Saturday, May 03, 2008

Not a done deal: “Time Out” rally met with “Build It Now” counter-protest

“I now believe that you were so right,” proclaimed State Senator Velmanette Montgomery from the podium at the “Time Out” rally held Saturday afternoon on Pacific Street near Carlton Avenue by three groups critical of or opposed to Atlantic Yards. “It’s not a done deal.”

The rally, with City Council Member Letitia James speaking at right, aimed to get Gov. David Paterson “to suspend demolitions, displacement of residents and businesses, infrastructure disruptions and further subsidies to the project so that changes to the project can be assessed and a new plan prepared with community involvement.”

(Mouse over photos to see credits for Adrian Kinloch and Jonathan Barkey; I took the others.)

Confirming that was the first-ever example of a counter-protest, a well-engineered effort by Forest City Ratner--with several operatives on hand--to assemble a boisterous crowd of union workers and Community Benefits Agreement signatories, groups that have received the developer's support. No pro-project elected officials were visible.

Walking from the Atlantic Terminal Mall to Pacific Street outside the Ward Bakery (right), they chanted “Build it now,” a sentiment that could have been directed equally at Bruce Ratner, the banks, and the New York City Housing Development Corporation. (The counter-protest was previewed in an article in the Courier-Life chain, which came out Friday, but not by a press release, perhaps to preserve an element of surprise.)

Just as Forest City Ratner recently urged readers of its e-newsletter to contact their elected officials, the counter-rally suggested that the project remains politically very much in play, even if Paterson--the target of posters urging “Stand Pat Against the Rat”--recently expressed support for the project.

The counter-protestors gathered first at a plaza outside FCR’s Atlantic Terminal Mall, then proceeded to a holding area at the other end of Pacific Street, near Vanderbilt Avenue. I’d roughly estimate that the counter-protest was more than 50% larger, perhaps 500 (Forest City Ratner claimed 800) to perhaps 300 (DDDB claimed 400), though, as was pointed out multiple times, many of the former were paid. (Or, more precisely, protest work is part of union duty.)

Whose message?

This was the first time that the moderate BrooklynSpeaks, which calls for major changes in Atlantic Yards but does not oppose it fundamentally, joined forces with Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB), which has organized and funded lawsuits challenging the project. I had questioned what happened after the group's spoke with one voice. Actually, beyond the fundamental call for "time out," the alliance may not be firm.

Most of the crowd seemed to support DDDB’s uncompromising position against the project as it stands. James, the project’s leading political opponent, opened on a roll: “Those not paid to be here, make some noise,” soon following up with, “If you want to develop and not destroy this community, make some noise.” The noise was loud.

“We’ve got to make some noise because David Paterson is blind but he’s not deaf,” James said, quickly adding--to stave off qualms about her mentioning his disability-- “And he’s a good friend.”

“So, Forest City Ratner, the gig is up,” James proclaimed rather conclusorily. “It’s time to go back to New Jersey.” The developer, in fact, has not been operating in New Jersey, but the Newark Star-Ledger recently reported on discussions--denied by Forest City Ratner--about a local consortium buying the team to play in Newark’s new Prudential Center.

“The market has softened, the lawsuits are pending,” James said, adding obliquely, “And more to be filed.” (I haven’t heard of any.)

Jeffries more careful

The other key elected official to speak was Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries (right), who’s taken a cautiously supportive (but sometimes shifting) stance on the project. “We’re here not because we’re anti-progress,” he declared. “We’re pro-democracy.”

He suggested that former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, known for his self-description as “the steamroller,” was “prepared to steamroll this community.” As for Paterson, “despite his physical condition, he is a man of tremendous vision, a man who understands the importance of real community input.”

He said Paterson should be given a chance “to put affordable housing first and foremost,” to reject the (ongoing) demolition of the Ward Bakery, and “to say no to eminent domain. Let’s give Governor Paterson a chance to do the right thing.”

I caught up with him afterward to point out that Paterson had just said the arena is going forward, downplaying the issue of eminent domain.

“Governor Paterson understands that getting things done requires working relationships,” Jeffries said. “I’m hopeful he will be willing to listen to local representatives before he moves forward unilaterally.”

