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?
The story of Atlantic Yards starts back in 1957, when the Dodgers left for Los Angeles, breaking the heart of a 12-year-old Marty Markowitz. It took a while, but he got the chance to do something about it in 2002, when he noticed that the New Jersey Nets were for sale. Markowitz, Brooklyn’s borough president and corniest booster, began hounding Bruce Ratner, telling him that he was the perfect guy to bring big-league sports back to Brooklyn. Finally, as much to get Marty off his back as to enter the ranks of NBA ownership, Ratner launched a bid, bought the team for $300 million, and then set about figuring out what to do with his new prize.
At least that’s the story both men have told. It’s always struck me as a convenient creation myth, akin to Abner Doubleday’s inventing baseball in pastoral Cooperstown. Ratner didn’t get to be a multimillionaire by operating on whims. He’d long been aware of the gaping space stretching east beyond the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues. He built two large projects overlooking that congested hub and the LIRR yards: Atlantic Center mall, in 1996, and Atlantic Terminal mall, in 2004.
Ratner, 61, doesn’t have the biography of a greedy developer. His father founded Forest City in 1921 and turned it into one of Cleveland’s biggest companies. Bruce’s siblings are all confirmed lefties: His brother, Michael, runs the Center for Constitutional Rights, and his sister, Ellen, created the Talk Radio News syndicate and is one of Fox TV’s token liberals; she’s also openly gay. Even Bruce had such a zeal for public service that, after graduating from Harvard and then Columbia Law, he was touted as “the next Ralph Nader” during his four years as head of consumer affairs under Koch. But in 1982, Ratner decided he needed to make more money than his $52,000 civil-service salary, and he joined the family business, eventually running the New York chapter, Forest City Ratner. To this point, FCR’s biggest New York project has been Metrotech, 6.4 million square feet of office and retail space between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, opened in 1990, before Brooklyn’s boom began.
Ratner himself lives in Manhattan, on East 78th Street, in a $2.6 million townhouse. He owned a five-bedroom house in East Hampton, which he sold around the time his first marriage ended in 1999, and now has a 194-acre estate in Ulster County. His longtime girlfriend, Pamela Lipkin, is a Park Avenue plastic surgeon. And Ratner has two daughters, Lizzy, a reporter for the New York Observer, and Rebecca, an actress.
Ratner declines almost all interview requests and usually appears only at staged promotional events. He’s described himself as “an old lefty.” But old lefties in middle age are often the most voracious capitalists. For all his devotion to progressive causes, Ratner can play rough. He’ll sue when he thinks he’s been wronged, and he explained the forbidding design of Atlantic Center in harsh terms: “Look, you’re in an urban area, you’re next to projects, you’ve got tough kids.”
With Atlantic Yards, Ratner envisioned lifting those kids up instead of keeping them out—doing good and making money. According to his aides, Ratner directed that the project be structured according to seven social goals, including increasing minority employment and boosting the borough’s supply of mixed-income housing. Giving Brooklyn a new architectural icon was on the agenda as well, perhaps to atone for the design of his previous buildings, and so he turned to Gehry, the reigning king of statement architecture, who would appeal to Brooklyn’s growing aesthetic class (though Gehry’s few public appearances on behalf of Atlantic Yards have not gone well: At a press conference in May, he blasted the project’s opponents, saying, “They should have been picketing Henry Ford”). The final list of goals and projections for Atlantic Yards is impressive: 15,000 union construction jobs, billions in tax revenues, upgraded transit infrastructure, and seven acres of publicly accessible open space.
Ratner is more astute politician than saint; he surely knew the do-gooder goals would help sell the project. He also has impeccable timing. While there was no public hint of Ratner’s interest in either the Nets or the Brooklyn rail-yards site until late July 2003, the developer had been meeting with Bloomberg nearly a year before that, according to Dan Doctoroff, the city’s economic-development czar. Bloomberg, a political novice but a billionaire businessman, had been elected largely on the hope he’d rescue the city’s economy. Doctoroff was orchestrating the campaign for the 2012 Olympics and to build a West Side stadium for the Jets, controversies that provided invaluable media cover for Atlantic Yards, percolating in the background. “We did not require a lot of convincing as to the conceptual merits of Bruce’s plan,” Doctoroff says. “We’ve been involved in it from almost day one. I was advising Bruce on his purchase of the Nets. Clearly, he was going to use it as a centerpiece for a significant development over the yards. The mayor was always very intrigued by the design. He’s in favor of big statements. What you’ve got now is an opportunity to have an independent economy in Brooklyn.”
