The Barclays Center opened to much hype and hoopla on Sept. 28. While Jay-Z rapped inside about his 99 problems and lasers lit up the Brooklyn sky, about 250 Brooklynites gathered a half block away at the Dean Street Playground to watch a screening of the documentary feature film Battle for Brooklyn.
It was two parallel universes: one where bread and circuses are enough, the other saw an audience seeking an honest accounting of the eight-year fight against the Atlantic Yards land grab that produced the hulking arena sitting squat at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues, and the demolition zone behind it.
Near the film’s finale, Mayor Michael Bloomberg holds forth at the March 2010 arena groundbreaking ceremony, “Nobody’s going to remember how long it took, they’re only gonna look and see that it was done.”
Between the success of Battle for Brooklyn (Oscar short-listed, now taught at 77 universities, soon available on iTunes and later Netflix) and the ongoing efforts of groups such as Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, Atlantic Yards will go down in history as a gross government giveaway that abused democratic practices in order to enrich a private developer at public expense.
‘BUILT FROM SCRATCH’
Nearly nine years ago, developer Bruce Ratner stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Bloomberg, Gov. George Pataki, Sen. Chuck Schumer, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz and former New York Knicks star Bernard King to unveil Frank Gehry’s model of 16 skyscrapers and an arena. Gehry described it as a “neighborhood built from scratch” even though there were almost 1,000 people living in the proposed project footprint — many of whom had been there for generations — and 35 small businesses.
Ratner was given 22 acres of prime Brooklyn real estate, hundreds of millions of dollars in public subsidies, eminent domain and a zoning override without the vote of a single elected official in return for his promise that in ten years the mega-project would yield 2,250 affordable housing units, 10,000 permanent jobs and eight acres of “privately owned, publicly accessible open space.” To date the Atlantic Yards project has achieved the following:
105 full-time arena jobs and 1,900 part-time, non-living wage jobs with no benefits have been created, according to Ratner’s firm.
The build-out time for the project has been extended from 10 years to 25.
After repeated false starts over 18 months, groundbreaking for the first residential tower on the site was announced for mid-November or December. Ratner has said it could take two years to build. Only nine of the 386 units will be reserved for families earning Brooklyn’s median income.
Unfortunately, like the Cheshire cat, all that’s left of this boondoggle is the smiling arena, housing nobody, and a festering demolition zone, which will persist for decades.
MY FORMER HOME
Me? The black-and-white Brooklyn Nets logo sits on center court, which was once my home. It was taken after my co-plaintiffs and I lost a protracted federal and state court battle to thwart government abuse of eminent domain. For over seven years I continued living in the condo apartment I owned inside the project footprint and attempted to use it to stop Ratner’s scheme.
But now the logo sits in the spot where I first brought my daughter home from the hospital, and where I first enjoyed a home-cooked dinner with my wife. That spot where games will tip off, once my living room, was sacred and joyous for me until the Empire State Development Corporation took ownership of it on March 1, 2010, and subsequently evicted me.
None of this was necessary. Ratner could have built the arena on top of the existing Vanderbilt railyard and his own mall properties without confiscating additional properties. Or the MTA could have accepted the higher bidder who had proposed a version of a community-created plan over the railyards, but he rigged the bidding process and halted that effort.
The community’s resistance to Atlantic Yards was sustained not by displeasure with the project’s proposed density, scale and use. Those inappropriate dimensions were simply the symptoms of a corrupt process. Our opposition was about what is
plaguing us nationwide: crony capitalism, broken politics and top-down decision-making that ignores individuals and communities.
Using the mantra of “Jobs, Housing and Hoops” to convince courts and politicians, Ratner cleverly divided the community by making promises he did not intend to keep. Groups like the now defunct ACORN and Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development (BUILD), which negotiated a toothless Community Benefits Agreement with Ratner, remain silent.
Meanwhile, a vibrant coalition of grassroots organizations including Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, Brooklyn Speaks and Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE) are organizing to hold Ratner and his political allies accountable. If Ratner cannot keep his end of the bargain, the remaining 16-18 acres at the Atlantic Yards site should be taken back from him and given to other developers. A large portion of that land is still under MTA control, as Ratner hasn’t paid for it, so this could be a politically viable idea.
On the day after the film screening, FUREE led a march through downtown Brooklyn to Barclays Arena to press our demands for good jobs and truly affordable housing. In the coming months we will be preparing responses to the new court-ordered Environmental Review of the project and agitating for political change to wrest control of the site from Forest City Ratner.
We’ll continue this struggle because the Atlantic Yards project has always been about much more than an arena and a basketball team. If anything, this generational battle is still in the first quarter.
To find out more or to get involved, visit developdontdestroy.org, brooklynspeaks.net, furee.org, aycrimescene.com, call (718) 362-4784 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
See also: NBA Nomads by John Tarleton, Issue 180