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"Fun day"? At FCR’s “Brooklyn Day” rally, déjà vu and defensiveness

If you listened to the arguments for Atlantic Yards offered at the Forest City Ratner-sponsored “Brooklyn Day” rally yesterday at Borough Hall, they sounded suspiciously like those aired at rallies in 2004, or the public meetings in 2006. Jobs, housing, and hoops. The half-century-old loss of the Dodgers. The failure of “opponents” to step up.

The difference in 2008, with the project at this moment stalled, was a palpable air of defensiveness, calls for “our share” and “a piece of the pie,” even as developer Forest City Ratner, behind the scenes, seeks more subsidies.

(Photo: Tracy Collins. His set and set by Adrian Kinloch. Other photos by Jonathan Barkey and Norman Oder.)

Video from Carpenters Union.

The edge in Borough President Marty Markowitz’s voice was undeniable, as he and others flailed the opposition for delaying the project, but offering no more insight other than “build it now.” They mentioned nothing about the credit crisis, the limited pool of tax-exempt bonds, the state’s extended deadline for construction, and the developer’s subsidy request.

Though speakers like ACORN New York head Bertha Lewis and Carpenters Union Local 926 President Sal Zarzana (right) at times were able to whip up the crowd, Brooklyn was just not very much in the house.

(Photo: AK)

Despite decent weather, free t-shirts, a full-page ad in the Daily News, an E-newsletter, requests from union bosses to attend, and promises of free food, free transportation, and “international recording artist Maxi Priest,” the disparate and soon-diminished crowd was often subdued, even bored, and a passel of Forest City Ratner operatives monitoring the event looked somber, despite the billing as a “fun day.”

3500 attendees?

At the event’s peak, with union members streaming in from Downtown Brooklyn job sites, seniors and kids (who had a day off from school) bused in from throughout Brooklyn, and downtown office workers and Greenmarket visitors mingling during their lunch hour, there were probably more than 2000 people present. (Note that a similar event in 2004 drew 1500, according to the developer, though it's hard to tell from the photo if it was more crowded.)

(Photo: TC)

WNYC and the New York Post suggested 3500 people were at the rally--that Forest City Ratner overestimate may apply to the number of people on the plaza, as I don’t disbelieve that 5000 sandwiches and 3000 t-shirts disappeared. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle estimated there were more than 1000 attendees (and noted that some seniors were just there for a day out), while the New York Observer counted “hundreds” and the New York Daily News cautiously stuck with “scores” (updated and then said 3000). The Daily News, which has cheered for the project on its editorial page, bluntly stated in the lead that the rally was "paid for by the developer" and headlined the article Ratner cooks up rally for Brooklyn project. The New York Times, not surprisingly, ignored the event. The New York Sun wrote a tough preview piece.

(Photo: TC)

Many attendees, however, didn’t stay for the speeches, and as the hour-long program of speakers proceeded, the crowd diminished, with fewer than 500 listening until 1:20 p.m., when the speeches ended and the music began. (The event was billed as from 11 am to 3 pm.) By comparison, at the counter-protest May 3, where AY supporters at least had visible antagonists in those calling for a “Time Out” rally, the energy was much greater. In this case, only a few project opponents were spotted in the audience, though Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn spokesman Daniel Goldstein, in press coverage, called attention to the self-serving, even “desperate” nature of the rally. The Brooklyn Paper ran a scathing editorial questioning Forest City Ratner's correlation between "Brooklyn's renaissance" and the development of Atlantic Yards.

(Photo: NO)

FCR's bad luck

It probably didn’t make a difference for the turnout, but Forest City Ratner suffered some bad luck. The marquee speaker, the Rev. Al Sharpton, never arrived, stuck in transit in the Midwest. (His organization received support from the developer; has that continued?) Reggae star Maxi Priest, the main entertainment draw, was ill, leaving his band to perform without him. (Maybe the bad luck was some karmic equalization for sweltering and rainy weather at previous opposition rallies.)

While Nets retirees like Darryl “Chocolate Thunder” Dawkins and Albert King were a draw for the kids (see King and Dawkins offer autographs at right and below), the only current Net to attend was rookie Sean Williams.

