12/22/11: Atlantic Yards Controversy Reignites as Nets Arrive in Brooklyn

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In Philly: Ballet’s plan for N. Broad would raze building in Callowhill historic district






December 8, 2011
By Alan Jaffe
For PlanPhilly

The announcement in October that the Pennsylvania Ballet would create a $17.5 million dance center on North Broad Street was greeted with ovations by the city and arts community. The groundbreaking for the complex of five dance studios, school and offices marked a turnaround for a company that had been struggling and in debt two decades ago, and was another step forward for the revival of North Broad Street.

But the plans for the new ballet headquarters include the demolition of a building at 325 N. Broad that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the preservation community is not joining in the applause for the project.

“I’m appalled that they’re going to tear down the 325 building,” said Robert Powers, president of Powers & Company, a historic preservation and architectural conservation firm. Two years ago, Powers & Company conducted the nomination process for the Callowhill Industrial Historic District to the National Register. The building at 325 N. Broad is listed as contributing to the historic district, and it could and should be re-used by the Ballet, Powers said.

The dance company’s plan, designed by Erdy McHenry Architecture, shows the creation of an open courtyard with trees at 325 N. Broad and renovation of the building at 331.

“I think it’s a misguided design that is not taking advantage of Broad Street,” Powers said. “Creating a small park along an urban corridor is not appropriate. The building [at 325] is an excellent candidate for rehabilitation. This is an artistic company that is not respecting historic resources.”

The Ballet has raised $11.2 million so far, mainly from donors, for the project. The city is contributing $1 million through its Cultural Corridors Fund, and the state is providing $2.5 million through the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program.

Any alterations to a building on the National Register that are paid through public funding sources go through a review process by the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission.

John Gallery, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, said the PHMC reviewed the Ballet’s plan and determined it had an “adverse effect” on the site. “But it appears they concluded that documentation of the building to be demolished was sufficient. They did not do any consultation with parties in Philadelphia in reaching that conclusion,” Gallery said.

Gallery did meet recently with John Gattuso, who heads up the building committee for the Ballet. And Gallery said the most recent proposal by the dance company included restoration of one of the buildings on Broad Street and restoration of other structures at the rear of the site. “That was a somewhat better plan” than had been proposed earlier, Gallery said.

In an interview with PlanPhilly, Gattuso said the Ballet is “totally embracing the Callowhill Industrial Historic District” and its plan is a “great example of use of historic assets.”

The façade of 331 will be preserved and the building will be kept intact and renovated for office space, said Gattuso, who is regional director of Liberty Property Trust’s Urban and National Development team. The garage buildings at the rear of the site will become rehearsal studios; a green roof will be installed on one of those buildings and clear glass upper stories will eventually be added.

“The only building being removed is 325 N. Broad,” Gattuso said. “It is not in very good condition, and the main reason is that we need to create a large studio that is the exact dimensions of the Academy of Music stage. Now it’s a two-and-a-half-story building with lots of small rooms.

“We are sacrificing that one building to get the functionality that we need for the studio and ballet school.”

A consultant had found that alterations over the years to 325 N. Broad did not retain the historic character of the building, Gattuso also said.

There has been a “very precise effort on the part of the design team to retain the historic structures,” he said.


Auto row

The Ballet purchased the cluster of buildings at Broad and Wood Streets in 2007 with the intention of transforming them into a center for dance and the company’s permanent home.

The buildings went up 100 years ago as a center for the burgeoning automobile industry.

The surviving jewel of the auto row is the Packard Motor Company building, 315-321 N. Broad, designed in 1910 by renowned industrial architect Albert Kahn. Cars were assembled on the upper floors and showcased in the cherry-paneled first floor. The Packard building was later known as the Press Building and was home to the Philadelphia Record newspaper for two decades. The building was transformed into 151 luxury apartments in the mid-1980s in a $15 million retrofit by Historic Landmarks for Living.