The city and state are kicking in $100 million each in cash to help Ratner; tax breaks could push the public bill to anywhere from $500 million to $1.5 billion. Doctoroff says he drove a hard bargain: “They wanted a lot more money.” Still, this is a major point of contention for Ratner’s critics, who want to know exactly how much Ratner will profit in his quest to help Brooklyn. Despite the Ratner team’s claims of transparency—“I don’t know, other than to have people sitting in my office, how you could make it any more transparent!” Stuckey says—FCR refuses to discuss how much it expects to clear, saying it’s a public company and can’t risk accusations it’s manipulating the stock price. The only public documentation of profit appears to be a nearly illegible one-page form filed with the MTA labeled pro-forma cash-flow statement. It seems to show Ratner with a profit of $1 billion. Real-estate expert Jeffrey Jackson ran all the available Atlantic Yards numbers and came to the same rough conclusion. “It’s difficult to quantify the profitability of the arena,” Jackson says, “and the return will be impacted by the final mix of financing. But Ratner should make around $700 million to $1 billion—about a 25 percent return. That’s pretty good.”
Across the street from the office of State Assemblyman Roger Green are the blank rear walls of Ratner’s Atlantic Center. That proximity is a constant reminder to Green that when Ratner built Atlantic Center, Green and local activists were too slow to take to the streets and protest and got little out of the deal for the district. This time, when talk of Ratner and the Nets started circulating, Green vowed that things would be different. “In the past, we, particularly African-American leadership—we’d sit back and throw bricks, we’d march and demonstrate. Then the ribbons were cut anyhow,” Green says. “I would abdicate my responsibilities if I didn’t sit down with Mr. Ratner. We needed to get to the table as soon as possible. Not so much to capitulate but to at least negotiate.”
Green had helped launch a group called BUILD, Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development, which became one of the most enthusiastic signers of a Community Benefits Agreement in which Ratner promises to create public services and distribute jobs to local residents. The eight community groups that signed the document have a predominantly black membership, which set the stage for the racial subtext in the battle over Atlantic Yards. “If this thing doesn’t come out in favor of Ratner,” BUILD’s president, James Caldwell, said last year, “it would be a conspiracy against blacks.”
Green isn’t quite so blunt, but he sees the divide over Atlantic Yards almost as starkly. “Here’s the question: If we were building an 18,000-seat opera house, would we get as much resistance? I don’t think so,” he says. “Basketball is like a secular religion for most Brooklynites. The opposition to the arena is actually coming from people who are new to Brooklyn, who lived in Manhattan, mostly. And who have a culture of opposing projects of this nature. People who opposed the West Side Highway project; people who opposed the Jets stadium; people who opposed a host of other things. Some of those families now live in Brooklyn. That’s the reality. There’s a class of people who are going to the opera. And there’s another class of folks who will go to a basketball game and get a cup of beer.”
Green has assisted in more than just framing the debate. He says that even before State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver played a decisive role in killing the Jets’ West Side stadium, he realized that Silver was determined to minimize new office-space development that might compete with the rebuilding of ground zero, which is in Silver’s district. Green relayed those concerns to Ratner, who scaled back his plans for Atlantic Yards office space. Silver controls one of the last remaining approvals needed by Ratner.
For their efforts on Ratner’s behalf, Green and other community representatives received terrific and creative commitments in the Community Benefits Agreement, minority job training and below-market housing chief among them. Other benefits are more troubling. BUILD, the organization Green helped found, was tapped to help recruit minority construction trainees for Atlantic Yards, even though it has no experience in the field. At first Ratner and BUILD denied a financial relationship. Then the Daily News discovered an IRS filing in which BUILD said it expected to receive $5 million from Ratner. At least four organizations that signed the CBA have received some form of payment from Ratner, totaling more than half a million dollars. The tactics, say critics, mean that Ratner purchased the “community” with which he negotiated.
