unsafe. But Bruce Bender, FCRC Executive Vice President, called the suit a tactic to slow down or stop the project. “While we cannot comment in detail until we have had a chance to review the papers, we believe this suit is all about creating delay tactics,” said Bender. “LZA, one the City’s leading engineering firms, found these buildings to be ‘extremely dangerous’ and to pose an ‘immediate threat to life, health and property,’” he added. Bender said while opponents of the project have another agenda, FCRC will not play games with the public safety and is proceeding as any responsible property owner should and must. “FCRC is focused on going through the State process and working with community and governmental leaders to ensure that the project complements the surrounding communities and that jobs and housing are created for local residents,” said Bender. ESDC Spokesperson Deborah Wetzel said the organization has not yet been served with the legal papers. “When we do receive them, we intend to vigorously defend against the lawsuit. Beyond that, it is our policy not to comment on pending litigation,” she said.

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