The handsome building at 331 N. Broad that will become the Ballet’s offices was erected in 1911 for the U.S. Tire Company. And the Colonial Revival building at 325 N. Broad that will come down in the Ballet’s plan was constructed in 1910 for the Willys-Overland Motor Company, which was best known for the design and production of military and civilian Jeeps.

The former auto buildings are part of the relatively small historic district of 66 resources, within 14 city blocks, which trace the evolution of industrial architecture and manufacturing growth in Philadelphia.

A neighborhood in transition

In recent years, the Callowhill area has been adopted by artists, writers and urban revivalists and dubbed the “Eraserhood,” a tribute to film director David Lynch, who lived in the gritty neighborhood while a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Lynch has said his years in Philly shaped the post-industrial ambiance of his discomforting movie, “Eraserhead.”

The North Broad corridor has undergone a more upscale transformation as well. New restaurants have moved into long-vacant storefronts, including Marc Vetri’s Osteria, 640 N. Broad St. Developer Eric Blumenfeld turned a former dress factory at Broad and Mount Vernon Street into 101 loft apartments, and is working on a site at 600 N. Broad that will include two more restaurants by Vetri and Stephen Starr.

The Daily News/Philadelphia Inquirer building, 400 N. Broad, has been purchased by Bart Blatstein for redevelopment as a retail, dining and apartment complex.

Repurposing industrial and office buildings in the area was a goal of putting the Callowhill district on the National Register. Tax credits for redeveloping historic buildings serves as a great motivator in saving such buildings, particularly in a difficult real estate market.

But the Ballet project misses the point, Powers said.

“There are so many opportunities for renovation of historic buildings,” he said. “A lot of times we’re fighting developers to preserve these sites. We shouldn’t have to be fighting with the Ballet.”

The Ballet company recognizes the importance of the North Broad revival, Gattuso said, and the dance center “will help make this a terrific neighborhood.”

“The new plan is to be applauded. We are preserving three buildings and the neighborhood is getting a great activity-generator on North Broad. This will be a contributor to the loft district, not a negative.”

The entire project is slated for completion in spring 2014.

Gallery, of the Preservation Alliance, said it is “unfortunate that there was not an opportunity for broader discussion” of the plan, “particularly since both state and city money is going into this.”

The Alliance has suggested to the city that there should be a procedure for municipal review of cases where buildings on the National Register are to be razed using city funds. “But in the end, I think that bringing the Ballet to the area and at least the restoration of three properties would most likely have been supported,” Gallery said.


Contact the writer at ajaffe@planphilly.com.


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Ruling Lets Atlantic Yards Seize Land

The New York Times
November 25, 2009

Ruling Lets Atlantic Yards Seize Land

After enduring three years of delays, several lawsuits and the collapse of the real estate market, the $4.9 billion Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn took a major step forward on Tuesday when New York’s highest court ruled that the state can seize private property for the 22-acre development.

The Court of Appeals ruled 6 to 1 that the state could exercise eminent domain in claiming businesses, public property and private homes for economic development projects like Atlantic Yards. In doing so, the court backed the state’s assessment that the area in question — where some holdouts had refused to sell their property — fit the legal definition of being blighted.

The ruling also had broader implications — reaffirming New York’s use of eminent domain even as many state legislatures seek to curb government’s power to condemn private property.

The project’s opponents had argued that eminent domain on behalf of the private developer, Bruce C. Ratner, was improper and unconstitutional. They vowed to continue their battle, but there was no question that a cloud of uncertainty that has hung over Atlantic Yards for more than a year had lifted.

Mr. Ratner called the court’s ruling a “light-switch” kind of decision for the long-stalled project. “I look at this as the last major hurdle; now we can proceed as we’ve wanted to for the last three years,” he said on Tuesday. “The courts have made it clear that this project represents a significant public benefit for the people of Brooklyn and the entire city.”

Mr. Ratner plans to begin selling tax-free bonds next month to finance the development’s cornerstone project: an 18,000-seat basketball arena for the New Jersey Nets at Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues near downtown.

