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August 20, 2006

Brooklyn referendum Big names support Yards; foes eye Sept. 12 primary

Crain's

All the most important names in New York politics support the $4.2 billion Atlantic Yards housing and sports arena project proposed by Forest City Ratner: Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Gov. George Pataki, Comptroller William Thompson, Borough President Marty Markowitz, even gubernatorial front-runner Eliot Spitzer. But opponents are working desperately to turn the Sept. 12 Democratic primary into a referendum on the development. They are hoping that strong showings for half a dozen candidates who are against it will make community opposition too obvious for government power brokers to ignore.

Their top priority is helping Bill Batson succeed Assemblyman Roger Green, a supporter who is leaving the Legislature to run for Congress. "It is the key race when it comes to Atlantic Yards," says opposition leader Daniel Goldstein. "The entire district is very politically charged and active right now because of that project." Several dozen Atlantic Yards opponents collected signatures to put Mr. Batson on the ballot. They are raising money for his campaign and will be distributing his literature throughout primary day. Without the controversy to drive his campaign, Mr. Batson would have an uphill battle against Hakeem Jeffries, who ran strong--though unsuccessful--races for the seat in 2000 and 2002 and has more campaign money and institutional support. Mr. Jeffries does not believe the issue will decide the election, but he was wary enough to advertise in local newspapers his objections to the project's size and proposed use of eminent domain. At the same time, he calls Atlantic Yards "a step in the right direction" toward more affordable housing.

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Owens sells issue in phone calls

Project opponents are also pushing hard to elect Chris Owens to replace his father, Rep. Major Owens, who is retiring. And the candidate--himself an early detractor--is adeptly feeding off their anger. His phone-bank callers begin by asking, "Did you know that Chris Owens is the only candidate in the race opposed to Atlantic Yards?" The pitch, directed first to households closest to the Prospect Heights project site, has paid dividends. "The whole thing is based on Atlantic Yards," Mr. Owens explains. "We've had people give us money on the spot." Several other races pit supporters against opponents in the Democratic primary; winning the nomination is tantamount to election in heavily Democratic Brooklyn. Former City Councilwoman Tracy Boyland, who is taking on state Sen. Velmanette Montgomery, is said to be using the same consultant who promoted Atlantic Yards for Forest City. Ms. Montgomery believes she is being challenged as punishment for opposing the project. Opponents also want to demonstrate the level of community dissatisfaction with Atlantic Yards by boosting the vote totals of gubernatorial longshot Tom Suozzi, state Senate candidate Ken Diamondstone and congressional hopeful Charles Barron. With Mr. Spitzer supporting Atlantic Yards, opponents recruited Mr. Suozzi to their cause and helped him win the endorsement of a Brooklyn Democratic club. But with the candidate 60 points behind in the polls, the effect has been negligible.

Looking to Speaker Silver

Mr. Diamondstone, going up against state Sen. Martin Connor, has received contributions and other support from dozens of project opponents. Mr. Barron, who along with Mr. Green is challenging Rep. Edolphus Towns in a district bordering the site, appears regularly at anti-Yards rallies. "In my race, I'm the only one against Atlantic Yards," Mr. Barron says. The election results could be crucial to the project, which calls for a basketball arena and 16 towers, 11 of them at least 300 feet high. Supporters tout its affordable housing and its proximity to mass transit. They say it would create jobs and give Brooklyn its first major sports team, the New Jersey Nets, since 1957. Critics contend that it would snarl traffic, displace homeowners and businesses, and overwhelm brownstone neighborhoods. Opponents believe the election results could compel Albany power brokers to alter or reject the plans for Atlantic Yards, which needs to win unanimous approval from the Public Authorities Control Board this winter. The board is controlled by the openly enthusiastic governor and tacit supporters Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno. Opponents believe Mr. Silver could become an ally if the primary goes their way.

Posted by amy at August 20, 2006 8:23 PM