Most of the time, though, Ratner plays a much smoother political game, and he clearly understood that Atlantic Yards would be as much sales project as real-estate deal. Ratner employs some of New York’s most prominent lobbying firms and has Dan Klores Communications, one of the city’s best-connected PR firms, on retainer. Forest City Ratner commissioned a study from the leading critic of stadium deals, Andrew Zimbalist—and, surprise, this time Zimbalist liked what he saw. But it’s Ratner’s deep in-house team that’s particularly valuable. The key players are Scott Cantone, who was Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s director of legislative affairs; Stuckey, who ran the city’s Public Development Corporation in the eighties; and Bruce Bender, a longtime aide to former City Council speaker Peter Vallone.
Bender, 49, is a curly-haired, fast-talking imp and, like his colleagues, a highly skilled salesman. He can spin the project’s economic benefits or play to old Brooklyn’s inferiority complex. “Can you imagine what it’s going to mean one day when we’re sitting home watching a game on ESPN and the blimp’s gonna be overhead and you’re gonna see the aquarium and you’re gonna see Grand Army Plaza and you’re gonna see the communities from Bushwick to Sunset Park to Fort Greene to Clinton Hill to the brownstone belt?” he asks. “The whole nation is gonna be seeing our borough!”
Bender has deployed his charms relentlessly on city and state legislators, many of whom he shares longtime bonds with. “I know him from the City Council, with Peter Vallone,” says State Assemblywoman Joan Millman, who represents parts of Carroll Gardens and Park Slope. “And Bruce is a constituent—he lives in my district, and his wife is co-chair of the PTA at P.S. 321. We have a lot of friends in common.” Concerned about Brooklyn’s rapid growth and increasing congestion, Millman has come out against Atlantic Yards. Not for lack of trying by Ratner’s team. “They called and asked if there were two school libraries in my district that I would like to see get an infusion of library books, something like $1,500 apiece,” Millman says. “My response was, ‘All the school libraries in my district are equally deserving; you pick them.’ I’ve made it a policy not to take money from developers.” She couldn’t help notice, though, when Ratner’s gifts turned up elsewhere.
While he wasn’t able to win over Millman—or Tish James, who represents the City Council district where Atlantic Yards would be built—Ratner has still been deft at portraying the “real” community as being on his side. He’s flipped the debate upside down, depicting the old-timers as open to progress and casting as the enemy the white, gentrifying, brownstone-owning, white-collar, semi-recent arrivals to the neighborhood. In other words, me.
My wife and I are a cliché. We lived in a Manhattan one-bedroom in the early nineties, had a child, wanted more space, moved to Brooklyn, bought a brownstone. It’s a pretty house on an unlovely street. There’s a big shady magnolia in the backyard, but two lanes of constant traffic out front.
To us, the house was plenty expensive, and we borrowed every dime we could. The place is now worth triple what we paid, at least in theory. Appreciation is nice, but it’s just dumb luck; we bought the house to make a home. And the neighborhood seemed ideal for that: Fort Greene was a bold mix of young and old, black, white, and Latino, fairly well off and just getting by, with quirky small stores and a convenient public park. Things have certainly changed in nine years—beloved, useful spots like Octagon Hardware couldn’t handle the rising rents; a cluster of French bistros suddenly appeared. But the essential feel of the neighborhood is the same. The residents remain a mix of tie-wearing Bishop Loughlin high schoolers and too-cool Pratt students, buppies, yuppies, ankle-tattooed hipsters and floral-hatted church ladies. People chat over the backyard fence.
