The battle of Brooklyn

Updated: March 21, 2004, 12:46 PM ET
By Darren Rovell | ESPN.com

BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- Emmanuel Volcy looked up at the television and watched as real estate mogul Bruce Ratner outlined his master plan to make the New Jersey Nets a part of a $2.5 billion development project that promises to revitalize Brooklyn.

Brooklyn
A sign in an apartment is a vote against redevelopment in this Brooklyn neighborhood.
It's just what Volcy, a fledgling small businessman in the heart of Brooklyn, didn't want to hear. The Haitian immigrant was just beginning his American dream, only five days before signing a 10-year lease for his auto body shop at the corner of Flatbush Avenue and Pacific Street. He was still in the midst of putting his specialty rims in the window when he realized that Ratner's proposal could throw his business for a loop.

"Wait a minute," Volcy said, "that's the spot we at."

Since the Dodgers left for Los Angeles after the 1957 season, Brooklyn has pined for a professional sports team to call its own in New York City's most populous borough. When the Brooklyn Cyclones came to town three years ago, they were embraced with open arms, but the New York Mets' Class A affiliate and their 7,500-seat stadium only whetted residents' appetites for top-shelf sports.

Ratner's plan would fill that void, bringing the Nets across the Hudson River. But his plan would do more than return major pro sports to the 2.7 million residents. He would redevelop an area of town that, at least according to residents there, isn't in need of a makeover.

Under the proposal, Ratner would seize land where buildings are filled with homeowners, apartment dwellers and small businesses. All would be leveled to make way for 17 skyrise buildings and a state-of-the-art, 19,000-seat arena that the Nets would call home. It would seem to be a little more than coincidence that the Brooklyn Atlantic Yards development borders Ratner's other projects in the area.

Joe Pastore says he doesn't like the idea. He was sitting in his apartment at 473 Dean Street when he picked up the local newspaper, the Park Slope Courier, and learned that his home could be taken from him. The 59-year-old has lived in one of the building's 16 rent-stabilized apartments since 1967.

"I'd be glad to move out for a school, a hospital or a highway, but not a basketball arena," Pastore said in a thick Brooklyn accent. "When somebody tells ya that you got to come out of your own home, that's not freedom, that's communism. In Germany, they took down the wall, and it looks like here in America, we're puttin' it back up."

The opponents

In cities across America and even around the world, homes and businesses can be seized by government entities based on the ideal that a revitalization of the area will better serve the public. In the United States, "eminent domain" allows state governments to take over property, provided that its original owners are compensated. The property, however, is often priced well below market value, usually closer to an assessed value that may be only a fraction of what it would otherwise command on the open market. A cost is determined by a standard price per square foot that does not allow for the amenities within the property nor its location.

Brooklyn
A birds-eye view of the area Bruce Ratner wants to level to make way for the New Jersey Nets' new home in Brooklyn.
Those who stand to be affected by Ratner's acquisition say they not only believe that the execution of eminent domain is unconstitutionally applied in their case, but they object to taxpayer money being used for the project.

It hurts them even more that their land is being taken away while recent developments built by Ratner, including the Atlantic Center mall, will not only be spared but will surely see a rise in property values if the arena project comes to fruition.

Some residents have retained lawyers, but nothing can be done in the legal arena until a formal agreement is structured. That memorandum of understanding will describe the financial commitment in the project by Forest City Ratner Companies, as well as the state and city organizations, and is expected to be executed sometime within the next month. The affected residents warn that they expect city and state dollars will be committed without their approval.

Owners to vote on Ratner, not Brooklyn
Those that oppose the development and arena proposed by Bruce Ratner could always hope that his bid for the New Jersey Nets falls through. That's not likely to happen. NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik told ESPN.com that the league is in the process of performing financial and background checks on Ratner and his many Nets partners, including hip-hop icon Jay-Z.

As of now, a select group of owners is set to make a recommendation on how the others should vote in June. Three-quarters of the league's owners, or 22 of the 29, then have to vote to approve the $300 million deal.

"The way this is going to be approached is that Bruce Ratner is coming in to buy the Nets as they are today," Granik said. "I'm sure when the committee interviews Bruce and his partners they will ask them about their long-range plans, but right now he's buying the New Jersey Nets. Whether or not he will be able to make things work in Brooklyn in the future that will be up to him."

Some opponents think the league should pay closer attention to Ratner's plans. Scott Turner, who oversees a group called Fans for Fair Play -- a coalition of sports fans from Brooklyn who oppose the project -- said he believes that top NBA officials should be asking more questions about the project that Rattner proposed in December.

"The NBA is by far the most image conscious of all the leagues, that's why they are where they are on an international scale," Turner said. "By being involved in something like this they are going to get attached to eminent domain abuse and misuse of billions of dollars in public funds."

— Darren Rovell
Joe DePlasco, a spokesman for Forest City, declined to speculate on what the final agreement might look like, and a spokesman for the Empire State Development Corporation said it was too early to describe what its role would be in the process. The Empire State Development Corporation, which leases office space in a building owned by Ratner, is likely to be the governmental authority that would seize the homes and businesses.

