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City & Borough Officials Back Downtown Skyscraper Project

Brooklyn Neighborhood Threatened by Eminent Domain for Private Stadium

Grassroots Survey Exposes Impact on 1,000 Local Residents and Business People

A "new city" is being planned for downtown Brooklyn, according to rapturous backers for a colossal project that would begin with a basketball stadium centered in a three-block area. Bruce Ratner, the high-powered developer for the project, has dubbed it "Atlantic Yards" after the terminal rail yards owned by the Metropolitan Transit Authority, and intends to use the air rights over the City transit and Long Island Railroad yards to build the stadium. He has retained a well-known architect, Frank Gehry, to produce models, plans and renderings that show a series of skyscrapers as high as 620 feet, putting the area in a class that the proponents say would compete with midtown Manhattan. The centerpiece of the development, the basketball stadium to be called the "Brooklyn Arena," is contingent on Ratner getting the Nets to move to Brooklyn from the New Jersey Meadowlands.

However, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Borough President Marty Markowitz, the top city and borough planning officials, and Mr. Ratner have virtually ignored the private property rights of residents of the community that would be profoundly changed if the development plans were to succeed. The residents of the immediately threatened area, known as Prospect Heights, have not ignored the danger to the future integrity of the neighborhood and to their homes and businesses.

Late in the fall, Patti Hagan became the spokesperson for the Prospect Heights Action Coalition and organized protests by local residents. She had observed parallels in the threats faced by residents of established neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Manhattan. She said recently that she was also encouraged by the account in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution where eminent domain must be confined to public uses.

Ms. Hagan began to be noticed in September, when she had spoken out in opposition to the misuse of Liberty Bonds for a project being planned for the 42nd Street area of West Side Manhattan. The federal funds were originally designated for restoration of lower Manhattan, where the World Trade Center was destroyed, not for midtown.

Recalling that meeting, she said, "I met a bunch of people who are being eminent domained out of their property."

"Then I went to the November hearing on the families on 42nd to 43rd Street, and spoke," she said.

She had already tried to speak to the borough president about the fears experienced by Prospect Heights residents. However, for at least two years, the official has reportedly spoken about wanting to establish a basketball team in Brooklyn. She said recently that in August she tried to meet the borough president and wrote him a letter. She said, "When we heard about the arena, Mr. Markowitz wouldn't talk to us." He never responded to her letter, either, she said.

The 21-acre stadium development over the railroad tracks didn't jibe with the areas of impact being pronounced publicly. She said, "We did the math. Only 10 acres are over the tracks—and figured out that 11 acres are the residences and the neighborhood."

"We started passing out leaflets showing the neighborhood," she said. "The rink was too big. It wouldn't fit."

Mr. Ratner is known for "revitalization" of urban areas. However, Ms. Hagan knew that the Brooklyn neighborhood was not run-down, as was being implied by the development proponents. She discovered, "People are paying as much as one million dollars for an apartment." She said recently that Mr. Ratner has an apartment on Pacific Street up for sale for $400,000.

According to the an article in the Brooklyn Heights Press on December 18, 2003, "Ratner said that only 100 current residents of the area, most of whom live just off Pacific Street, will be affected by the construction, which will result in building of approximately 4,500 housing units, 2.1 million square feet of commercial office space, 300,000 square feet of retail space and 3,000 parking spots."

At 11:00 a.m. on December 10, an unveiling of the plans for the downtown complex was held at Brooklyn Borough Hall. Messrs. Gehry, Bloomberg, Ratner, and Markowitz were flanked by local black basketball star Bernard King and rapper Jay-Z in the impressive press photos. Seventeen new skyscrapers soared up on Mr. Gehry's elaborate model of the new downtown. But, barely more than an hour before, the Prospect Heights Action Coalition had heard about the meeting, Ms. Hagan said. The Brooklyn Height Press photographed them, also. One man had a large makeshift protest sign, "Atlantic Terminal Mall, Brooklyn, Where Bad Food and Bad Architecture Meet," referring to the national fast food chains such as McDonald's that are slated for the development, in contrast to the local ethnic and neighborhood restaurants already in the neighborhood. Protesters handed out "Ratner Turkey Cookies." Ms. Hagan got her point against the "Manhattanization" of Brooklyn across to the press. The Brooklyn Heights Press quoted her accusation that large chunks of local land are simply being handed over to developers by city officials without any regard for local residents.

The opposition group gathered momentum. During the week before Christmas, she organized a meeting of residents and business people in the area, which received reportage again in City and Brooklyn newspapers. At humorous musical events, like that at Freddie's, a pre-Prohibition bar that will be condemned if the stadium goes through, the people mimicked officials, parodying light-hearted Christmas songs like "Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer."

Paring the issues down to essentials, the Coalition set up an online petition, which begins by quipping about the identities of the parties to the escalating conflict: "King Marty of Brooklyn who wants a pro sports team"; "King George of Albany orders his court, the MTA, to cede the $1 billion rights to the LIRR Atlantic Terminal to Ratner to erect a 20,000-seat stadium…"; "King Mike of Manhattan…He helps arrange $300,000,000 in government subsidies"; the "Kings' subjects" who don't want the stadium; and "Billionaire Private Developer Ratner (The 3 Kings' Pal)."

The petition leads to the declaration, "We the people say, 'Hey Kings! You left us out. We are all equal, remember? We have a voice. Dig it: No Stadium!!…'"

Recently, Ms. Hagan completed her door-to-door survey of the neighborhood to accurately determine the population that would be effected. During an interview in January, she pointed out that she counted 870 people who live in the area that would be condemned, and 500 more involved in business there, including 250 who live and work there and 250 who come there for day jobs.

Mert Erogul, M.D., an emergency room doctor at Kings County Hospital, quoted her survey results in a letter to the editor of the Brooklyn Heights Press. "At least 1000 people including myself, including families with children as well as small businesses, will be displaced by the project. We will be forced out under eminent domain and paid a fraction of our homes' values," he wrote.

But Patti Hagan said recently, "It's not about money. It's about homes."

She discovered that businesses in the area include immigrants from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Trinidad and Tobago, Mexico, Haiti, and other countries. She observed recently. "These people don't exist in the eyes of the developers of this project."

"The casual inhumanity of these people is stunning," Ms. Hagan said.

By Carol W. LaGrasse
January 4, 2004

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