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DDDB’s fourth walkathon raises $45K; slight decline from last year, but organizers buoyed

Despite significantly changed circumstances regarding the Atlantic Yards project, Walk Don't Destroy 4, the fourth annual walkathon Saturday from Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, in many ways was similar to previous versions.

(Marchers on Fifth Avenue in Park Slope; photo by Jonathan Barkey.)

While yesterday’s event was a candlelight walk rather than an afternoon one, it raised $45,000 for the legal fight against Atlantic Yards, a sum only slightly less than the $50,000 raised last year. DDDB reported 175 walkers (I counted at least 160) and just over 500 donors, while at last year’s event, DDDB reported 200 walkers and 600 donors.

“Even though we're in the midst of a very difficult economy, and a presidential campaign competing for funds, our donor base continues to grow.” said Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn spokesman Daniel Goldstein. "Fundraising for the two lawsuits is an ongoing, daily effort, and the response consistently reminds us of the support we have, which is now well over 4,000 individual donors.”

While the turnout indicates that a solid group of people (including a dozen or so local merchants) are willing to support the organization, and while the fight against Atlantic Yards may have some momentum, given delays in the project and doubts about financing, only three elected officials showed up to give support: local City Council Member Letitia James; Queens City Council Member Tony Avella, a maverick mayoral candidate; and 57th Assembly District Leader Olanike Alabi. Many of the other local elected officials who have expressed qualms about the project prefer the infrequent but politically more hospitable banner of BrooklynSpeaks, which has a "mend it don't end it" approach.

Led by a spirited marching band, the group made its way through Prospect Heights and Park Slope on the way to an after-party at the Brooklyn Lyceum. Participants gave out literature to often-receptive passers-by. Still, the group of marchers included few people of color, indicating that DDDB’s outreach efforts (not unlike other activist efforts in Brooklyn) have been only partially effective.

(Goldstein hands out literature; photo by Adrian Kinloch.)

Not triumphalist

Speaking to the group gathered outside Bob Law’s Seafood Restaurant on Vanderbilt Avenue in Prospect Heights (the owner is a DDDB board member), Goldstein observed, that “for years and years [Atlantic Yards] was a done deal, which was the mantra from Forest City Ratner in order to break your spirits... but we all knew that was never the case.”

“On the other hand, we’re hearing a lot of folks say, that project’s not going to happen, look at this fiscal crisis,” he continued, avoiding the reversal of the Atlantic Yards inevitability meme that has been embraced by some columnists. “If that were true, we wouldn’t be out here walking today.”

“The reality is that, though Ratner doesn’t have the money he needs and though he has no intention to build the affordable housing he once promised,” Goldstein said, "he continues, with the support of New York City and New York State, to attempt to build a billion-dollar arena, a frivolous billion-dollar arena in the middle of a recession, and his real goal is to gain control of 22 acres of prime real estate in central Brooklyn.”

(Goldstein at left, James is speaking; photo by Adrian Kinloch.)

"So while Bruce the speculator says that he's going to break ground in December or the spring or whenever," the only things he’ll break, Goldstein warned, “are his promises.”

Potential roadblocks

He listed the potential roadblocks. DDDB has organized and funded two major lawsuits now in state court. The eminent domain case, as I’ve written, is a longshot; it will be heard likely next spring. The challenge to the project’s environmental review, while dismissed at the trial court level, gained some traction in an appellate court hearing last month.

Goldstein also noted that the Internal Revenue Service is expected to decide in the next few months whether the Atlantic Yards arena will be eligible for tax-exempt bonds under the same ruling--which the IRS chief counsel called a “loophole”--that allowed such bonds for Yankee Stadium.

Barclays Capital, which bought naming rights to the arena under a contract which mandated that financing be in place by November, “will have to make a decision, whether they want to stick with this sinking ship,” Goldstein said. (Barclays has said it’s committed to the project, but hasn’t said whether it would negotiate.)

(Scott Turner, Gilly Youner, and Jim Vogel lead the procession; photo by Adrian Kinloch.)

Given the various issues in flux, “we need to keep the legal pressure on,” Goldstein said, “and ratchet up the political pressure. Bruce Ratner is going to continue until we have the governor or mayor step in and say ‘Enough is enough.’”

And after that, he said, “Once we stop Ratner, we want to see the railyards developed, in a responsible and financially feasible way.” Not everyone marching was on board with (or knew of) the UNITY plan to develop the railyards at a significant scale (though smaller than AY), given that one marcher told an interviewer his motive was to maintain the scale of Brooklyn.

The link with Bloomberg

Council Member James told the audience that she wrote her remarks during the marathon City Council hearings last week on Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s effort to have the Council, on its own, extend voter-imposed term limits to allow him (and them, as well as others), a third term.

“There’s an old African proverb that even an ant can stop an elephant,” she said. “If a tiny ant can create such chaos, imagine what an army of ants can do, or a nation... We did, and we’re doing it. we’re getting under the skin, the trunk of Forest City Ratner, of Bruce Ratner, and we’re driving him mad, we’re driving him crazy.”

Our government has been taken over by “wolves, billionaires, corporate interests” acting as a shadow government, she said, saying she was inspired by the scores of ordinary citizens who showed up at City Hall Thursday and Friday and waited to testify: “People are tired of these special interests, hijacking our government. That’s why you’re here today.”

“We need an open and progressive and transparent government that will respond to the needs of the community,” she said. In the five years since the project was announced, “the only thing that happened is some dirt is being moved from one side to another,” she said with some exaggeration. (While no construction has begun, preconstruction demolition and utility relocation have been changing the contours of the 22-acre project footprint.)

She noted that Forest City Ratner, which is working on another project in her district, 80 DeKalb Avenue, “refuses to take my calls, refuses to meet with me... And it’s OK, it’s sort of a backwards compliment, to all of you.”

She also criticized Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, who has received significant sums from the developer and associates. “You’ve been outed, Marty,” she said. “and shame on you Marty for taking all of that money, and for evading the law.”

Later, Avella (right; photo by Adrian Kinloch), also linked the struggle against Atlantic Yards to the fight against Bloomberg's effort to overturn term limits.

Going to NJ?

“It’s totally out of scale,” James said of Atlantic Yards. “It should not be in Prospect Heights.” Then, freelancing verbally, she continued, “Forest City Ratner, go back to New Jersey where you belong.”

The Brooklyn-based developer, actually, has no projects in New Jersey. However, the Newark Star-Ledger has reported that, in discussions about moving the Nets to the one-year-old Prudential Center in Newark, city officials have proposed potential development projects for FCR.

Will they be back?

"We fully expect to be here next year for our 5th annual Walkathon, if we haven't sent the developer packing by then," Goldstein said.

That raises some interesting questions. The main legal cases likely will be gone by October 2009. Given DDDB's strategy, which has mainly relied on funding legal challenges, what cases might be left to bring?

(Photo of Hunter College planning professor Tom Angotti and attorney George Locker, who represents footprint residents in two buildings, by Jonathan Barkey.)

And should Atlantic Yards go forward, can (and should) DDDB, an organization bent on stopping the project, evolve into an organization that monitors Ratner's development and/or other issues in the borough?