Monday, June 11, 2012

At clergy-led rally for arena justice, some new voices, some ironies, and a request for new oversight; "we're not just going to get caught up in the [Nets/Jay-Z] hype"

Council Member Letitia James, with Rev. Clinton Miller behind her in
brown jacket, Rev. Clive Neal (with sign), and state Senator Velmanette
Montgomery. Photo and set by Adrian Kinloch.
In the annals of Atlantic Yards rallies, yesterday's rally catercorner to the nearly-finished Barclays Center arena, was on the not-huge side, perhaps 130-150 people, but with new energy sparked by the several clergypeople, as well as four elected officials, two of them longtime project opponents representing the Atlantic Yards site.

And part of the message--bring the promised jobs and affordable housing now--came not without irony, as it echoed the message from Atlantic Yards proponents, issued when the project faced legal or jurisdictional roadblocks.

Then again, those proponents seem muzzled, by contract, dependence, or prudence, unable to even publicly demand the Independent Compliance Monitor required by the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) they signed, leaving Forest City Ratner, as one speaker yesterday put it, the fox guarding the henhouse.

Photo and set by Adrian Kinloch.
And the Coalition for Arena Justice, organized by Rev. Clinton Miller of Brown Memorial Baptist Church, wants something more structural: stronger oversight for the project, with a role for representatives of local elected officials and local stakeholders. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has not indicated such a willingness, but, as noted in the flier at bottom, there are significant contrasts between promises and results, the latter permitted by gently-written state contracts.

If the deep pockets behind the project, including Forest City Ratner, Barclays Capital, and Mikhail Prokhorov's Onexim, don't treat the community the way it deserves, Miller proposed, "We shouldn't go to the games, we shouldn't support the events, until they get together and do the right thing" (Given that the arena is now a regional attraction, only a major boycott could do damage other than reputational.)

(Also see coverage on Patch, which estimated 80 people. I think that's low, as the crowd--albeit with press and others--pretty much doubled during the day. Forest City thought the protest was ironic because it blamed the protestors for delaying the project. Actually, most had not played such a role, while the developer has managed the schedule to its own advantage. Also see video from AYInfoNYC.)

Criticism after neutrality

"We the people of Brooklyn have been sold a bad bill of goods," Miller said, contrasting Forest City Ratner's promises of jobs with the current results.

Photo and set by Adrian Kinloch.
Several protest signs came with biblical references and a few people, as at right, approached drivers on Atlantic Avenue, sometimes drawing honks in support.

"Many of our churches have stood by to find out what the outcome would be," Miller said at one point, referencing how the tantalizing promises of Atlantic Yards--15,000 construction jobs and 10,000 permanent jobs, at the start, plus 2,250 units of subsidized housing--neutralized potential opposition, as well as drew support. Many of those protesting were new to the battle.

Indeed, Council Member Letitia James, the project's leading political opponent, was diplomatic enough to hail the clergy leaders rather than call out some for their reticence when the stakes were higher, such as before the project was approved.

She did challenge those who thought Atlantic Yards was a "panacea," asking, "Where are you now?" Some, she said, have apologized for protesting her. But James said says she still represents such people--"because I stand with ministers who tell me it's about forgiving." In the end, she said, "we've got to work together to ensure that this project inures to the benefit of all of us." She said she has a responsibility to ensure that the project does not remain a construction site for 25 years.

At the start


The video below (all videos by Jonathan Barkey) shows the setting near the start of the rally; the crowd grew later later.



Perhaps half of those present, gathering outside the Atlantic Terrace building at South Portland and Atlantic avenues, were from Miller's Clinton Hill church, arriving by bus after services. The rest came from other churches in the 20-plus-member coalition (representing 5,000-plus congregants), mainly in central Brooklyn, plus a smattering of longtime activists associated with the Prospect Heights Action Coalition, Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, and BrooklynSpeaks. Among the latter was Michelle de la Uz, executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee, which built Atlantic Terrace, and is a member of the City Planning Commission.

Noticing the arena

The protestors could not ignore the fact of the arena, which set up a contrast with the promises around the project. The Rev. John Merz of the Church of the Ascension in Greenpoint, a native Brooklynite and self-described lifelong basketball fan, said he'd become a Nets fan after feeling put off by the Knicks. Still, he said, "I gave up my season ticket, because no matter how plush the seat is, it's going to be uncomfortable."



"The housing and jobs have not materialized, and the person reporting on whether this is fair and just and right is Forest City Ratner?" he said. "If you put me on the farm tomorrow, even I know the fox is not the one to guard... the henhouse. The fox has his own interests. The fox is constitutionally incapable of understanding the needs of the whole farm."

"We need to remember that eminent domain was used to acquire much of this land," he said at one point, a statement later corrected by a speaker who stressed the threat of eminent domain. Merz suggested a connection between development at the Atlantic Yards site with development in Greenpoint and elsewhere: "we've got to stop these profit plantations."

The Rev. Conrad Tillard of Nazarene Congregational UCC in Bedford-Stuyvesant, observed, "The Nets will reap untold millions... from this community. All we're saying is they should give something back to this community that they will be fleecing--I mean, enjoying support from--for many, many years to come."
Photo and set by Adrian Kinloch.
"I know that many people are excited by the Brooklyn Nets coming... excited by Jay-Z's involvement," Tillard said. "[But] we're not just going to get caught up in the hype.... Because there are issues at stake that have to deal with justice."

