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Mr. Ratner’s Neighborhood

Manipulative developers, shrill protesters, and a sixteen-tower glass-and-steel monster marching inexorably forward. What the battle for the soul of Brooklyn looks like—from right next door.

The view of the future Atlantic Yards from Carlton Avenue and Bergen Street. Photographs by Eric McNatt; Illustration by Jason Lee.  

Jim Stuckey is clearly having trouble containing his excitement. As he waits for the small scrum of reporters to get ready, he adjusts his light-purple tie. He smooths his shock of white hair. He suppresses a smile.

Stuckey is Bruce Ratner’s right-hand man, the executive vice-president for Forest City Ratner Companies, and leader of the charge to build the $4.2 billion, 22-acre, Frank Gehry–­designed collection of residential towers and office buildings and a basketball arena known as the Atlantic Yards. For his efforts, Stuckey, 52, has been loudly abused in community-board meetings and vilified by opponents appalled by the idea of adding sixteen towers and 15,000 new people to a Brooklyn neighborhood defined by four-story brownstones.

This morning, though, Ratner’s team racked up another win: The Empire State Development Corporation has just certified an environmental-impact report on the project and decreed that its benefits are worth the inevitable increases in traffic, noise, and shadow. The certification was never in doubt—ESDC chairman Charles Gargano, one of Governor George Pataki’s most powerful lieutenants, has been a cheerleader for Atlantic Yards from the start—but it is nevertheless immensely satisfying to Stuckey, one more item checked off the list before ground can be broken.

“This is a great day for thousands of people who desperately need affordable housing,” he announces, standing outside the ESDC offices on Third Avenue. Atlantic Yards’ 2,250 subsidized apartments are among its strongest selling points, a seemingly ­apple-pie benefit trotted out in every press conference and direct-mail flyer. Stuckey, doggedly on-message, manages to use the phrase “affordable housing” five times in two minutes. Not once does he mention the 4,610 market-rate (unaffordable?) apartments and condos to be built.

There are, of course, those who don’t believe the hype. Just two days earlier, thousands of protesters gathered on the asphalt of Grand Army Plaza, under a broiling sun, to hear Steve Buscemi, local councilwoman Tish James, and the fiery leader of the Harlem Tenants Council, Nellie ­Hester Bailey, decry Atlantic Yards as undemocratic and grotesquely out of scale with brownstone Brooklyn.

What about the opposition? Stuckey is asked. “That’s partly some people close in who don’t like tall buildings,” he says dismissively.

I’ve never met the man; he doesn’t know what I think of ­Atlantic Yards. Neither do I, really. For a long time, I’ve shrugged off the complaints of Atlantic Yards opponents as shrill and reflexively obstructionist. More housing is good; more jobs are good. But there’s something about Stuckey’s tone—arrogant, contemptuous—that invalidates the press pass around my neck and my reporter’s semi-objectivity and turns me into a civilian. One who’s about to have sixteen apartment towers ranging from 19 to 58 stories dropped on his doorstep.

I have tried to avoid this story. Some, including my employer, might consider that irresponsible. I cover politics for the magazine, and Atlantic Yards is an epic New York tale of money, influence, social policy, race relations, and real estate. But mostly, my avoidance came from trying to be extra-responsible. Living in Fort Greene, two and a half blocks from the site, meant that anything I wrote needed to be dispassionate and purely fact-based; I might decide I didn’t like Atlantic Yards, but I wasn’t going to write any nimby screed. So for months, I tried to resist any personal reaction to the project by focusing on a professional take: In his push to make Atlantic Yards a reality, Bruce Ratner has crafted the most sophisticated political campaign the city has seen in a very long time, better than any professional politician has mounted to win elective office, complete with gag orders and aggressive polling. And even if Atlantic Yards was wildly disproportionate to the surrounding neighborhoods, its pillars seemed laudable (the subsidized housing) and potentially cool (Gehry; having the NBA’s Nets nearby). The developer, Ratner, seemed downright enlightened: a commissioner of consumer affairs under Ed Koch who’d gone out of his way to hire women and minorities to build his other projects.

The release of the environmental-impact statement, however, forced me to confront just what Atlantic Yards is going to mean—not just for my neighbors in Park Slope, Prospect Heights, Boerum Hill, and Downtown Brooklyn but also for the city as a whole. In 1,400 numbing pages of charts and bureaucratic jargon are the details of a traffic, noise, and cultural nightmare on the horizon: Colossal shadows sweeping across 50 square blocks. Some 60 intersections choked with traffic. More kids than the local schools can possibly handle.

Still, forming a clear-cut opinion isn’t easy. Ratner is building subsidized housing in a city where there’s a cruel 3 percent vacancy rate. He’s forecasting $1.5 billion in new tax revenues for the city and 3,800 new permanent jobs. Most of the site for the proposed project, the Long Island Rail Road yards, is quite literally a hole in the ground, flanked by a number of decaying buildings. So am I with the visionaries? The naysayers? The big thinkers? The little guy? The sports fans? The community gardeners? Whose side am I on?