Does Forest City Ratner Have an Advantage in Seward Park Bidding?

Development companies have a little over two months left to submit proposals for the Seward Park site, the 1.65 million square foot residential and commercial project at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge.  An information session hosted by city planning agencies last week drew more than 300 people, including representatives from some of Manhattan’s biggest development firms.

Today the Atlantic Yards Report focuses on one of the high profile companies in attendance and its close ties to both Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and the Met Council on Jewish Poverty, one of New York’s biggest non-profit organizations.   A story posted earlier today asks whether Forest City Ratner, the developer behind the controversial Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, could have an advantage in winning the Seward Park contract due to its Lower East Side political connections.

The company’s head, Bruce Ratner, “is the de facto impressario” of a an upcoming concert at the Barclays Center (Atlantic Yards’ crown jewel) featuring violinist Itzhak Perlman (a longtime friend of Ratner) and cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot.  The Atlantic Yards Report notes:

…Ratner didn’t get to be Brooklyn’s most powerful developer simply by indulging in artistic passions and helping out a friend.  Other evidence–even if Ratner won’t confirm it–hints at business calculation, an effort to bolster ties with a charitable ally and one of the state’s most powerful politicians.  That could help Forest City Ratner in the heated competition for the last large development site on (the) Lower East Side, the Seward Park Mixed-Use Development Project, which the city’s economic development agency calls an “unprecedented development opportunity.”

The blog points out that profits from the concert will go to the Met Council.  The organization’s longtime head is William Rapfogel, whose wife Judy is Silver’s chief of staff.   There have been news stories over the years highlighting the Met Council’s fundraising prowess, questioning the tight relationship with Silver, one of the state’s most powerful politicians.  The Atlantic Yards Report contends that the close ties have benefited everyone involved:

…Silver has long delivered for Ratner. In 2006, Silver green-lighted the Atlantic Yards project from his position on the Public Authorities Control Board, the “three men in a room” body that earlier killed the proposed West Side Stadium.  In 2007, intervention by Silver and others into an ongoing reform of a tax break known as 421-a enabled Ratner’s Atlantic Yards, alone among projects, to retain the tax break even in buildings that included no subsidized housing. Meanwhile, despite enormous controversy over Atlantic Yards, the Silver-controlled Assembly has kept hands off; the only oversight hearing emerged in 2009 when the state Senate was briefly in Democratic hands.  Ratner in turn has rewarded Silver. In January 2008, his company gave $58,420, to the Democratic Assembly Housekeeping Committee, essentially a slush fund for party activities. That gift was cited by civic watchdogs as an argument for campaign finance reform.  Ratner and Silver also converge at the Met Council. In August 2008, Ratner helped raise $1 million for the organization and was honored at a luncheon attended by several elected officials; Silver presented Ratner with what a Met Council press release called a “beautifully decorated charity box.” One of the Rapfogels’ three sons, Michael, works on government relations for Forest City Ratner.

A couple of points worth making.  First, Silver has no direct role to play in the awarding of the Seward Park contracts, though there’s always been a widespread belief that he has influence over practically everything that happens on the Lower East Side.   Second, it’s not known for certain that Ratner is preparing a bid.   Many development firms were represented at the informational meeting. Other prominent developers signing in included: the Related Companies,  the LeFrak Organization, Douglaston Development, Avalon Bay and the Jonathan Rose Company.  The Economic Development Corp. posted the attendance sheet on its web site (guests could choose whether to make their information public).  Have a look for yourself:


Seward Park Information Session Attendees by The Lo-Down

As you may have noticed, the session was not only attended by development firms, but by representatives of many other companies that might want a piece of the action at Seward Park.  Architectural, engineering and construction concerns were all there to learn more about the RFP.

There were also a wide range of community-based non-profits in attendance, including leaders from Educational Alliance and Grand Street Settlement.  We’ve been hearing from people at LES social service and cultural groups who have been contacted by developers interested in partnering.  The RFP encourages the inclusion of community-oriented spaces, such as health clinics, daycare centers and arts venues, in development proposals.

The RFP also encourages applicants to partner with Lower East Side based not-for profit developers. There are several organizations falling into this category, including the Cooper Square Committee, the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, Asian Americans for Equality and LES People’s Mutual Housing Association. As the Atlantic Yards Report indicated, the Met Council on Jewish Poverty is also a non-profit developer of senior housing.  10% of the project’s one-thousand units have been set aside for affordable senior housing.