(Photo: JB)

At previous event like the August 2006 public hearing and the January 2007 Barclays Center event, stars Vince Carter and the now-traded Jason Kidd had appeared; were Forest City Ratner more desperate, perhaps big guns like Richard Jefferson and Carter would have been dispatched to Brooklyn.

FCR in the wings

(Photo: NO)

Though arguably the rally was aimed at subtly influencing pending legal cases and making the case for additional governmental subsidies, no Forest City Ratner employees spoke. The MC work was left to Delia Hunley-Adossa, chair of the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) executive committee and head of the CBA signatory Brooklyn Endeavor Experience. (Its Potemkin responsibility to monitor the environmental impact of project construction leaves Hunley-Adossa more time to do things like organize buses for the rally.)

But FCR was certainly behind the scenes. At right, see Hunley-Adossa, in pantsuit, conferring with FCR’s Brigitte LaBonte, Bruce Bender, and Scott Cantone. (Also in the crowd, apparently, was Chuck Ratner of Cleveland-based Forest City Enterprises.)

(Photo: AK)

A "great show"

“We got a great show for you,” Hunley-Adossa said at the outset of the event, as if convincing herself. “All right, Brooklyn, we hope you have a good day today.”

The show, as it were, wasn’t much. The Nets drumline, often paid to appear at FCR-sponsored events did their usual high-quality work. Teen singers ably led the crowd in “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the “Black National Anthem.” But those who had come to see Maxi Priest had to endure an hour of speeches, variations on a theme. As Tracy Collins’s picture (fourth from top) shows, a lot of people were bored.

The embattled BP

Borough President Marty Markowitz, the project’s leading political booster, sounded angry and embattled. “Let the word go out,” he insisted, “the overwhelming number of Brooklynites support Atlantic Yards.” That statement got relatively little applause, though other pro-project statements he made generated more applause. “Enough years have already occurred. It’s time to make this happen.”

(Photo: TC)

Even if the project moves ahead, the arena would not open until 2010, according to the developer, or 2011, which is my estimate of a likely best-case scenario. In either case, Markowitz’s two four-year terms would be up. Surely when he first embraced the project in 2002, a year before it was announced, he must have believed he could cut a ribbon at the arena opening before his second term.

With Atlantic Yards, New York City, Markowitz told the audience, would have two centers, Midtown Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn, somehow ignoring the growth in Lower Manhattan and the fact that Downtown Brooklyn, without Atlantic Yards, nevertheless is changing immeasurably.

His salute to union jobs drew big cheers, but his call for “thousands of affordable housing units” generated less applause than his statement that the Nets’ move would “welcome Brooklyn back in the major leagues.” Perhaps housing advocacy group ACORN, though represented by Lewis, was lightly represented because “Brooklyn Day,” for most, was in fact a work day.

(Photo: AK)

“Brooklyn has been experiencing a renaissance,” Markowitz said, pronouncing one of the magic words on the “Brooklyn Day” rally poster. “As the economy slows, projects like Atlantic Yards are more important than ever.” Arguably, in a faster economy, project supporters could call AY more important than ever, given that they believe it will fight gentrification.

(In photo by TC at right, FCR general counsel David Berliner, at left, looks on.)

Markowitz said he imagined seeing the Grammy Awards at the new arena, a band like U2 or “Brooklyn’s own Jay-Z” in the building designed by Frank Gehry. (There were no cheers at the mention of Gehry’s name; he was likely not on the audience’s radar.)

“This is Brooklyn’s future,” he declared in closing. “Nobody’s going to hold it back—nobody. We deserve it.”

ACORN’s Lewis

Next up was Bertha Lewis of ACORN. “You sure look good,” she said, buttering up the crowd. (Lewis, who has a background in theater, is a powerful speaker.) “Some people think that you can’t fight City Hall,” she said. “But ask the people in Starrett City, because those people will have 5000 units of affordable housing.”

(Photo: AK)

Lewis was referring to the recently-announced deal that will preserve that Brooklyn complex in the face of fears rent protections would be removed by a new owner. The irony in the case of AY is that “City Hall,” in the form of the political establishment, backs Atlantic Yards.

Lewis’s invocation of affordable housing initially drew little applause, but Lewis was just ramping up. “No other developer,” she said in a familiar refrain, is doing what Ratner has promised. (That’s true, but the plan for affordable housing is based in part on a zoning override that trades off "extreme density" for Ratner, and it’s hardly clear that the promises will come to fruition, since there’s no deadline for Phase 2 of the project.)

