Brooklynites Bus to Albany to Fight Ratner

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Opponents of the Atlantic Yards project board the bus to Albany. Meredith Kennedy/Brooklyn Ink
Opponents of the Atlantic Yards project board the bus to Albany. Photo: Kennedy/Brooklyn Ink

Meredith Kennedy

This morning a busload of Brooklyn residents and members of the grassroots organization Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn departed for Albany to appear before the New York State’s top court and voice their opposition to what they claim is the unconstitutional use of eminent domain for Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project.

This afternoon the Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in the case Goldstein et al. v. New York State Urban Development Corporation. The case challenges the state’s use of eminent domain to uproot Brooklyn residents and business owners in favor of the private developer Forest City Ratner as part of the $4.9 billion 22-acre Atlantic Yards project. Forest City Ratner has argued in response that the project will alleviate congestion at a transit-accessible area in Brooklyn and redevelop the area with the construction of civic facilities.

Developer Bruce Ratner’s arena and skyscraper plan to build a new venue for the New Jersey Nets in downtown Brooklyn and provide affordable housing has caused a split in the community since December 2003. Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn opposes the use of taxpayer subsidies for an arena and a high-rise, private for-profit development in low-rise Brooklyn neighborhoods. Ratner, on the other hand, argues that the clamshell-like design of the arena will likely become an iconic part of the neighborhood.

Local businesses, homeowners, and political figures have resisted the sales of their property and argue that they were not given the opportunity for input or consent. Today, over 40 Brooklynites traveled up the Thruway because they feel it is necessary for the court to know there are people behind the legal papers that have piled up over the years.

Boerum Hill resident Claudia Massa was the first to arrive outside of the rundown Freddy’s Bar on the corner of 6th Avenue and Dean Street. She waited for the bus to arrive on a bench outside of the bar, where outdated press releases about Atlantic Yards hung in the window – a reminder of the long-simmering opposition.

Massa is a volunteer for Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn and has been fighting against Atlantic Yards for the past four years. “I took a day off of work, that’s how important it is to me,” Massa said. While Atlantic Yards development would provide employment, Massa argued, eminent domain “is not the way to get jobs.”

The legal fight against Ratner began with Daniel Goldstein, who refuses to vacate his apartment located in the footprint of Ratner’s commercial development. Goldstein’s case is the first the state’s highest court will consider on limits on the use of eminent domain since the landmark 2005 Kelo v. City of New London eminent domain case before the U.S. Supreme Court, which allowed eminent domain for private development and sparked a nationwide backlash.

Michael White, a lawyer and urban planner from Brooklyn Heights, who has worked for New York State governors in the past, thinks that Atlantic Yards should be broken up into multiple projects to create more jobs more quickly. Today White’s concern is that New York’s eminent domain abuse standards are too lax. “If they let the project go forward they are accepting eminent domain,” White said. “They should know the opposition is very rational and very strong.”

Blake Morris, a volunteer attorney for Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn’s legal committee, has been working on the Atlantic Yards project since its inception. For Morris, today marks one completion of a litigation arc. Though he forgot to pack his sunglasses on the cool and exceptionally bright fall morning, he was looking forward to filling up the Albany courtroom, which only accommodates 60 people.  “We’re going to show homegrown interest and that people are behind this,” Morris said.

For Steve Ettlinger, a local writer who lives a few blocks from Freddy’s bar, a strong public showing in Albany was essential. “Going into the courtroom is like coming up for air,” he said as the crowd began to board the bus.

Before heading upstate, Letitia James, Councilwoman for the 35th District and District Leader Olanike Alabi saluted the team of community members opposed to Atlantic Yards. James encouraged the passengers to think about what they represent when they appear in court this afternoon. “You give Prospect Heights and our struggle a face,” James said. “Things are changing but our fight for truth and justice remains the same.”

James and Alabi waved goodbye to their community members as the bus pulled away from the corner that overlooks the proposed site for the large-scale Atlantic Yards project. As of now it is uncertain how long the court’s decision will take. The case is expected to adjourn by the end of the year, which could clear many legal hurdles for Ratner. However, he must also sell millions of dollars in bonds to raise capital before that in order to meet a financial deadline for his mega-project.

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