Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Even before Gerges decision, footprint renters were leaving; for some, it was life; for others, it was blight

Even before Supreme Court Justice Abraham Gerges issued his ruling last week approving condemnation for the Atlantic Yards project, several renters who had previously pursued litigation related to the project had moved out of the AY footprint--some quite recently.

For some, changing family circumstances were a driving force.

For others, the impact of living near a construction zone--blight, essentially--made their continued presence ever more difficult.

For some, it was a bit of both.

And it left several with significant bitterness and frustration, sentiments they could express, given that the settlements preclude further litigation but do not impose gag orders.

Going to court

Residents of 473 Dean Street (above) and 624 Pacific Street (two photos below) were represented by George Locker, who tried unsuccessfully in court to get the state to honor a more deliberate schedule required for demolition of rent-stabilized housing.

(In December, he asserted--perhaps as a negotiating tactic--that he'd go to court to ensure leases were fulfilled, until 2011.)

The legal effort put some pressure on the developer for settlements; while I don't have definitive information, it seems that, depending on timing, some got better settlements than others.

Living through blight

Anyone who lived on Dean Street experienced severe discomfort and loss of services during infrastructure work--remember the Atlantic Yards environmental review ignored noise, vibration, disruptions faced by footprint residents.

David Sheets, a renter at 479 Dean Street and a plaintiff in the eminent domain suit, experienced even more, including two fires related to the deterioration of his building, the soaking of much of his clothing by responders, and too-frequent unpaid absences from work to ensure that fixes were made at home.

AY legacy

Sheets said he's frustrated that some others concerned about the project, such as those involved with BrooklynSpeaks, have stepped up their criticism only lately. "Those of us in Phase 1 were trying to tell them five years ago, you're going to have to live with this. It's marginal how much they backed us up."

But the focus, he insisted, shouldn't be on living with the impacts of the project but its fundamental nature: "This is fantastic corruption and none of it should be happening."

"I'm extremely angry with the judges at being so gullible that all the claims of public benefit are real," said Sheets, a paralegal. "These judges keep saying this is a legislative issue. Where have we been within miles of a legislature?"

"I think it's going to be very likely that this is similar to [the Michigan eminent domain case known as] Poletown," which was later reversed. "Give it 20 years: they'll look back at this and they'll say, none of this should've happened anyway. It was wrong then and it was wrong now."

Who's left?

There are still a few renters left at the eastern end of the footprint, but, on the arena block, it's just Daniel Goldstein's family on Pacific Street and--perhaps, since I don't have confirmation--a couple of people on Dean Street.

Leigh Anderson

Leigh Anderson, a writer and resident of 624 Pacific Street and the named plaintiff in the three lawsuits brought by tenants of her building and those of 473 Dean Street, moved to Cobble Hill in mid-November.

"I got married and pregnant in rapid succession and it wasn't a practical living situation anymore--in other words, just ordinary attrition," she reported.

(It was less ordinary, of course, when she was woken up by a contractor scraping a backhoe against her building in June 2006.)

"It was extremely disappointing that our elected officials were so willing to abrogate the rights of a minority--the people living in and around the footprint--in order to score political points with a majority--folks seduced by the idea of a basketball team and vastly inflated (and unenforceable) promises of jobs and housing," she reflected. "So I'm grateful we had recourse to the courts *at all.*"

"The Kelo case made our struggle that much harder," she wrote, referencing the Supreme Court's 2005 Kelo v. New London decision upholding eminent domain for economic development, "and I'm curious to see how that decision plays out over the next years or decades, given that it seems to have given developers carte blanche to seize private property and throw up literally *anything* in its place."

Dan Saks

Dan Saks, a musician and resident of 473 Dean, left on December 31 and remains in Prospect Heights. "I left because the girlfriend that I had moved into the apt. with and I got married while living there and we were beginning to think seriously about starting a family," he reported. "Given my first hand experience with how little FCR cares about the people living in the neighborhood we decided it would be an unsuitable place to become pregnant."

Now that he's gone, Saks readily takes credit for The Footprint Gazette, which he wrote (mostly) to chronicle the difficulty of living in a construction zone. (He also posted videos on YouTube, with soundtrack, and Letitia James Remixed.)

The last post, dated 1/13/09, is headlined FCR is a crap landlord. The post at right is First they came for Dean St.

"Years of intermittent unannounced utility shut-offs, deafening construction noise just feet from our front window and extreme amounts of dust led us to feel that this was an environment too hostile and toxic to consider raising a family in," he said.

Saks and his girlfriend tried to sublet the apartment, thinking they might return once the project--which for a while was reported to be in doubt--collapsed. "Despite about a dozen phone calls and two certified letters formally requesting they grant us the right to sublease (as per our lease) for said reasons, we never got a single response," he said.

"Feeling like we had no alternatives we accepted their offer and left, fearing that we'd either be evicted with nothing or forced to postpone family planning on account of pro basketball," he reported.

Ultimately, Saks said, that offer was a fraction of FCR's original offer years back, "which we accepted the day it was offered. They reneged within a couple of days, before we had a chance to sign any papers."