The first sign of trouble came a couple of years ago: A frizzy-haired woman in a grocery store on Flatbush Avenue was ranting about a looming disaster called Atlantic Yards. I grew up upstate, in the people’s republic of Ithaca during the seventies, when a day didn’t go by without an anti-nuke or a Free Leonard Peltier rally. Even when the protesters were right, their self-righteousness was hard to take. So I ignored the frizzy-haired woman—who I later learned was Patti Hagan, former New Yorker fact-checker and leader of the Prospect Heights Action Coalition—and bought my gallon of milk.
But a guy named Daniel Goldstein, a graphic designer who had bought a condo in a building on Pacific Street overlooking the rail yards, was alarmed when he saw one of Hagan’s THIS NEIGHBORHOOD IS CONDEMNED posters slapped on a lamppost. He tracked her down and learned that his building was right in Ratner’s path. Gradually, Goldstein became the spokesman for Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, the group that’s sprung up over the past three years to coordinate opposition to Atlantic Yards. DDDB comprises 21 community groups, hundreds of active volunteers, and thousands of disparate, petition-signing, money-donating supporters.
Today Goldstein, 36, is at Freddy’s, a bar at the corner of Dean Street and Sixth Avenue, in the footprint of the Atlantic Yards project. The location, coupled with the independent spirit of Freddy’s regulars, has made the bar the clubhouse of the Ratner resistance. This afternoon, Freddy’s is the set for the taping of interviews with Bill Batson and Chris Owens, the two local candidates who’ve taken the strongest anti–Atlantic Yards stands. Batson is running for the State Assembly seat being vacated by Roger Green, who’s running for Congress; Owens is running for Congress in another district, to succeed his father, Major Owens. As the candidates sit at a small table answering questions from the host of a Brooklyn cable-TV show, jokey soft-core porn plays on two TV sets hanging from the ceiling.
“Black and brown folks have been driven out of central Brooklyn,” says Ratner supporter Bertha Lewis. “and we’re tired of being pushed out. if we can stop one iota of gentrification, we’re gonna do it!”
Goldstein stands to one side, wearing a yellow DEVELOP DON’T DESTROY BROOKLYN T-shirt, shorts, and a battered straw hat. At first, Goldstein seemed to snugly fit the obstructionist stereotype. He’s frequently antagonized people who could have helped his cause, haranguing reporters and elected officials. The son of an investment fund manager, Goldstein took the bait when a build member taunted him at a public meeting as a “trust-fund baby”; Goldstein wheeled around and cursed the woman. In June, he shot off a hyperbolic e-mail to Daily News columnist Ben Smith accusing black Atlantic Yards supporters of merely following orders from their “white masters.”
“Initially, he was extremely abrasive,” says Joan Millman, who’s had multiple meetings with Goldstein. “He’s toned down some. And the opponents have learned to play the game better.” Lately, DDDB has been upgrading its tactics. The opposition, fragmented by geography and motivation, was been slow to gain traction or media motility. But after three years of small gatherings in living rooms and church basements, the anger and activism are gaining momentum. In part that’s come through the obvious public-relations tactic of recruiting celebrity spokesmen—from Heath Ledger, of Brokeback Mountain and Boerum Hill, to Rosie Perez, lifelong Brooklynite and member of the Spike Lee ensemble—which has given the anti-Ratner campaign a not-always-helpful tinge of radical chic. But Dan Zanes is no Lenny Bernstein, and the core of the opposition remains a wildly diverse, mostly anonymous mob of regular folks, from Bed-Stuy ministers to Prospect Heights senior citizens. The turnout at the Grand Army Plaza rally, in mid-July in 90-degree heat, was impressive in head count—somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000—and composition: teens, retirees, yuppies, bohos, young mothers, and old lefties.
What’s galvanizing the protesters is an issue that reaches far beyond Brooklyn: Every vacant lot in the city suddenly seems to have become a construction site, with developers in a frenzy to erect out-of-scale apartment towers and office buildings before the economy tanks or the zoning tightens. Atlantic Yards is becoming the magnet for the growing rage against overdevelopment, and the emotion is likely to peak at the August 23 public hearing on the project’s environmental-impact statement. It’s hard to imagine, though, that one night of yelling and guerrilla theater can compete with four years of Ratner’s savvy, spare-no-expense political spadework. Just the opposite is more likely, proving the perverse genius of the campaign to build Atlantic Yards: The New York ritual of howling locals, especially if they’re white, will only help Ratner’s spin that he’s the real populist.