“Rent is too damn high,” she said, channeling a one-issue political party.

“But it won’t be at Atlantic Yards,” she continued. “No, baby.”
(Well, that’s debatable. Many of the people attending an affordable housing information session sponsored by Forest City Ratner and ACORN in July 2006 thought the rent would, in fact, be too high.)

“We want it,” she said, beginning a call-and-response. “When do we want it?”
“Now,” responded the crowd.
“We need it—when do we need it?
“We deserve it—when do we deserve it?”

(Photo: TC)

Lewis then took up a now familiar trope. “We were here when nobody wanted to come here,” she said. “We’re still here.” Actually, many people critical of the project came to neighborhoods like Prospect Heights and Park Slope before Brooklyn’s renaissance and before Forest City Ratner began its downtown project MetroTech in the 1980s.

Sliwa looks back

With Sharpton sidelined, Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa, a Canarsie native, was the main marquee name. He had not previously been associated with project proponents and, after a look at the distinctly mixed crowd, declared, “It took a project like Atlantic Yards to bring so many of us together.”

(Photo: AK)

Then he offered a historical argument that seemed very 2004. Sliwa recalled the deplorable state of the area around Atlantic Terminal in the 1950s. The Fort Greene Meat Market (long cleared for the Atlantic Terminal Urban Renewal Area, or ATURA), he said, was part of a Brooklyn in disarray: prostitutes, drug dealers, and low-lifes.

He blamed master builder/power broker Robert Moses for rejecting Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley’s plan for a new Ebbets Field. (Actually, O’Malley’s plan was not popular among the political establishment, according to Henry Fetter’s definitive study.)

“We see the devastation that happens when you pass up capital improvements,” declared Sliwa, papering over decades of urban redevelopment and sounding like, well, the talk-show host he is.

Targeting the opposition

Two union leaders--beefy guys hardly afraid of confrontation--bluntly looked to assign blame. Gary La Barbera, president of the New York Central Labor Council (right), suggested, “When labor and community comes together, there’s nothing we can’t do,” adding, “Together, we can defeat any of our opposition.”

(Photo: AK)

“We need to convince all the opposition to step aside and make this project happen,” he continued, “so we can all pursue the American dream.”

Union workers, watching other job sites in Brooklyn and New York operated by non-union labor, have a legitimate sense of grievance; Forest City Ratner’s pledge to use unions--though not necessarily in its pre-construction demolition phase--has earned it continuing support.

That’s led Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn and project opponents to make the point that a smaller project, approved through a more transparent process, could have been built without generating so much protest, generating a significant number of jobs.

(At right, in photo by TC, Forest City Ratner employee Tom Tuffey surveys the crowd.)

Taking aim at elected officials

Carpenters union head Zarzana offered a familiar trope, accusing the opposition of not saving Brooklyn. “Where were you 40 years ago, when Downtown Brooklyn looked like a war zone?” he asked. “But we were here.” He praised Ratner’s MetroTech: “Look what he gave you.”

Zarzana was the only speaker to target elected officials who are opponents or critics of the project. “There’s a bunch of politicians we need to straighten out, like [City Council Member] Tish James,” he said.

(Photo: JB)

Red-faced with emotion, he criticized James, Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, and City Council Members David Yassky and Bill de Blasio for having sought support from the union but blocking a project the union supports.

“David Yassky--he wants to stop us from having jobs,” Zarzana said bluntly. (Most in the audience probably didn’t hear Zarzana’s criticism of Jeffries, since the public address system was balky.)

Camara’s call

Assemblyman Karim Camara, who represents Crown Heights, was the one local official (other than those with borough-wide office) who represents an area reasonably close to the project footprint. He opened up by asking the crowd a question that sounded very 2004: “Are you ready to bring basketball to Brooklyn?”

(Photo: AK)

Camara, a clergyman himself, said he was representing “my good friend Al Sharpton,” who was stuck in Detroit but wanted to convey that he was “100% behind this project.”

After citing affordable housing and jobs, Camara added, a bit oddly, “We need this because we need good basketball in Brooklyn.” Of course, he meant pro basketball, but the youthful hoopsters from Brooklyn USA basketball, organized by the colorful Thomas (Ziggy) Sicignano, in suit, below--so that’s what he does for Ratner, brings kids to rallies?--surely would’ve said that they play pretty darn well.

