Developer Bruce Ratner has been busy in negotiations with the city and state, moving one step closer to his plan to build a basketball stadium and several office towers in Prospect Heights. The Empire State Development Corporation, a tenant in Ratner’s Atlantic Center Mall, is expected to act as the condemnor of homes and businesses in the footprint of his Atlantic Yards plan. And while the developer has filed no formal proposal with the M.T.A., “information gathering discussions” are being held between the authority, the city, Empire State Development, and Forest City Ratner, says John McCarthy, an M.T.A. spokesman.
To many, the period from initial proposition to golden shovels is moving at an unnerving breakneck pace. If Forest City Ratner succeeds, the Atlantic Yards Project, recently only a glimmer in a borough president’s eye, would be built by 2008. However, two events occurring on separate weekends in late March show that local residents intend to fight to preserve their community. At these and other events, a variety of proposals for alternative development have begun to emerge. All are designed to keep Prospect Heights a desirable residential neighborhood, as opposed to a congested home to an arena, office towers, and luxury condos.
In the shadow of the brick and green tower atop the nearly completed Atlantic Terminal, local residents met one recent Saturday in the basement of the Hanson Place United Methodist Church for the Atlantic Yards Development Workshop. The purpose of the all-day event was for members of the community to put forward and debate their own ideas, with an eye towards creating a counter-proposal.
With over 100 people in attendance, the workshop provided, according to one of the event’s organizers, architect Marshall Brown, an opportunity to “change the public discussion from Frank Gehry or no Frank Gehry to what this site is and the potential of the site.” Neighbors met with architects and urban planners to hash out ideas on a number of planning-related subjects. Working into the afternoon, the groups put forth their ideas on these varied topics to the entire assembly, creating at times lively debate.
Councilwoman Letitia James, who also helped organize the event and who is a vocal opponent of Ratner’s plans, noted that the workshop was “the beginning of further discussions.” As for what can be done at this point, the councilwoman hopes to have a true alternative plan to present to area community boards, which are allowed to prepare their own development plans under a revision of Section 197a of the city’s charter. This would allow the community to offer an alternative to Ratner’s plan for use of the air rights above the Atlantic Avenue railyards. Whether the M.T.A., an agency expecting to run a deficit in a year, would consider such an alternative to Ratner’s golden goose is an open question.
One of the most common suggestions heard at the event was for development on a scale more in line with the residences and businesses currently existing in the neighborhood. Community members are appalled by the “Manhattanization” of Brooklyn that Ratner’s project seems to represent. Longstanding community members worry that the identity of their neighborhood will be lost forever. Newcomers worry that chain stores and high-rise office towers will blot out the very reasons they chose Prospect Heights, Fort Greene, or Boerum Hill over the Upper West Side, Chelsea, or the Village.
Similarly, many seek growth that more closely correlates with current levels in Prospect Heights and Fort Greene. While Forest City intends to construct a similar percentage of housing to what currently exists in the neighborhood, the remaining square footage is expected to be commercial space of various types. Conversely, some locals are calling for only 15 percent of Atlantic Yards development to be designated commercial space, with the remaining portion to be built as institutional structures (such as schools) and open space. Councilwoman James notes that “there are no new schools being planned for Region 8, which is this region.”
Whatever the proportion, the commercial space will almost certainly be home to chain stores, threatening the survival of both longtime and new small businesses in the area. Both of Forest City’s existing local developments rent large spaces to chains such as Old Navy, Circuit City, Chuck E. Cheese, and Red Lobster. Both the area’s mom-and-pop joints as well as its boutique-type stores would likely be wiped out if Ratner’s Brooklyn vision becomes a Prospect Heights reality.
Prospect Heights, like much of the city, has scant housing inventory. But many area residents emphasize the need for affordable housing. James suggests that any new development in the area should include as much as 50 percent low-to-moderate income housing. Despite the need for housing in Brooklyn, few current residents of Prospect Heights view the demolition of their neighbors’ homes followed by the building of high-rise condominiums as any sort of solution.
“Don’t expect to leave today knowing exactly what will happen,” David Smiley of Columbia University told the crowd at Hanson United Methodist Church. Smiley has been working in Hell’s Kitchen with the residents threatened by the Jets stadium project. In general, Smiley suggests that local communities need to tell developers and the city that “we’re not going to be handed a project; we’re going to tell you what the project is.”
On Sunday, March 28, several hundred Brooklynites gathered for an afternoon of protest on Pacific Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, not far from what could be center court of a Nets Arena. Banners hung from residential buildings along the block pleading “Don’t Destroy Our Homes” and deriding the nearly completed Atlantic Terminal as the place “Where Junk Food and Junk Architecture Meet.” Signs called for “Depos[ing] King Markowitz” and mocked the “Fuggedaboudit” highway signs by slipping “Ratnerville” in where Brooklyn once stood. The energy was high as community leaders railed against the proposal and its impact on the neighborhood. The crowd chanted slogans like, “No Justice, No Peace!” and “No Eminent Domain For Personal Gain!”
Councilwoman James gave a particularly rousing oration in which she reminded the rally that “this is not about an arena, it is about 17 skyscrapers,” which would span 24 acres across downtown Brooklyn. She also read a letter written by Reverend Dennis A. Dillon of the Brooklyn Christian Center on Atlantic Avenue in 1996 to Bruce Ratner in response to the grand, but unfulfilled promises of Ratner’s MetroTech project (see inset). Both civil rights lawyer Norman Siegel, who is representing Develop Don’t Destroy, and Congressman Major Owens derided the use of eminent domain to line a private developer’s pockets. “Eminent Domain is democracy slain,” Owens declared. He then pointed to Ratner’s Atlantic Center Mall, with its uninviting exterior and government offices. A place where retail was supposed to flourish, he says, is now widely seen as a “blunder.” Citing the likelihood of cost overruns (at public expense) for Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project, Owens concluded that the proposed arena was also “a stupid blunder, a costly blunder.”
When asked recently about the opposition to his Atlantic Yards plan, Ratner said he’s “surprised it hasn’t been more.” “Look at what is next to those tracks. They’re abandoned buildings,” Ratner told the New York Building Congress. But the actually existing community, led by groups like Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn and the Prospect Heights Action Coalition, and by local politicians like Letitia James, will gladly tell you—and, better yet, show you—otherwise. The battle for Prospect Heights has only just begun.
ContributorBrian J. Carreira
BRIAN CARREIRA is a writer living in Prospect Lefferts Gardens. You can follow him on Twitter @BrianCarreira.