Goldstein may be no match for Ratner in terms of political strategizing, but he does have one important thing that Ratner wants: his address. Since February 2005, Goldstein and his girlfriend, Shabnam Merchant, have been the sole residents of their apartment building on Pacific Street. The other residents were bought out by Ratner for $850 per square foot, roughly twice what most of them paid. Last summer, he was trapped in the building’s elevator for three hours in the middle of the night; the lift’s emergency phone was dead, and Goldstein thought he might be, too. “How pathetic is this?” he remembers thinking. “I’ll die, and they’ll go on with their development.” Goldstein pried the door open and got back to work. He’s inspired by Merchant’s mother, an activist in India who spent years leading the opposition to a mammoth industrial-port project that would have pushed poor residents out of a small coastal town. Tired of the delays, the corporate developers eventually walked away, giving the Indian activists a huge upset victory and proving that the impossible sometimes happens.
“I’m staying in this apartment to be a plaintiff,” says Goldstein, noting that the DDDB has hired eminent-domain lawyer Jeff Baker to fight on behalf of all 60 remaining footprint residents. “My home is gone. I’m staying because this project is wrong, our City Council has no say in it, I have more say in it, and I’m gonna use that.”
The opposition’s greatest resource hasn’t been Goldstein or the Hollywood stars but one unknown man working late at night in his Park Slope apartment. Norman Oder, 45, has a full-time day job as an editor for Library Journal, but for most of the past year, he has spent at least 25 hours a week dissecting the details of the Atlantic Yards plans and posting his analysis at atlanticyardsreport.blogspot.com. Oder is a skeptic in the tradition of I. F. Stone, proving how much can be accomplished with a URL and an obsession.
Struck by what he considered the weakness of the Atlantic Yards coverage in the Times (which is partnering with Forest City Ratner to build its new headquarters in midtown Manhattan), Oder set out to write one piece of media criticism. But as that essay grew into 160 pages, Oder kept finding more Atlantic Yards issues that sparked his curiosity.
His blog breaks down every arcane detail related to Atlantic Yards and specializes in untangling eye-catching Ratner claims: for instance, that the promise of 15,000 Atlantic Yards construction jobs comes from counting 1,500 people working for ten years. Or how the developer’s recent much-hyped 5 percent “scale back” of the project was really a bait and switch. The Atlantic Yards plan started with 4,500 units of housing in 2003, grew to 7,300 units in 2005, and then “scaled back” to 6,860 units this year. But Oder’s biggest contribution has been shining a light on two crucial aspects of the project: its affordable housing and its astounding residential density.
The project is planned to have 2,250 affordable apartments—50 percent of the rental units. Affordable is one of the great weasel words of modern marketing, however, and the eligibility tiers that Ratner drew up with ACORN, the low-income-housing activist group, leave just 900 units for a family of four with an annual income of $35,000 or less. Although 900 below-market apartments are far better than nothing, just as many spaces are reserved for families earning $70,000 to $113,000.
And Atlantic Yards’ inhabitants, renters and owners alike, could be occupying the densest residential space in the United States. Working with an average of 2.5 people per apartment, Oder points out that Atlantic Yards will have a population density of nearly 500,000 people per square mile. For comparison, the current population-density champ, a census tract in West Harlem, contains 230,000 people per square mile. Manhattan, which popular imagination ranks as the densest place in the city, averages 67,000 people per square mile. It will mean bulky buildings for the project’s residents and also a major strain on the area’s streets, sidewalks, and the already crowded Atlantic Avenue subway hub.
During nine years of living in Brooklyn I’ve gone out of my way to stay out of the Atlantic Avenue station, especially at rush hour. Ten subway lines, plus the LIRR, converge there, and the stairways are a claustrophobic multilevel tangle, congested at any hour, as are the trains that stop there. But here’s what the state environmental-impact report on the expected effects of Atlantic Yards says: “All subway routes through Downtown Brooklyn are expected to operate below their practical capacity in the peak direction in the 8–9 A.M. and 5–6 P.M. commuter peak periods … at completion of the proposed project in 2016.”
