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Jason Kidd or Robert Moses?
Brooklyn Residents Fight Eviction for Nets Arena Complex

by Steven Wishnia

Tenants in the Prospect Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn are trying to get developer Bruce Ratner called for charging.

The developer wants to take over seven blocks stretching south and east from Atlantic and Flatbush avenues for "Brooklyn Atlantic Yards," a massive project that would include a new arena for the New Jersey Nets basketball team and 4,500 high-rise apartments, almost all at luxury rents. Residents in the area are crying foul, saying that Ratner is elbowing aside community concerns about scale, traffic, and displacement like a combination of the city's legendary neighborhood-crushing development czar Robert Moses and a renegade power forward bulling his way to the hoop.

"People will be happy to have the Nets play in Brooklyn, but not on the crushed homes of my neighbors," says Patti Hagan of the Prospect Heights Action Coalition. "If he can't build his toy, his basketball arena, without destroying peoples' homes and businesses, he's building in the wrong place."

The plan would return major-league sports to Brooklyn for the first time since the departure of the Dodgers in 1958. In contrast to the Nets' current home in the New Jersey Meadowlands, the proposed arena would be located at a major vortex of public transportation: above several subway lines and across the street from the Long Island Railroad's main Brooklyn station. The complex, which would stretch east to Vanderbilt Avenue, would also include 2.1 million square feet of office space, 300,000 square feet of commercial space, and a 620-foot tower. It would cost $2.5 billion, much of it paid by public funds through fiscal devices like "tax-increment financing."

"This is not about the Nets," says Councilmember Letitia James, who represents the area. "It's about real estate."

Along Flatbush Avenue and Dean Street in the Prospect Heights neighborhood, nearly every business has a flyer up against the plan, and several homes have banners protesting it. To build the complex, Ratner would demolish almost every existing building along Pacific Street and the north side of Dean Street, including the homes of almost 400 people and a homeless shelter with about 400 more. It would also force out numerous small businesses, including an art-canvas factory, an auto-body shop, a recording studio, and a milliner, says Hagan.

"People can't treat you like that. They just use you like an old newspaper," says Vera Bryant, 70, an Antiguan immigrant who lives on Pacific Street with her two grandchildren. "It's not right. This man Ratner comes in and says he's going to knock down people's houses, he's going to root them out of their homes."

"We're going to have to move, and we probably don't have any legal claim to compensation," says Bill O'Brien, a rent-stabilized tenant on Dean Street. "There are people in my building who have been here for 30 years."

"I'm on disability. I can't afford another rent," says another Dean Street resident, who pays $575 for a rent-stabilized studio apartment. "I get very upset that I don't count, that the people here don't count, that they say we're being unreasonable because we don't want to lose our homes."

Secondary displacement is another fear. Prospect Heights has improved significantly in the last 20 years-an adjacent block of Pacific Street was once a stroll for some of the city's poorest street prostitutes-but still has a neighborhood feel, a multiracial mix, and relatively affordable rents. But with 3,600 luxury apartments looming up across the street, even the people whose buildings weren't demolished might soon find themselves priced out by accelerating gentrification. "It will dramatically change the income makeup," says James. "It will destroy the character of the community."

As much as $1 billion of the project's cost may come from the public. The city will probably have to spend at least $150 million on moving the Long Island Railroad tracks and other infrastructure work. Any compensation for people forced out will also probably come from the city or state. And an estimated $435 million of the arena's construction costs will be covered by "tax-increment financing." This is a scheme, also planned for the proposed Jets football stadium in Manhattan's Chelsea-Clinton neighborhood, in which the government essentially says that as they wouldn't be collecting any taxes if nothing was built on the site, the developer can use what they would have normally paid in taxes to cover their construction costs. This enables the developer to build the project without putting up their own money, while politicians claim that "it didn't cost the taxpayers a dime."

That financing is a focus of much of the objections to the arena plan. In times when the city is closing firehouses, raising the subway fare, cutting funds for schools and libraries, and suffering a colossal affordable-housing crisis, people question why taxpayers' money should be used to pay for building a for-profit sports arena and several thousand luxury apartments.

Another issue is the project's scale. The 620-foot tower would overshadow the Williamsburgh Bank building, the defining landmark of downtown Brooklyn for decades. "It would dwarf the neighborhood," says James. Opponents say they don't object to development on the site, but they want to see small businesses instead of chain stores, and affordable, low-rise housing "that looks like Brooklyn," says Hagan.

The Atlantic Yards project is one of several major developments either planned or under construction in the downtown Brooklyn area, including 6.8 million square feet of office space and Atlantic Terminal, a Ratner-built shopping mall and office complex going up over the Long Island Railroad station (with almost half its cost covered by $114 million in 9-11 reconstruction "Liberty Bonds"). "You can't think about all these projects in isolation," says James. "It's going to choke downtown Brooklyn."

As the project has the support of many key political officials, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Governor George Pataki and Borough President Marty Markowitz, opponents are up against the full politician/developer nexus. Even one longtime pro-tenant Councilmember has said she won't oppose the project, and criticized James for not suggesting possible compromises. However, says James, the Council is unlikely to play much of a role, as the land involved is state-owned or private. The Knicks may also try to stop their rivals from moving to the city.

Neighborhood residents have not had much communication with either Ratner or the Bloomberg administration about the plan. "Me and the community have been kept in the dark," says James. "We have not been able to get a scrap of information out of Ratner or the city," complains Hagan. (Forest City Ratner's public-relations office did not return phone calls from this reporter.)

The most likely legal challenge to the project will be on the issue of eminent domain. The government is allowed to take over privately owned land for "public use," but Atlantic Yards opponents contend that should not include private developments. "It's subsidizing charitable contributions to a billionaire," charges Hagan. "It's a flagrant abuse of the eminent-domain power."

Opponents of the arena suggest that it should be built in a part of the city that has more vacant land and thus wouldn't displace people, such as the former Brooklyn Navy Yard, Long Island City, Coney Island, Red Hook or East New York. Another common idea is building it on the site of the Atlantic Center Mall, an early-'90s Ratner development on the north side of Atlantic Avenue that has had a hard time retaining anchor tenants.

Several hundred people have already turned out for meetings. A Community Board 2 meeting Jan. 28 to vote on the downtown Brooklyn plan was cancelled-ostensibly because of the previous night's snow, but one Prospect Heights Action Coalition e-mail suspected it was "an unwillingness to face the residents who planned to show up tonight and bear silent witness against the Downtown Brooklyn Development Plan and its eminent domain abuse."

Asked about future protests, Patti Hagan says, "We're going to show up where we're not expected."

Reprinting permissible with attribution.