"We continue to invest so much in the private sector, while turning a blind eye to the needs of the poor,"Tillard said later when I queried him. "Everyone here accepted that it could've been a good thing," he added, a statement that didn't quite acknowledge the presence of James and longtime anti-project activists like Patti Hagan and Candace Carponter.

Council Member James appears in the video below, warning about a traffic disaster and saying "one has to question our priorities as a country and a nation," given support for the arena amid cuts in social services.



James and her political mentor, state Senator Velmanette Montgomery, had perhaps the harshest words for the building across the street with the pre-weathered skin. "This is really very ugly," James said. "You should built an arena that at least complements the brownstone area." (To be fair, the site's a bit transitional, though it butts into a row-house district on the southeast flank.)

Both James and Montgomery commented that the city was supporting the arena while cutting key social services. The arena, suggested Montgomery, was a "monument to the 47,000 children who will lose their after-school programs" in the proposed mayoral budget. "That to me is the tragedy represented by this horrible building."

"This arena is not for our children," Montgomery added, saying it would not be affordable. "It's not for our youth."

Montgomery speaks, as does Miller



Elected officials

The clergy coalition has not picked up huge political momentum, given the turnout.

While Assemblyman and Congressional Candidate Hakeem Jeffries, an ally of Miller, cautious stand-taker on Atlantic Yards, but cited as a leader of efforts to reform Atlantic Yards oversight, was unable to attend, he did send a staffer. Neither state Senator Eric Adams nor Assemblyman Karim Camara, who joined Jeffries at a press conference in January criticizing the project, were present.

Assemblywoman Inez Barron criticized Forest City Ratner for promising jobs at MetroTech to those in the nearby Fort Greene housing projects (though she also misdescribed the office complex as "largely unoccupied").

She suggested it would be worth trying to claw back some of the subsidies. (See video with James, above, for the Barrons.)

"Who was Ratner to tell us to prioritize basketball?" charged Council Member Charles Barron, a longtime project opponent, and Jeffries' rival in the race to succeed Ed Towns. "Eminent domain is supposed to be for public use, not for a rich developer to maximize profits.

Photo and set by Adrian Kinloch.
"This project should have never been built," Barron asserted. "Maybe we can say we're going to have a better relationship with developers [going forward]."

Also present were community leaders such as Ed Brown of the Ingersoll Houses, JoAnne Simon, 52nd District Democratic Leader, Olanike Alabi, 57th District Democratic Leader.

"I applaud Patti Hagan," James said at one point, saluting the Prospect Heights activist who first launched the battle against Atlantic Yards. She and her sister "were the ones who said this project was wrong." She congratulated Gib Veconi of the Prospect

Like Rev. Miller, James criticized the MTA for selling rights to the Vanderbilt Yard well below its appraised value. "That's why the MTA is broke," she suggested. Actually, the MTA budget is a bit more complex, but the fact remains that the MTA board, controlled by the governor and the mayor, did their patrons' bidding.

The jobs for now

James's own remarks on jobs showed the complexity of Atlantic Yards activism. Now that the arena is here, she said, it's important that jobs go to people in the community, particularly where there's structural employment, such as in housing projects.

Indeed, Forest City Ratner has pledged outreach to housing projects and priority for such residents. But there's a mismatch. The jobs should be those "that sustain families, not sell hot dogs," said James. Montgomery called them "a disgrace," saying "it does not represent progress."

Then again, only part-time jobs of the latter type--such as selling tickets and ushering--are what's available, and those jobs, however not sustaining, may be welcomed by those who can't find other work.

Meanwhile, arena proponents were out spreading the word today, at other churches. As Forest City Ratner's Ashley Cotton tweeted,  "Thanks to Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church and Bethel Baptist Church for hosting@barclayscenter today to help spread the word about local hiring."

Housing

The Rev. Michael Sniffen, of St. Matthew & St. Luke's Church, discussed the promises of 2,250 subsidized units and the delayed schedule.

"Now we're told that, maybe, by 2022, 300 units will be built, in this enormous footprint," he said. "Is that acceptable to us? It's disgusting." Actually, state contracts say that number of 300--30% of a total on the arena block--is a minimum over ten years, and Forest City Ratner says it aims to work much faster.



"Do we need affordable housing?" he asked, drawing assent from the crowd. "When do we need it?" he asked. "Now, came the response."

One lingering question: will Forest City Ratner use such widespread sentiments to leverage additional subsidies to get the housing going.

More coming

Rev. Clinton Miller.
 Photo and set by Adrian Kinloch.
The rally, organizers stressed, was just a start. On June 19, at Brown Memorial, activists will meet to plan a demonstration for the arena's opening day.

"If the state was smart, they would give the land to a developer who has enough resources to develop it, and a developer who's sensitive to the needs of the community," Miller said at one point.

However, unless current contracts, which give Forest City Ratner 25 years to build the project without penalty (other than for a few buildings), are amended, that won't happen.

The flier

The flier below contrasts promises with what's been delivered, and what Forest City Ratner is promising.

Note that the developer would say that far more housing could be built by 2022 (though it's not required), and that the New York City Independent Budget Office's projections regarding the arena are even more sobering, though it calculates a lower city subsidy).

(Also note that while Forest City calls the location Downtown Brooklyn, it's more precisely Prospect Heights, near Downtown Brooklyn.)

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