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Mr. Ratner’s Neighborhood

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One recent morning, walking out my front door, I bumped into my next-door neighbors, Tino Ellis. He’s a public-school teacher. He also happens, as the saying goes, to be black. “I’m disgusted,” he says when I mention Atlantic Yards. “All the disruption, the giant buildings, the tax giveaways. And the rent on those ‘affordable’ apartments could be over $2,000!”

Later I talk to Lynn Nottage, a 41-year-old playwright who still lives in the house on Dean Street where she grew up. “Here’s what I’d say to Ratner: He says there will be ‘significant adverse impacts’ on schools, on cultural resources, on shadows, on traffic, on transit, on noise. I ask you, as a person of color, will we not be equally impacted by that? And I honestly don’t believe the people who are going to be living in those luxury high-rises are going to be black and Latino.” Nottage has an 8-year-old daughter, and she tries to picture what the neighborhood will be like when she’s an adult. “I see Dunkin’ Donuts and Subway and a sports bar, even a strip club,” she says. “I don’t see the antique shops and the clothing shops of Atlantic Avenue.”

Maybe, to Lewis, my neighbors are the wrong kinds of black folks. Not that there will be a referendum on Atlantic Yards along racial or any other lines. Ratner has skirted normal city zoning approvals because the project is centered on state-owned land. But the thousands of people who made their own little choices to move to Brooklyn already voted, in a sense. In the mid-nineties, when crime was still high and the public schools a mess, we knew plenty of families who fled for New Jersey, Long Island, and the northern suburbs. We voted to stay. Call us gentrifiers if you want, but we’re part of a group connected by a belief in tumultuous, polyglot city life more than any bond of age or income or race.

On the third floor of Atlantic Center mall, down a hallway with a ­picture-­window view of the rail yards, next to an office of the Empire State Development Corporation where framed photos of Governor Pataki and Charles Gargano beam down on the lobby, are a pair of unmarked beige doors. Behind them is the future of the neighborhood, in miniature.

Ratner and Gehry have built a titanium-clad tank and driven it relentlessly through a gauntlet of neighborhood slingshots. What seemed at first to be an impressive political maneuver ends up being, on closer inspection, truly chilling.

Jim Stuckey leads me on a tour of the Atlantic Yards models, pointing out how the latest version pushes the biggest buildings back from the street line, “to blend better with the existing neighborhood.” Gehry’s buildings, in Plexiglas and aluminum form, are impressive. But I can’t help being drawn to the blank little cardboard boxes that are dwarfed by the proposed development: the brownstones and five-story walk-ups of Prospect Heights and Fort Greene.

Stuckey goes on about the housing and the seven acres of green space and the waste­water-treatment system that is supposed to help clean up the Gowanus Canal. All good. But why—living where I do, looking at ten years’ worth of construction trucks chugging down my block, followed by increases in traffic, noise, school crowding, and buildings that will blot out the sun, not to mention 15,000 new neighbors—should I like Atlantic Yards?

Stuckey is brief. “If you define your existence just based on what’s good for you today,” he says, “I can’t help you.’ ”

I care plenty about tomorrow, for myself and for the city. And no matter how I look at it, in the end I can only conclude that Atlantic Yards is a bad deal.

The financial projections are debatable; I’m not convinced Atlantic Yards will be an unambiguous economic boon. But I’ll never be able to prove my case on a purely statistical basis, and neither can Ratner; until the buildings are built, the numbers are all informed guesswork. And even if Ratner’s economic crystal ball turns out to be perfect, there’s a level at which the facts really don’t matter.

As a political reporter, I know that money and spin usually win. But in looking at Atlantic Yards up close, it’s outrageous to see the absolute absence of democratic process. There’s been no point in the past four years at which the public has been given a meaningful chance to decide whether something this big and transformative should be built on public property. Instead, race, basketball, and Frank Gehry have been tossed out as distractions to steer attention away from the real issue, money. Ratner’s team has mounted an elaborate road show before community boards and local groups, at which people have been allowed to ask questions and vent, and the developer has made a grand show of listening, then tinkering around the edges. But the fundamentals of the project—an arena plus massive residential and commercial buildings—has never been up for discussion. Ratner, with Gehry’s aid, has built a titanium-clad, irregularly angled tank and driven it relentlessly through a gauntlet of neighborhood slingshots. And Bloomberg and Pataki—our only elected representatives with the power to force a real debate about Atlantic Yards—instead jumped aboard early and fastened their seat belts. What at first seemed to me impressive on a clinical level—a developer’s savvy use of state-of-the-art political tactics—ends up being, on closer inspection, truly chilling.


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