An arena is coming to Brooklyn. The ink is hardly dry on Bruce Ratner’s purchase of the New Jersey Nets, but the tinny media drumbeat has had the team plopping down in the county of Kings for the last couple of months. The developer has a shiny model designed by Frank Gehry & Associates that’ll drop right onto the Long Island Railroad yards at Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues. It includes the arena, an office tower looking to dwarf the Williamsburg Bank clock tower (currently the tallest building in the borough), as well as a proposed 5,500 residential units that would cover four more blocks.
Reading the dailies over the past few months, one saw plans, pictures, and high-power endorsements such as those from Borough President Marty Markowitz and Mayor Michael Bloomberg that made the purchase and subsequent development seem inevitable. Now, with the inevitable morphing into the actual, the press march continues, adding notions of destiny and redemption for this “major-league city” apparently devoid of purpose or value since the Bums decamped for sunnier climes nearly a half-century ago. Despite all of the fanfare, there is quite a bit standing in the way of Ratner’s vision of a “New Brooklyn” and his crown jewel of the Brooklyn Nets.
An important and yet seemingly overlooked fact is that Forest City Ratner has not yet secured any rights to develop the area. For three of the six blocks included in the development scheme, Ratner would need to secure air rights from the MTA as they would be built over existing railroad track. A much bandied and seemingly unquestioned assertion is that these rights will be “donated” to Forest City upon purchase of the team. But a recent discussion with MTA spokesperson Tom Kelley told a slightly different story: “All this is media crap,” he noted. Ratner, Kelley said, “would be given preference” for development since he has already built the Atlantic Center and Atlantic Terminal in the immediate vicinity. As for the idea that the rights will ultimately be donated by a public authority that is projecting to run a budget deficit as soon as 2005, Kelley said, “hope runs eternal.”
The remaining blocks would likely be condemned with the use of eminent domain laws. Joyce Baumgarten of Geto & DeMilly, Forest City Ratner’s media contact states that by Ratner’s own estimation, this would replace only 140 units of housing. As to how many residents this will affect, she couldn’t say. But Patti Hagan of the Prospect Heights Action Coalition, a group against the proposed arena and condominium housing, told the Times it would be 864.
For good reason, Prospect Height residents are angry about the plans. “To break it down to brass tacks,” says Lee Houston, a resident who would be across the street from the arena, “it sucks.”
David Sheets, another resident whose home will find itself in the way of the proposal, calls Ratner’s plans “three-dimensional billboards” of prosperity. Sheets points out that he "can move ... I don’t want to move, but that’s not the point. The point is that this is what this guy does for a living.” Ratner, he says, “is a developer playing on people’s emotions, on borough pride,” whereas Sheets has not heard “anyone explain what 5000 units of housing have to do with basketball.”
Jarvis Ferdinand, who has rented for two years on Carlton Avenue, was surprised at the seeming suddenness of it all. “I don’t know if rents will go sky high, or if my building will even be here,” Ferdinand mentions when asked if he will stay past April, when his lease is scheduled to run out. Months of rumors and hazy bids for a basketball team from the marshes quickly came to an abrupt and rapid head, leaving Mr. Ferdinand and others wondering what to do next.
In addition to the Prospect Heights Action Coalition, another group involved in the fight against the arena calls itself Develop Don’t Destroy. It consists of residents who have chosen to stand up to the wrecking ball, and to counter the media celebration of the project. As Ina Archer, a resident involved with the group, notes of the press surrounding the proposal, “there was a concerted effort to be uninformative.”
Develop Don’t Destroy members feel that one of the group’s main struggles lies in the battle of hearts and minds. “They’re doing a great PR job of making this seem like something,” says Zafra Whitcomb, another DDD member, of the Ratner group. The pro-stadium forces are “appealing to the nostalgia of the Dodgers and laughing all the way to the bank,” says Whitcomb.
Ms. Archer warns that the development “is going to affect other Brooklyn people. Everyone should feel insecure about eminent domain use.” A resident for the past six years, Archer lives in a building of converted loft spaces. To take her space, the state would have to condemn it as blighted. “I feel my contribution [to the neighborhood’s growth] is being completely sneezed at,” she says. Archer also pledges to fight it out. "I want to continue the life I chose here, not have this home team replace my home.”