(Photo: JB)

“We know we have people who stand in opposition,” he said, again acknowledging unseen forces. “But we know, as Bertha Lewis said, ‘The people united will never be defeated.’” The applause was not particularly loud.

(Photo: JB)

More elected officials

Deputy Borough President Yvonne Graham, not a previous presence (to my knowledge) at such rallies, emerged to engage the crowd. “Is Brooklyn in the house?” she asked, in her Jamaican accent. “We deserve our share of the American dream.”

(Photo: TC)

Assemblyman Darryl Towns (his father, Rep. Edolphus Towns, also supports the project) also spoke, along with City Council Members Darlene Mealy, Lew Fidler, and an energetic Dominic Recchia (right), all of whom represent districts comfortably distant from the project footprint.

State Senator Carl Kruger (right), a recipient of campaign contributions from Bruce Ratner’s brother Michael and his wife Karen Ranucci, saluted Forest City Ratner for building MetroTech. “Today we’re entitled to our piece of the pie,” he said.

(Photo: TC)

“Our share” and “piece of the pie” sound like all-American applause lines; they just obscure the complex machinations behind a complicated project. (Remember, Kruger's posse last November questioned Mayor Mike Bloomberg's Coney Island plan wearing hats that read, "The Bloomberg Plan: How much $? How long? Who pays?")

CBA signatories

Community Benefits Agreement signatories got some of the last words. James Caldwell (right) of BUILD (Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development) told the crowd they didn’t know about Bruce Ratner’s “compassionate side.” Ratner has helped community members go to Nets games and other events, he said.

(Photo: AK)

And Ratner allowed Kassoum Fofana, whose family was left homeless by a fire, to live in a rent-free apartment in a building Ratner owns in the AY footprint, and will let them relocate into the project. “To this day, Mr. Fofana has not met Mr. Ratner,” Caldwell said with admiration. A smiling Fofana appeared near the podium and waved to the crowd, earning warm applause. Bruce Ratner did not.

As the rally wound down, Hunley-Adossa announced the presence of several other CBA signatories, though some, such as the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, were missing. Markowitz and other elected officials were long gone.

Before turning the festivities over to the band, Hunley-Adossa praised the crowd: “We’ve got to take time out and do things like this, because it can’t be all work and no play.” The afternoon, however, was just not that playful.

Last word

In the Daily News, the developer got the last word:

Ratner spokesman Loren Riegelhaupt insisted the project is on track and that preparation work - including demolition - is well under way.

"Work is continuing every day," he said.

Riegelhaupt (at left in photo by AK with FCR's Bender and Cantone) could have said exactly that without the rally, because it aimed to advance not site preparation work, long in process, but the project itself.


  1. How inappropriate for government officials to allow a single private developer to use the Brooklyn Day celebration for his own political and economic benefit. Once again, we see how the government in New York is facilitating and aiding developers by use of public funds, energy, and now, public celebrations, to enhance a single developer's benefit.

    Using the celebration to bring attention to all developers in Brooklyn, both large and small, would have held a valid public purpose. But to use the Brooklyn Day celebration to promote a single, private developer, is outrageous, and probably breaks several ethical canons of governmental independence. The citizens of New York City should be concerned that their government is using the public trust bestowed by them to facilitate a private developer, who seems to be incapable of even starting his development without the public picking up the tab.

    To be clear, the Atlantic Yard development is a public funded, windfall profit giveaway to one developer. Period. The United States Constitution, as interpreted by the Supreme Court in Kelo v. New London (2005) has stated the following:

    “A purely private taking could not withstand the scrutiny of the public use requirement; it would serve no legitimate purpose of government and would thus be void” … "Nor would the City be allowed to take property under the mere pretext of a public purpose, when its actual purpose was to bestow a private benefit."

    This development is a purely private taking, as a pretext of a public purpose, to bestow a private benefit on one developer. I pray to the Supreme Court, bring this developer, and these public officials, before your honorable chamber to answer why the Atlantic Yard development, the public process, the continued use of government resources, and even the Brooklyn Day Celebrations, is now only for the wealthy few and politically connected.


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