Perhaps I’ve been unlucky; certainly my experience with the station has been unscientific. So on a sweaty Thursday morning I went to check it out and found myself standing on the platform, wedged between a pole and six other passengers, waiting for a Manhattan-bound 4. It’s not clear how the state study defines “practical capacity.” But it apparently doesn’t include me boarding the overloaded train that finally arrived. Waiting for another 4, I tried to picture what the station will look like when 15,000 more people live directly overhead.
The section on the Atlantic Avenue subway station merely strains credulity. What the report spells out, once you unpack the charts and the “v/c ratios,” is a tidal wave reshaping the daily life of the surrounding neighborhoods. In the winter, sunset will come to my street at 2:30 in the afternoon, thanks to the shadows stretching from the high-rises lined up like a gargantuan picket fence along the northern border of Atlantic Yards. But I get off relatively easy: The residents of the Atlantic Terminal public-housing complex, across the street from two 40-plus-story Gehry towers, will be in shadow virtually all day much of the year.
The environmental report’s section on traffic predicts that 68 of 93 intersections around Atlantic Yards would be “significantly adversely impacted,” many permanently. That sounds unpleasant enough. But what’s “significant adverse impact”? The study defines it a couple of ways: “saturated conditions with queuing” and delays “greater than 80 seconds per vehicle.” Stand alongside an already busy intersection anywhere in the city; count how long a random car stands still—ten, perhaps twenty seconds—and watch what results: drivers piling up behind the stationary car, blowing their horns, yelling, as the line gets longer. Now picture cars delayed for 80 seconds, for hours on end, in front of your building.
Public schools? They’re already crowded. The study dutifully admits that “if all school-aged children introduced by the proposed project were to attend the public schools within 1/2 mile of the project site, the elementary and intermediate schools would be over capacity and could not accommodate the increased student population, resulting in a significant adverse impact.” One suggested “mitigation”? The thousands of new kids should scatter across school districts 13 and 15. But there’s no discussion of what that actually means, in human terms: Thousands of parents and kids competing for school slots outside their neighborhood, then trekking by subway, bus, or car each morning and afternoon to reach their far-flung destination, maybe in Sunset Park, where they’ll be bumping the teacher-to-student ratios ever higher.
You get to know your neighbors when you live in a place for nine years. But I was surprised, as I pushed past the public faces of the Atlantic Yards opposition, that the anti-Ratner troops were not only not crazy, but they were my mild-mannered friends. Eric Reschke, the president of DDDB, is a youth-soccer acquaintance. I’ve interviewed Dan Zanes, the rocker turned kiddie-music balladeer. On the DDDB Website, under BOARD OF ADVISERS, I find Jennifer Egan, novelist, fellow journalist, and neighbor, as well as Chris Doyle, architect and one of my wife’s oldest friends. Doyle, it turns out, was recruited for the opposition by his friend Jonathan Lethem, whose most recent novel, The Fortress of Solitude, is set on the Dean Street of his youth. One pivotal location in the book is the Underberg Building, an old warehouse at the corner of Flatbush and Fifth Avenue; in March, the Underberg was torn down by Ratner.
“Because I have written so sentimentally about areas that border this project, a lot of people were sort of expecting me to have very strong feelings about this,” Lethem says. “And I had a contrary reaction: No, no, no, I’m not gonna take the bait. I don’t have a strong feeling. I’m sort of a sports fan, I’m sort of weary of political struggles over changes in cities, which is mostly an ecological process that happens apart from anyone’s idealistic yearnings.” Then a writer friend, Sean Elder, nagged Lethem to do some research. “I started to feel the resentment of having been tricked,” Lethem says. “This wasn’t about a basketball arena and a Gehry building. And the opposition is not about a given building being torn down or fetishizing some particular half-ruined part of the city. I want to be the first to say that there ought to be development on the rail yards.”