Whitcomb, who resides in the same building as Archer, enthusiastically adds that, “this neighborhood has character.” He bemoans that if his and other buildings are demolished to make way for new residential towers, “it’d be like living on the Upper East Side,” and adds, “who the fuck wants that?”
Local businesses are mixed in reaction to the possibilities of Ratner’s project. Michael Pizzirusso, owner of Michael’s Pizzeria and Restaurant, which is a block away from the expected site of the arena, is upbeat about the project. “I came here to make money,” says Pizzirusso. “For me, it’ll have a positive effect on business.”
Maha Ziadeh, manager of Maha’s, a Middle Eastern eatery and gourmet food store two doors down, disagrees. She thinks the development will “strip the neighborhood of its own people.” She also worries that small businesses like hers won’t survive. “French fry businesses” will move in and drive small mom-and-pop shops out. “The whole neighborhood will lose its character,” she laments.
Sam Husein, a partner at the Slope Food Market feels that with the loss of current residents, “20% of our business would go.” Those moving into the new housing units won’t make up for that loss, he says, because the development will contain its own stores. Husein speaks from personal experience. His father owned a store on the other side of Atlantic, but as he explains, "when they put in the Pathmark” at Ratner’s Atlantic Center, “forget it.”
Both Joyce Baumgarten of Ratner’s PR team and Borough President Marty Markowitz have expressed a desire to involve the community in the development process. “Historically,” Baumgarten notes, "[Forest City Ratner] has always involved the community and would plan to do the same this time.” When asked how, she explains through meeting with the community, neighborhood groups, elected officials, and community boards.
Similarly, Markowitz states that “netting the Nets must be a win-win for all of us who call Brooklyn home, and any project of this scale must have real community involvement to be successful.” Responding to local residents’ fears of losing their homes, Markowitz says, “of course nothing would make me happier than if this project didn’t take a single home or business, and I have urged flexibility in the plan to limit such action if possible.” The scrappy BP then cast suspicion on a claim (not repeated from any project opponents this reporter has spoken to) that “1,000 homes and businesses will be in condemnation.” In any event, Markowitz says, “much of this project would be constructed almost completely over empty land— yes, empty space— the LIRR tracks, which is not exactly one of the garden spots in Brooklyn.”
But many locals remain extremely skeptical. Members of the Prospect Heights Action Coalition have raised a variety of concerns, particularly regarding the perception that all the decisions have been made. “There is a lot that is still unofficial on many levels,” says Roger Paz. The group’s Shellie Hagan is also undeterred by the recent sale: “the fight has always been against the secrecy, elitism, and corporate welfare,” she says. She also believes there is a lot to be said for the fact that at a recent Community Board 2 meeting, “every organization [the Brooklyn Public Library, Keyspan energy, etc.] were for it, but every individual spoke out against it.” As a result, she says that Ratner and company “have got a big fight on their hands.”
Residents of Prospect Heights owe it to themselves to take the city and the developer to task in questioning their vision of a “New Brooklyn.” Given the trees of hardship the community would be expected to endure, it’s difficult to find the proverbial forest in Forest City’s proposal. For those in favor of the arena, the benefits are obvious. After completing the project with significant public money, Ratner will surely benefit from owning a sports franchise in a league where the average ticket price is $53; in addition, he will rake in plenty of rental income from commercial office space as well as from condominium sales. Markowitz would gain in stature for helping make Brooklyn a “major-league town.” Meanwhile, Bloomberg and company would have another stadium in place, thus bolstering the city’s bid for the 2012 Olympics. Left unsaid is how any of this will ultimately benefit the current residents— both longstanding and recent— who have made Prospect Heights, Park Slope, and Fort Greene such fine places to live. This is the question that should keep the neighborhood vigilant in scrutinizing the stadium project every step along the way.
ContributorBrian J. Carreira
BRIAN CARREIRA is a writer living in Prospect Lefferts Gardens. You can follow him on Twitter @BrianCarreira.