Construction work is already under way at portions of the site. The developer expects that it will take about 28 months to build the arena, enabling the Nets to move from East Rutherford, N.J., to Brooklyn around June 2012.

Those opposed to the project said the decision, while a setback, was hardly the end of the fight.

“The fight against the Atlantic Yards project is far from over,” said Daniel Goldstein, a spokesman for Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, a community group that opposes the project. “The community has four outstanding lawsuits against the project and, meanwhile, the arena bond financing clock ticks louder and louder for Ratner. While this is a terrible day for tax-paying homeowners in New York, this is not the end of our fight to keep the government from stealing our homes and businesses.”

If construction begins in the coming weeks as expected, Atlantic Yards will stand out in a city where 530 construction projects are stalled, sitting lifeless and without adequate financing in virtually every neighborhood.

Atlantic Yards would transform a busy intersection of two thoroughfares dominated by a railroad cut where Long Island Rail Road trains are cleaned between rush periods. The billion-dollar arena would be the most expensive in the country and home to Brooklyn’s first major sports team since the Dodgers left after the 1957 baseball season. Plans also call for 16 high-rise towers on nearby blocks, mostly residential buildings with as many as 6,430 apartments.

The developer has said that he will start the first residential building six months after beginning the arena. But with so many new apartments sitting vacant, analysts say it could be many years before demand would justify building so many units in one neighborhood.

The arena would be built on an 8.5-acre railyard and on adjacent property, much of which Mr. Ratner has acquired.

Mr. Ratner is not expected to get possession of all the property until sometime next year. He and his underwriters, Goldman Sachs, plan to sell the bonds for the arena by mid-December. They must complete the bond sale by Dec. 31 to qualify for tax-free financing. Otherwise they would have to resort to conventional financing, which could be prohibitively expensive.

In the next few days, the developer is also hoping that the rating agencies will give his bonds an investment-grade rating and a lower interest rate. On Tuesday, a state-sponsored local development corporation authorized the sale of a combination of tax-exempt and taxable bonds.

“We anticipate having the ratings necessary to successfully market this transaction and fund the project by Tuesday,” said Greg Carey, a managing director of Goldman Sachs.

In the meantime, Mr. Ratner’s company, Forest City Ratner, completed construction of a $50 million temporary railyard, just to the east of the original one, and turned it over to the Long Island Rail Road on Monday. The company, which was the development partner for the Midtown headquarters for The New York Times Company, continues to do construction work on the railroad property while it awaits title to the rest of the 22-acre parcel.

Even in New York, where large-scale development is always a contentious affair, Atlantic Yards has been a long-running story of a tenacious developer and an equally implacable opposition. The development has been hobbled by a series of disputes ever since it gained state and city approvals in 2006.

Mr. Ratner bought the New Jersey Nets in 2004 for $300 million, not out of a love for basketball so much as a lever for a large real estate project. The developer promised great architecture with designs by Frank Gehry; lots of affordable housing for teachers, firefighters and construction workers; a larger and better railyard as a replacement; and for sports romantics, a professional basketball team.

But critics, led by Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn and some local elected officials, said the proposed towers would loom over the low-scale neighborhood and worsen traffic. Opponents resented that just as the area was improving, they were threatened with condemnation by a developer who got $305 million in subsidies from the state and the city, as well as tens of millions of dollars in tax breaks.

Since 2004, the project has lost some luster. Mr. Ratner scrapped Mr. Gehry’s designs for a glass-walled arena and 16 towers. He renegotiated his deal to buy the railroad land. Instead of paying $100 million at closing, he will make a $20 million down payment and pay the rest over time, while building a smaller permanent railyard than originally promised.

Now, he is selling a majority stake in the Nets to a Russian billionaire and basketball enthusiast, Mikhail D. Prokhorov.

The Nets, who are currently on a West Coast road trip, have started the season 0-13.

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Preview Trailer: In The Footprint: The Battle Over Atlantic Yards

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