The Battle of Brooklyn

Grassroots groups split on whether arena plan scores for borough

Critics of the proposal—including Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, the Fifth Avenue Committee, and the Pratt Area Community Council—see far larger costs than the dollar figures. The character of the neighborhood might change dramatically. Eminent domain could be used to force people out of their homes for a private development. And there's the precedent set by such a major project as Ratner's not going through the city's land use approval process, which does not apply to state property like the MTA-owned rail yards.

Ratner's plan is still a long way from a green light. Assuming his bid for the rail yards beats rival developer Extell's smaller-scale proposal, Ratner still faces a state environmental review and the Public Authorities Control Board—the body that doomed the West Side stadium. "And who knows what can happen at that point?" Forest City Ratner's Bruce Bender tells the Voice.

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.

As that process unfolds, the community groups will play the important role of giving Ratner street credibility. But critics say the deal between Ratner and the community groups makes promises it can't deliver. Ratner can't tell his tenants to hire local or low-income people; he has agreed, instead, merely to spur discussions. If Ratner sells Atlantic Yards, the deal doesn't require that the community benefits agreement remain in place.

Even in the affordable-housing plan, critics see the devil in the details. As in all housing programs, the income tiers are based on regional statistics, which cite income levels much higher than Brooklyn's. The effect is that 10 percent of the apartments might be set aside for people making more than $60,000 a year and who would pay rents that aren't much lower than market rate. Given those potential income levels, and the fact that the project includes 2,250 market-rate apartments and 1,500 condos, City Councilman Charles Barron calls Atlantic Yards "instant gentrification."

None of the community groups allied with Ratner are getting any fees under the agreement, although they might be well positioned to eventually bid for contracts to provide some of the services that the agreement covers, like affordable housing and the day care center.

As the best known of the groups involved, ACORN will play a particularly important role in selling the Atlantic Yards deal (a recent picture of Lewis smooching Mayor Bloomberg, for example, was priceless publicity for hizzoner). For several years Ratner, like several other city business figures, has donated money to ACORN, but officials at the group scoff at the idea that they've been bought off.

Critics, however, say ACORN has bought into the dubious notion that it faced a choice between joining with Ratner or being left with nothing for Brooklyn's low-income people. In fact, the deal's opponents say, it's possible that a smaller-scale development could have generated similar community gains.

"Ratner's project is probably the least efficient, most harmful way of creating affordable housing," says Daniel Goldstein of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn. "I believe that ACORN has been trying to do the right thing. I don't think there's anything nefarious. I just think it's shortsighted and that they've set up false arguments. It's a false debate."

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