The Real Deal New York

Ratner’s other battle

While Atlantic Yards still faces hurdles, the developer's Westchester project is under way
By Marc Ferris | February 05, 2008 04:29PM

Forest City Ratner is practically a household name in the city because of its controversial Atlantic Yards project, which is set to remake a massive swath of Brooklyn.

But a short distance north, in Westchester County, the developer has another contentious project—one that is several steps ahead of its Brooklyn development.

Four miles from the Bronx border, Ridge Hill Village will be the largest development project in Yonkers history—just as Atlantic Yards will be for Brooklyn.

The mixed-use complex is projected to cost $630 million. After five years of fierce opposition and legal challenges, the company held a ceremonial groundbreaking on the site in November, and construction is now in full swing.

The development will include 1,000 apartments, 160,000 square feet of office space, a 175-room hotel and convention center, and a multi-screen cinema. Ratner has already signed leases with L. L. Bean, Whole Foods, Banana Republic, New York & Company and movie-theater operator National Amusement.

“It’s a done deal,” said Hezi Aris, a political blogger at YonkersTribune.com and the publisher of the Westchester Times Tribune. “The administration and other interest groups eviscerated the challenge, and everyone threw in the towel.”

The price tag and scope of the project pales in comparison to the $4 billion redevelopment of the Atlantic Yards site, but the two plans are both considered massive for their communities. What’s more, they have followed similar trajectories.

Last month, a State Supreme Court judge ruled in Forest City Ratner’s favor on Atlantic Yards, dismissing a lawsuit that was attempting to block the project from moving forward. However, there are still federal lawsuits challenging Ratner’s use of eminent domain.

Until the legal hurdles are cleared, the only work being done on the site is the demolition of several buildings the company owns.

In Yonkers, it’s a different story. Ratner has cleared all of the legal hurdles.

Like some Brooklyn officials who hail the Atlantic Yards project for all of the jobs it could create, officials in Yonkers, which has long struggled to remain financially afloat, say Ridge Hill Village will jump start the droopy economy with thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in desperately needed revenue, creating an important tax base.

Also like the Atlantic Yards site, the Ridge Hill Village site has a unique history. The more than 80-acre site was once home to a drug treatment center and defense contractor Lockheed Martin, which was bought out of its lease once redevelopment efforts began. In the early 1990s, New York State began marketing the property to developers. In 2002, the city signed an agreement with Forest City Ratner for the project.

From the outset, Ridge Hill Village was dogged by opposition.

According to the Journal News, a paper that covers Westchester County, the neighboring towns sued Yonkers over the plan. They eventually dropped the suit as part of a deal in which Ratner agreed to give them $5 million to help fund short-term traffic improvements.

The company has also created a task force to be overseen by former Governor Mario Cuomo.

Another lawsuit filed by three council members argued that the city changed the number of votes needed for approval, in order to make an end run around the Westchester County Planning Board.

A State Supreme Court judge annulled the city vote, but the project won approval on the second go-around.

There were additional accusations of improprieties. The city was harshly criticized when it created the Ridge Hill Development Corporation—a non-profit corporation that was not subject to public oversight—to collect the money generated by the development.

“From the beginning, the whole thing had been shrouded in secrecy,” said Aris. “The city created an entity to administer the plan that is not accountable to anyone.”

According to published reports, opponents were upset that the corporation was filled with politically-connected members. The city has said it would dissolve the corporation, but even now not everyone is satisfied. Debra Cohen, a lawyer who has challenged other city developments, said the city has not come clean with where the assets went.

And last year the City Council was served with a federal subpoena that sought records connected to the project.

“They were looking at all sorts of documents, especially audio tape relating to Ridge Hill,” said Chuck Lesnick, president of the Yonkers City Council.

Lesnick noted the development corporation has been liquidated but that it “has incurred certain expenses.” He said after it pays off title, legal and consultant fees, along with incurred interest, it will be dissolved and then “there should be complete disclosure.”

Despite all of the opposition, Forest City Ratner bought out the lease for $26 million and now owns the land outright, said company spokesman Loren Riegelhaupt.

The project is scheduled for completion in summer 2009.

Helping Forest City Ratner weather the opposition in Yonkers was the fact that the lion’s share of scrutiny has been aimed at the city, not the developer. In addition, the remote location has kept the actual construction process out of the public eye.

As the name implies, though, the site represents a challenging place to build. The only existing access to the hilltop abuts the New York State Thruway’s service road. Forest City Ratner is constructing a new egress to Tuckahoe Road, a heavily congested commercial corridor that may require widening and other improvements.

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