Maybe it’s just that I have a shallow social circle, and that’s why all my actively anti-Ratner friends and acquaintances are white. Or maybe critics like Bertha Lewis are right about the opposition after all.
For fourteen years, Lewis has led the New York chapter of ACORN, the feistiest activist group for low-income housing in the city; she once chased a Giuliani welfare commissioner out of a community meeting and into the street. When Ratner built Atlantic Center, Lewis picketed, then stormed his office, demanding that the retail tenants pay their employees a “living wage.” This time around, Lewis approached Ratner much earlier and much more quietly. “He was proposing 4,500 units of luxury housing,” Lewis says. “We don’t think so. If any housing is coming to Downtown Brooklyn, we need to talk. There was no affordable housing in their original plan. None.”
Striking a deal made sense for both sides: Ratner gained the appearance of local support and took a skilled protester off the table; Lewis got the promise of low- and middle-income housing. Lewis’s public endorsement of Atlantic Yards was crucial, and brilliant, stagecraft. It came in the middle of the 2005 mayoral campaign. After Lewis, Ratner, and Bloomberg announced the subsidized-housing deal at a press conference, she planted melodramatic kisses on each man, making for invaluable photographs.
Lewis has devoted her life to making grudging gains for ACORN’s membership, and she sincerely believes she’s scored a major victory for them with the Atlantic Yards housing deal. Any suggestion that money played a role enrages her. What’s of greater value to acorn and Lewis is that after all the years of scuffling, the Atlantic Yards deal certified them as serious political players. “For years, we fought, we squatted, we did whatever it took to get to the table to sit down and say, ‘Let’s make something happen,’ ” Lewis says. “There are activists who talk about how it ‘should be.’ But, dammit, at some point somebody has got to actually do it. We’re developers now.”
That’s part of why Lewis is so ferocious in denouncing the Atlantic Yards opposition. “You want to talk to me about traffic, you want to talk to me about density, you go right ahead,” she says, implying she considers it all a pretext. “Talk to me about what your resolution is to the resegregation of Brooklyn. Black and brown folks have been driven out of central Brooklyn!” Lewis ladles on the “street” theatrics as she warms up, shimmying in her chair and dropping her g’s. “We’re looking at the gentrification—I don’t see a lot of black and brown folks in the wave runnin’ up in here! The overwhelming folks who are opposed are white people and wealthier people and more secure people and people who just arrived. Come on! This is about the power dynamic of who in fact is going to be living in Downtown and central Brooklyn and where the power really is going to be. And we’re down to get it on! We’re tired of being pushed out. If we can stop one iota of gentrification, we’re gonna do it!”
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.
Every time I begin to buy into the lyrical people-have-the-power rhetoric of the opposition, to fantasize that Goldstein’s impending eminent-domain lawsuit has a prayer of succeeding, or to get revved up about the density trivia, someone smacks me back into reality. Most recently, it was a prominent Democrat. “In some cases, an army of Davids could take down Goliath,” he said. “But not this one. It’s a fait accompli.”
Brooklyn is vast, so it would be arrogant and silly to say how Atlantic Yards will change the borough. Maybe they won’t feel a thing in Sheepshead Bay and Greenpoint and East New York and Crown Heights. Atlantic Yards, though, would send ripples of gigantism far and wide. I’m no Spaldeen-and-egg-cream nostalgist, but Brooklyn has always been different and better because it’s been closer to the ground. That’s a significant thing to lose. And “in close,” to use Jim Stuckey’s dismissive description of Prospect Heights, Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, and Boerum Hill, we’ll feel the impact like a punch to the head. The small, warm neighborhoods around Atlantic Yards will become moons orbiting a cold planet. Shadows and noise can be modeled on computers, but their emotional effects can’t.
Brooklyn is changing every day, all the time; I wouldn’t want to live here if it didn’t. I don’t kid myself that all the changes are “organic” or even desirable. But it’s an evolution instead of a cataclysm imposed from above. The opposition to Ratnerville is sometimes vitriolic, unsympathetic, irrational. Sign me up.
Additional reporting by Meghann Farnsworth.