The Battle of Brooklyn


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.

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.

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.

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.”