Tuesday, July 11, 2006

"A Walk Around the Footprint" and one holdout no more

There's a poignant aspect to the 18-minute film, A Walk Around the Footprint, a snapshot of people and places in the shadow of eminent domain and Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards project. When the film was shot six months ago, Vince Bruns was a holdout, one of the last loft residents in the handsomely-renovated former Spalding factory at 6th Avenue and Pacific Street. "I love the space. I'd be perfectly happy to die here," Bruns told filmmaker George Lerner, whose film was shown Friday night at the Park Slope Food Coop.

But Bruns had to be experiencing some pressure. A 6/30/05 New York Times article about the aftermath of the Supreme Court's Kelo eminent domain decision described Bruns as a holdout, noting that a sign in his window proclaimed: "I love my home and my neighborhood. I intend to stay here." But Bruns "acknowledged he might someday be forced to sell."

Indeed, though Bruns remains in his loft , he's agreed to leave by the end of September. He's bought an apartment in nearby Boerum Hill. And he took the sign down three months ago.

A lesser gag

Unlike most of the other residential owners who sold to Forest City Ratner, Bruns, a self-described longtime ACLU supporter, negotiated a less onerous set of restrictions. He doesn't need the developer's approval to talk about the project or the buyout, and he can participate in rallies and forums--just not as a "prominent speaker." So his low-key role on a panel after the film Friday night would seem to qualify. He had to agree not to donate money to the project opposition--but he did write a check to Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB) before he signed that agreement.

So why'd he leave? "I had a big investment in my space," Bruns said later, "and I felt we were getting close enough to condemnation." He added, "I think they treated me fairly. The only unfairness is that they had an unfair weapon, in the way that eminent domain is perverted."

He said that his property had been appraised for more than double the price he paid in 2002, and that Forest City Ratner paid more than that appraisal, but not the 50 percent premium that has been proposed in some legislation regarding eminent domain.

A sense of place

Filmmaker Lerner said his model was the Barry Lewis/David Hartman "A Walk Around..." series for PBS, and he was not trying to make a film about the project, in all its details and contentious arguments. The film contains no interviews with project supporters. But the implication was clear: there are successful elements of a mixed-use neighborhood within the footprint, though they have been winnowed by time, and there are buildings that have historic value.

(Indeed, the neighborhood has quieted down; as Peter Krashes, who lives on Dean Street across from the proposed project footprint, told WNYC radio last December, "a lot of the property has the appearance of being more dormant. That’s one of the things that people miss when they walk here they don’t understand that what was a pretty active area has been emptied.")

And, as the rendering of the western segment of Gehry's plan shows, what might replace it would be very, very different--a change hinted at but not shown explicitly in the film, which was shot before the latest project renderings were released. (Graphic from New York Times)

The eminent domain battle

Bruns's decision leaves Daniel Goldstein of DDDB, the last condo owner from three owner-occupied condo or coop buildings in the footprint. However, several others--including commercial owners, residential renters, and owners of smaller residential buildings--remain subject to eminent domain. About 70 people, mostly tenants, still live in the footprint, which would be 22 acres, including an 8.3-acre railyard. (That number does not include the population in a homeless shelter, which had been estimated to constitute more than half of the 800+ residents in the footprint.)

Goldstein Friday expressed appreciation that Bruns held out for so long, but it seemed apparent that Bruns, who runs a fish business, had not been ready to join Goldstein--a graphic designer-turned-full-time-activist--as an eminent domain plaintiff. Some among the remaining residents in the footprint were afraid to be in the film, Goldstein said, but several potential plaintiffs remain.

Goldstein told the audience there would be an eminent domain lawsuit. "[Forest City Ratner's] Jim Stuckey called my attorney," Goldstein recounted. "He said, 'Will Goldstein take an offer. He can keep fighting us, but will he agree not to be an eminent domain plaintiff?' I think they're worried."

"There are a lot of 'done deals' that have been undone," he said in response to a questioner who offered that common observation. "He can't build the project without my apartment. He can't build the project without fixing traffic [problems]. He can't built the project if the condo market crashes."

Added Scott Turner, who appeared with Goldstein in the movie, "When it started in December 03, I'd say we had a ten percent chance. I'd say it's even money now." He took pains to say that project opponents were not against jobs and housing, and that there could be construction on the railyards--a smaller-scale project--without encroaching on the existing neighborhood.

Renters under pressure

Also in the film was 87-year-old Victoria (Mary) Harmon, who said she had no desire to leave the apartment she's rented for 62 years. "I'm too old to go looking for places."

David Sheets, an eight-year resident, talked about how he and other long-term renters had helped stabilize and restore the neighborhood. Now, he said in the film, his building is showing water damage. Given the specter of eminent domain, "There's no incentive for anyone to pay any money into repairing it... It's a self-fulfilling prophecy." And that will help the state declare that the area is blighted, a prerequisite to invoke eminent domain.

Sheets added that the lack of focus on renters, many of whom are minorities and also uncomfortable with publicity, "feeds into the perception" that "it's just a handful of white yuppies" opposing the project.

"If Freddy's goes, Brooklyn goes"

The film also included scenes in Freddy's, the prohibition-era bar at the corner of Dean Street and Sixth Avenue that hosts everything from punk to jazz to knitting nights. "You take away all this, you're going to kill Brooklyn," Turner declared on film. Kill the borough?, he was asked afterward. "Every neighborhood has a bar like Freddy's," he responded.

"It's symbolic," Goldstein continued. "Change can be good. Change can be bad. I don't think anyone wants to see that kind of change." Some do, of course, and attitudes toward change depend not only on issues like scale and place, but also on larger political and economic forces.

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