The Battle of Brooklyn

Grassroots groups split on whether arena plan scores for borough

In February 2000, the veteran activists at ACORN—the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now—demonstrated against developer Bruce Ratner over hiring practices at the Atlantic Center mall he operates. The protesters wanted the stores there to hire more kids from the community and pay living wages. Cops threw the rabble-rousers out. They kept shouting from the sidewalk.

Five years later, Ratner's firm Forest City Ratner has proposed a massive development comprising an NBA arena for his New Jersey Nets and thousands of residential units across the street from the mall, over the MTA's Atlantic Avenue rail yards and on surrounding blocks. But ACORN won't be rallying against Ratner this time. Instead, the group will help sell the Atlantic Yards deal to government agencies, community groups, and the media.

Under a deal with the developer, in exchange for Ratner's promise to provide affordable housing and a host of other community benefits, ACORN and several other nonprofit organizations have agreed to support the Atlantic Yards plan. That alliance pits them against longtime allies who think the goodies that Ratner has offered are not worth the price: perhaps 15 new high-rise buildings—one of them possibly 60 stories tall—built with the help of public subsidies and, perhaps, the bulldozers of eminent domain.

Divided and conquered: Brooklyn's divided not only by rail but also by the Atlantic Yards plan.
photo: Willie Davis/Veras
Divided and conquered: Brooklyn's divided not only by rail but also by the Atlantic Yards plan.

The way the rail yards split the landscape, the Ratner proposal has divided Brooklyn. ACORN has fallen out with local city councilwoman Letitia James, whom the group helped to elect but who now opposes the plan. Reverend Herbert Daughtry, a well-known clergyman, has broken with an organization he founded and set up a new group to support Atlantic Yards. Some residents in the footprint of Ratner's proposal have sold out to the developer. Others are hanging on.

It's all about hanging on—for everyone involved—in the face of gentrification, which has accelerated in Brooklyn in recent years. Some of the people affected by Atlantic Yards arrived in earlier waves of displacement. That makes project supporters unsympathetic. "We just think that folks who have been part of the gentrification of the community don't get to define the community," says New York ACORN executive director Bertha Lewis.

Not everyone in the footprint is a newcomer. But if a new wave of new residents is coming, ACORN asks, why not ride it for all you can? "Downtown Brooklyn is growing, and if it's growing, let's get a piece of the action. Let's get something for the community," says Greg Blankinship, co-chair of ACORN's Prospect Heights/Crown Heights chapter. "This is progress."

ACORN, which has chapters in many cities, has always prided itself on being the kind of nonprofit that delivers results and not just rallies. That means its workers have adopted roles that grassroots activists don't usually play. Longtime advocate for tenants, it's also the landlord of several properties. It has partnered with banks it once criticized for redlining. And an independent political consulting group for which some ACORN activists have worked has done $400,000 worth of organizing for city candidates since 2001.

That pragmatic approach shaped the group's response to Ratner's proposal. Lewis says she didn't find opponents of the arena compelling, because "it's not really up to us if this thing comes to fruition or not." But if it happens, she says, "we shouldn't wait until it's all done and we can't affect it."

So when ACORN came up with a housing plan that it thought would create long-term affordability and Ratner was willing to listen, the seeds of a deal were sown. The fruit of months of negotiations was a 50-page "community benefits agreement" in which Ratner pledges to make 50 percent of the apartments affordable (2,250 units), set aside construction contracts and leased space for minority- and women-owned businesses, give public housing residents and low-income people from the immediate area priority for any jobs, and house a health clinic and day care center in the project. A long list of other benefits is also included. Along with Ratner, ACORN, and Daughtry's Downtown Brooklyn Neighborhood Alliance, signers include Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development, Public Housing Communities, and the New York State Association of Minority Contractors.

Lewis contends that the deal is the first such legally binding community benefits agreement in city history and calls it unique because it imposes a stricter income ceiling in the affordable-housing component. The pluses of Atlantic Yards, she says, outweigh the worries about its size and the people it might displace.

"I think that when you take all of it together this is a net gain for Brooklyn especially and for New York City," Lewis says. "The net gain is it can stop some of this tidal wave of gentrification. It can supply, over the next 10 years, 15,000 jobs—good-paying jobs."

But there's disagreement about the size of those benefits. Forest City Ratner quotes an estimate of a $1.55 billion net gain to the city and state over 30 years. But the New York City Economic Development Corporation arrives at a much smaller $524 million fiscal gain to the city. (The EDC doesn't report a figure for the state.) To break even, the city and state have to get back more in taxes than the $500 million in public financing Ratner would use.

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