In the meantime, anti-arena activists are working hard to make sure Ratner's plan fails. Their revolutionary leader is Patti Hagan, a former journalist who says she spends every waking hour on the protest. She knows so many stories of those who will be affected that she can barely take a breath when asked about the possible impact of the deal. She knows where they grew up and how many children they have. When she makes the rounds, they give her hugs of thanks for her help in the fight.

"We can absolutely do something about this," said Hagan, a member of the steering committee for a group called Develop, Don't Destroy Brooklyn. "There's no way they can get away with taking land when it is clearly being used for private purposes."

She won't disclose how desperate the protest measures might get. Her only weapon now is a 15-pound, blue UPS tote bag filled with manila folders and flyers of seemingly every fluorescent color that announce a meeting here and a rally there. All of her phone and e-mail contacts are written on a fraying, 12-page phone list of scribbled-on restaurant menus and graph paper, all held together by a paper clip. After eight months of flipping back and forth through them, the ink is beginning to fade. Perhaps Ratner's best chance of stopping her is to make sure she loses the list. It's the only copy she has.

Patti Hagan
Activist Patti Hagan is spearheading the "Develop, Don't Destroy Brooklyn" campaign.
At 485 Dean Street sits Freddy's Bar & Backroom. It has been around since before prohibition and has since doubled as a theatre and gathering place for writers who publish a literary magazine called "Lurch." It's now also a meeting place for the revolution, for it too stands to be leveled in the redevelopment.

In the backroom, Hagan and the others gather to discuss strategy and the latest details about Ratner's proposal. The walls are plastered with flyers and posters that lampoon government leaders who they claim have aligned themselves with the Nets' would-be owner -- New York Gov. George Pataki, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz.

"Ratner can take this bar if he wants to take it, but at least steal it like a man," said Donald O'Finn, the bar's manager for the past six years.

A poster on the wall reads, "You can have the keys to Freddy's when you pry them from my cold, dead fingers."

The proponents

Those who oppose the plan are making the most noise. But that doesn't mean that the other side is without merit.

Freddy's Bar & Backroom
Ranked among the best dive bars in New York, visitors now come to Freddy's for more than a $2.50 pint of Pabst. They come to plot how they can save their Brooklyn neighborhood.
"For the great majority of Brooklyn, it's a dream come true," Markowitz said. "I can't think of a more exciting time in our history. The development will improve and enhance the quality of life in the borough and at the same time we have the opportunity to bring an NBA team to a new facility and along with it attract national and world-class events."

Markowitz said that he is supporting the project because he serves the people of Brooklyn, not just those who would be uprooted. He wants to work with those that are upset, but he says that they are spending so much time despising him that progress can't be made.

"I was a state senator for 23 years and I never received more nasty e-mails and phone calls in my whole career," Markowitz said. "I'm ready to meet with these people, but if all they want to do is demonize me, I can't stop them."

Karla Rothstein, an architect who lives with her husband at 475 Dean Street, said she doesn't believe Markowitz is interested in working with the residents. She suggested to him and Ratner's representatives an alternative architectural plan that would move the arena so that no people were affected. Markowitz said the design, which would be built above Atlantic Avenue, would be too high in the air and would be unsafe for fans in the case of an emergency. He maintains that the current spot for the arena is the best area.

"Safety is an important issue," Rothstein said. "If they are so concerned about that in this age of terrorism, why do their existing plans have glass walls, so that anyone can park a truck and blast from there or in the parking lot that is planned underneath? If safety is a concern, it's not really a good idea to put an arena in the middle of a residential community."

"If they don't want to work with us, they have every right to go to court and do whatever they want to do -- put their bodies in front of traffic or in front a tractor trailer -- as long as it's within the law," Markowitz said.

New York city council member Letitia James said Markowitz and the project's supporters should brace for the worst.

"There are going to be civil protests and when I talk about disobedience we're talking about the 1960s coming back," James said, noting that a rally scheduled for March 28 is expected to draw plenty of attention. "We're going to be blocking traffic and causing a stir," she added.

Ratner will do all he can to ease the transition for the residents and businesspeople who could be affected by the project, DePlasco insists. He said the company has started to meet with individuals to come up with a formula that will value property in the area higher than what the state will offer and has pledged to help them find comparable housing.

The company projects that the development will create 10,000 permanent jobs and 15,000 construction jobs. The fact that the development calls for 4,500 residential units makes for a greater gain for the project than the cost of the 146 residences that Ratner's plan would uproot.

But don't tell that to the people who will lose their homes and businesses to make way for the Nets' new home.

"Develop the railyards, bring housing, bring jobs to Brooklyn. I'm happy to have that in my backyard," Rothstein said. "But to have basketball played in my living room, I'm going to continue to fight."

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.rovell@espn3.com.

Darren Rovell | email

ESPN.com Sports Business reporter

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