There were no strings attached to the settlement, he said. "You can't put a price on me not being able to talk trash about this company for years to come."

"We didn't think the project would drag on so long and that they would make life so miserable while we were still living there," he reflected. "I should add that I work from home many days as a recording musician and lost countless hours of work waiting for drilling to cease. Life is too short to put up with cracked walls and jackhammers day in and day out for years on end no matter how much I want to keep these thugs from adding another crap building to the neighborhood."

"I gave it my best, and all I can say now is that I hope my posts at the Footprint Gazette and any quotes you pull from this email can forever live on the Internet as my evidence that the Nets play ball in a cursed house and that Barclays Stadium marks the tomb of a neighborhood dismantled by businessman, dismissed by politicians and displaced by bulldozers."

Jonathan Willner

Jonathan Willner, an ESL teacher and resident of 473 Dean Street, moved out in mid-February and, thanks to the settlement, was able to buy a co-op in Sunset Park.

(Photo from May 2008 rally.)

"After years of getting the same insufficient offer over and over, I guess they finally wanted to get us out, and came up with a much bigger and, finally, reasonable (but not fantastic) offer," he said. "On January 12, we got an ultimatum: sign tomorrow, move out by the end of January or the deal's off. That's bullshit, of course, if we didn't move out, they'd still have deal with us."

The "we" meant the four people left in his building and at 624 Pacific, all represented by Locker, who hadn't signed deals.

"When I balked at the deadline, they said that all four of us had to take it or there was no deal," Willner said last month. "When I said I would not agree to go by the end of January, they gave me two more weeks and I capitulated. At the moment, I'm exhausted, but relieved."

David Sheets

Sheets, a resident of 479 Dean Street, was a plaintiff in the two Atlantic Yards eminent domain cases. After signing an agreement on January 28, the day before the hearing on condemnation before Justice Abraham Gerges, he moved out at the end of February.

(Photo from November 2009 press conference by Tracy Collins)

He said that deterioration at the house he rented, owned by Forest City Ratner, had led to two fires and water damage, and frequently required him to take time off without pay to await maintenance.

"My house caught on fire again the night before last," he said last month. "The weekend before that, I went for three days and nights without heat or hot water. The place is falling down around me."

Speaking before the judge's ruling, he said, "It doesn’t matter what Gerges rules, I can’t stay there."

He said the offer he got was "take it or leave it." He said he agreed to remove his name from pending litigation and to desist from future litigation. "However, I reserve every one of my rights that, if this is not executed as agreed to, I have every right to take action to see it is."

Recouping losses

Sheets moved to Flatbush, near the south end of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, a quick shot on the Q train to Prospect Heights. He looked in Prospect Heights but said he couldn't afford it. He has a one-bedroom on the eighth floor: "I don’t want to take an elevator to my front door."

He said the settlement was almost exactly as previously offered. "This is no windfall," he said. "This is reimbursing me for tens of thousands of dollars in expenses that I’ve shelled out of pockets as a result of their actions and inactions. I’m not making anything. It’s simply doing my best to recoup my losses and get on with my life."

In 2007, when some in the footprint "went for weeks, even months" without utilities and trash pickup, suffering from rats and vermin, Sheets' previous housemate quit paying rent. "He knew I had no chance of getting a subtenant," Sheets said. "In order for me to remain a plaintiff and remain a tenant, I shelled out about $11,000. These people have no clue how expensive this is to the people they inflict this on." (He later got a new subtenant after the situation improved.)

Sheets has cut back on his visits to Freddy’s, the neighborhood bar where he once worked--and which employs his most recent Prospect Heights housemate. "I’m not angry with them, but there’s been a tremendous amount of press about saving a bar," he said. "There’s an enormous distinction between this [Atlantic Yards] battle and saving Freddy’s. This is about corruption and graft on a breathtaking level."

"I’ve lived there longer than the house I grew up in. It’s a very difficult thing for me to move. It’s a very difficult thing to see how it is compared to five years ago."

While "it was a great house with a great garden," the garden dug up twice for underground testing, and maintenance went downhill, garbage pickup was long suspended, and the apartment suffered a break-in.

"This has not been a spectator sport for us," Sheets said last month. "Now, 30 feet away from my head, there’s [demolition of] an eight-story building, beginning shortly after 7:15 in the morning." (His former residence is the row house near center.)

"I cannot continue to be involved in this," he said. "I cannot continue to function living in that place… I’m spending all of my time keeping a room over my head... Half of my clothing is ruined, I have water damage."

“You’ve been blighted,” I offered.

"I’m painfully aware of that," Sheets replied. "You could camp out, more comfortably... They have ruined my home, have ruined my block, have ruined my neighborhood, have ruined my life."

He allowed that his grievances might sound minor compared to people living in horrific conditions in other parts of the world, "yet, at the same time, I live in the mightiest city in the wealthiest nation on earth. Why are we living like this?"

"What did we do? We just lived there. I just wanted to be left alone. Why do I have to prove to anyone that it shouldn't be happening?"

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