Brooklyn speaks

City Council Member David Yassky was introduced by MC Chris Owens (right), his former antagonist in the bitterly-fought 11th District Congressional campaign in 2006 as one who “has seen the light and is on our side.” Yassky spoke briefly. “There is one plain truth: the community has never had its say,” he said. It’s time for the community to be heard.”

“Let’s go back to the table,” he said, prompting an audience member to shout back, “We were never at the table.”

The rally opened a little woodenly as Deb Howard of the Pratt Area Community Council, a member of both BrooklynSpeaks and the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods, the third co-sponsor, read a statement that, without the commercial and residential component around the arena, the project “won’t be able to meaningfully fulfill the promises” made.

A couple of people heckled in disagreement that the project ever could fulfill the promises and when she read the Empire State Development Corporation’s boilerplate about transforming a “blighted area.” (“It was not blighted,” said one.) A rumble from the counter-protestors was clearly audible.

Owens then energized the crowd by leading a cheer, drowning out the counter-protestors. The crowd became forceful, but it was not nearly as large as the one that gathered in July 2006 at Grand Army Plaza.

Counter-protest

The energy from counter-protestors had already been building. They gathered starting at 1 pm, an hour before the “Time Out” rally, at the plaza outside Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Terminal Mall, steamfitters and carpenters and theatrical workers among those on the union side.

CBA signatory BUILD (Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development), which receives funding from the developer, gathered a group, as did ACORN, which signed the affordable housing agreement that remains in question. Delia Hunley-Adossa (with megaphone), chair of the CBA coalition and head of the Brooklyn Endeavor Experience, which has a Potemkin role in monitoring AY environmental assurances, was present, as was (I was told) Bertha Lewis of ACORN.

However, it wasn’t easy to talk to the protestors or take photographs. When I arrived at the plaza, photographer Adrian Kinloch, his camera visible, was finding himself stalemated by cops, who said that “the person in charge” did not permit photos.

I said I was there only to take notes and talk to people, but was quickly told I had to leave. Though I asked for more of an explanation, Sgt. Jones of the 77th Precinct (right) said he didn’t have time to provide one, and forcefully but not roughly gripped my arm and walked me across the street. Kinloch got a picture.

I went upstairs into the Atlantic Center mall, and took some photos from there, then looped back through the Atlantic Terminal mall, did some window shopping, then walked through the crowd, able to overhear Brigitte Labonte, a Forest City Ratner employee (and a mystery byline in the second issue of the Brooklyn Standard), giving directions to the various participants.

Not everyone was fully with the program. A contingent of Eastern Europeans from (I suppose) southern Brooklyn carried not terribly grammatical signs, such as “Bring Nets.” I asked one woman where she was from. “Ukraine,” she replied enthusiastically.

Meeting BUILD

Walking along Atlantic Avenue to Vanderbilt, I encountered BUILD’s Louis, keeping a tally of the group’s participants. If the cry was, “Build it now,” I asked her why the protesters weren’t marching outside the banks that have refused to give credit to developers like Forest City Ratner.

“The biggest issue is the lawsuits,” she said, contending that the clearing of lawsuits would allow the project to proceed and provide the opportunies and jobs the group seeks. While the lawsuits are a partial deterrent, their removal wouldn’t necessarily mean the project would go forward.

Pictured at right is Louis (right) with BUILD President James Caldwell, who was quoted in the Courier-Life:
“There’s many people in our community that are for it [Atlantic Yards] but they are sometimes too busy making ends meet to show their support,” said Caldwell, adding that many of the protestors have better lifestyles and take opposing Atlantic Yards as a cause celebre.


A tense twist

Perhaps halfway into the rally, a segment of the counter-protestors performed a flanking movement, gathering along Pacific Street on the west side of Carlton Avenue and changing. A phalanx of cops, wearing BNTF (Brooklyn North Task Force) patches and plastic handcuffs dangling from belt loops, gathered to form a barrier against any untoward contact between two sides.

The flanking movement, which ultimately dissolved, did successfully prevent some latecomers from getting to the main rally via Pacific Street and Sixth Avenue. (Though I didn't confirm it, I don't believe the counter-protestors had a permit for such a gathering.)

