Commerce and Community

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By Errol T. Louis
As reported on the front page of last month’s Our Time Press, a group of neighborhood residents and several local politicians   dug its heels in to oppose plans to build a sports arena, office towers, and 4,400 units of housing along Atlantic Avenue between Flatbush and Vanderbilt Avenues. Much of this opposition is misguided and shortsighted; some of it is downright dishonest. Here’s my view of the project.
I’ve always been skeptical about the true motives of the earliest and noisiest opponents of the project because, as I reported here last October, it’s clear that many of them actually want nothing done with the site at all. Leaders of at least two groups, the Prospect Heights Action Coalition and the New Black Leadership Political Club, were circulating petitions and printing stickers saying “no stadium” way back in September – two months before any plan was completed or announced.
The same fast-and-loose approach to the facts has continued. Many opponents of the project continue to claim that “thousands” of people will lose their homes, although the people who keep repeating this know that it’s not true. ÿAs Newsday reported last month, the number of people that would be affected is unclear. Estimates range from the developer’s lowball guesstimate of 100, through the Census Bureau’s count of 350, up to the Prospect Heights Action Coalition’s count of 864.
ÿWe should put an asterisk next to that number, 864, which is not “thousands” by any stretch of the imagination. The Prospect Heights Action Coalition, which has been chasing and receiving most of the anti-arena press, is the same group that was protesting in 2002 against plans by the city to place a shelter for the homeless on Dean Street between Vanderbilt and Carlton Avenues. The group went so far as to file a federal lawsuit to try and block the facility.
Now they’re now counting the residents of those same shelters to reach their grand total of 864 people who must be protected from being displaced by the proposed arena. As far as I can tell, they’re using the homeless as silent props. My guess is that some of the homeless families would be in favor of seeing the housing portion of the project built, particularly if they were promised a shot at the hundreds of units that would be designated for low-income residents.
I was recently stopped on the street by a young man, Eddy Petit Jr., a/k/a E-Props, who was upset about the way the discussion over the arena proposal is going. The note he later sent me is too long to quote in full, but it shows that opinions over the project are split.
“My family, the Privats, have been at their home, which they own outright, and is located on Ratner’s proposed site, for 40 years,”  Bro. Petit wrote. “I have never heard of or seen the Prospect Heights Action Coalition until this situation. This brings to question their actual motives.  How can they really claim to represent the community when they themselves just became part of the community?  Are they genuinely concerned about the long time residents of Prospect Heights or is their wish for Prospect Heights to become their own gentrified vision an extension of Park Slope? Keep in mind that they not only oppose the stadium,   that they also wanted to shut down a homeless shelter on Dean Street, also on Ratner’s proposed location.  Does the Prospect Heights Coalition plan include relocating these residents and finding them jobs?  Does Ratner’s?”
Bro. Petit is asking important questions. There are indeed people who, like his family, own property that’s at risk of being taken and demolished through the process of eminent domain, which is basically a forced-purchase arrangement. Those people have every right to fight for their homes, and to argue for design changes that might save them.
But it’s hard for them to negotiate in a situation where there are people – whose property isn’t at risk – claiming to represent all of us and letting it be known, by word and by deed, that there’s no possible outcome that would meet with their approval. That’s a fast track to irrelevance. At some point, the rest of us have to enter the conversation and ask a few questions of our own.
Here are a few. Would it be better to get a seat at the table to discuss the jobs, contracts and housing related to this 10-year, multibillion-dollar project -ÿor should our leaders just stand on the sidelines until all the decisions are made?
Are engineering or architectural solutions available? I’ve seen one drawing that would move the proposed arena one block north, which would eliminate the need to take anybody’s home. It’s also worth asking engineers whether the homes on the arena footprint could be jacked up, moved east, and set back down.
Given that nearly half of the 21-acre site has been unused since the 1950s, is it responsible to wait another half-century and hope for something positive to happen? We’ve heard a lot from the middle-class opponents of the project, now shouldn’t we include the many poor, unemployed, and homeless members of our community in the deliberations over what should be done?

The project calls for 4,400 units of new housing, which would include 880 units designated for low- income people and 2,200 for moderate-income people. If all else fails, shouldn’t somebody be fighting to make sure that people being moved from their current homes get first dibs on the proposed new housing?
I hope people will raise these and similar questions at the next meeting of the Fort Greene Association on the evening of Feb. 23 at the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church. The group is scheduled to take up the arena question.