Along with the leaders of CBA signatory groups, several Forest City Ratner officials were on hand to help orchestrate the counter-protest. In the photo at right, FCR’s LaBonte is in the ballcap. Behind her is Thomas (Ziggy) Sicignano, a prominent youth basketball organizer who has received funding from the developer (and has a colorful past involving a felony plea bargain as part of a strip club trial). The man in the white shirt also (apparently) works for Forest City Ratner; he [corrected] shooed photographers to leave the Atlantic Terminal mall gathering place. To the right of him is Scott Cantone, a Forest City VP.

[Correction Monday 9:45 a.m.: I originally wrote that the man in the white shirt "directed police;" that was my interpretation from my conversation with photographer Kinloch, who had first encountered the man and was told not to take pictures. I did not see that encounter. Kinloch, when I saw him, was surrounded by police.]

Also present was FCR spokesman Loren Riegelhaupt (right), who issued a press release fairly quickly after the events.

Other speakers

The crowd at the rally was mostly white, though most live closer to the project site than the counter-protestors, a more diverse bunch ethnically. One speaker was Beverley Corbin of United Neighbors of Brooklyn, a recently-formed group that aims to bridge gaps between groups like DDDB and residents of housing projects.

Corbin (right), a veteran of FUREE, which has fought the city’s downtown development plans, said that it would cost $611 million to repair certain housing projects, and the money shouldn’t be spent on Atlantic Yards.

Also speaking was Ron Shiffman, founder of the Pratt Center for Community Development and a DDDB board member. “If you want affordable housing, let’s make it part of public policy,” he declared, suggesting that existing buildings in the AY footprint would be a place to start.

Also supporting the rally was City Council Member Tony Avella, a maverick candidate for mayor. Present but not speaking were three candidates for Bill de Blasio’s City Council seat, Josh Skaller, Craig Hammerman, and Brad Lander, as well as Joanne Simon, a candidate for Yassky’s seat.

Other electeds

Assemblyman Joan Millman was slated to attend, but didn’t make it, possibly because of logistics. Two other elected officials couldn’t make it but issued statements that indicated they supported some version of Atlantic Yards.

(Photo of Dean Street resident Jonathan Willner.)

“The Empire State Development Corporation is failing in its obligation to assure that affordable housing is built simultaneously with other elements of the project. A stand-alone arena is not acceptable,” said Assemblyman Jim Brennan in a statement. “The excessive size of the project may be adding to delays by creating more financial risks, as well as adverse environmental consequences. ESDC needs to look at a downsizing and a reconfiguration of the entire project to assure that it can proceed.”

De Blasio issued a statement stating that, “With thousands of units of affordable housing and jobs hanging in the balance, the number of unanswered questions and the level of uncertainty surrounding this project is unacceptable. Forest City Ratner must immediately provide the community with a timeline for construction, including all units of affordable housing, and release any revisions that have been made to the General Project Plan to date. We cannot tolerate further demolitions and certainly will not consider additional public investment in this project until these very reasonable requests are met.”

Was he referring to the fulfillment of already pledged monies, scarce affordable housing financing or the additional subsidies that Forest City Ratner already seeks?

State Senator Eric Adams, who has in the past expressed concerns about Atlantic Yards, was not a supporter of the rally.

FCR’s statement

Forest City Ratner issued a statement quoting spokesman Bruce Bender:
Mr. Bender reiterated the company's support for the project and the plan to open the arena and the first residential building at the same time.

"We anticipate a formal groundbreaking for the arena later this year," he further explained, "followed by the first residential building by next summer. We are going to build all of Atlantic Yards and all of its affordable housing; anyone who says otherwise is either misinformed or misguided."


Remember, when the project was announced, the developer said, “The complex has been planned to look whole and complete during each phase of construction.”

What next?

Montgomery (right), the first speaker at the rally, declared, “I’m looking forward to time and the financial crisis to be on our side. Several of us have met with David Paterson’s people to ask them to review this project,” given that much of what was promised doesn’t appear to be fulfilled.”

“We were never at the table,” she said, calling for the consideration of a “new proposal that has been carefully and expertly worked out,” and a process governed by local laws.

As they say, time will tell.

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