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October 3, 2007

Brooklyn Matters

Local Filmmaker Captures the Battle for Atlantic Yards

Linewaiters' Gazette
Official Newspaper of the Park Slope Food Coop
By Frank Haberle


For those who want to better understand the Atlantic Yards project — the huge sports, residential and retail complex envisioned by developer Bruce Ratner and architect Frank Gehry — a remarkable resource is now available. Brooklyn Matters, a 50-minute documentary, examines how Atlantic Yards will affect employment, housing, the environment, traffic congestion and the future of Brooklyn. The film sheds light on the battle over eminent domain, the leverage and draw of the Brooklyn Nets, and the aggressive public marketing plan that’s designed to win the hearts and minds of Brooklyn residents. Brooklyn Matters encompasses the many sides of the debate — presenting the views of local residents who support the project as well as many who are deeply opposed to it, and the growing division between them.


Filmmaker and Park Slope resident Isabel Hill takes on the debate from all sides. Isabel, a city planner and historian, has over 30 years’ experience as an urban planner and advocate. She founded Building History Productions as an independent production company that specializes on urban issues. Brooklyn Matters is her second film – — her award-winning first film, Made in Brooklyn, aired on public television. Isabel reports that she spent two years researching the Atlantic Yards debate before she started filming. “In talking with fellow New Yorkers,” Isabel states, “it was so clear that there were many, many misconceptions about this proposed project. People really didn’t understand the project itself and other just felt that it was a done deal, and because powerful developers were pushing their vision ahead, there was no hope in changing or stopping this project. Making a documentary is a great way to educate people — there is just no substitute for actually seeing what something will look like or hearing from experts who have researched in depth the impacts of such a project.”

In Brooklyn Matters, Isabel brings forth the voices of dozens of people directly involved in or carefully observing the project. We hear from City Councilmembers Letitia James and Charles Barron, advocates Michelle de la Uz [Executive Director of the Fifth Avenue Committee], Bertha Lewis of ACORN, Daniel Goldstein (local resident and founder of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn) and Bob Law (National Leadership Alliance); clergy leaders the Reverend Dennis Dillon and the Reverend Herb Daughtry; Professors Ron Shiffman (Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment at Pratt Institute and the former Commissioner of the NYC Planning Committee) and Tom Angotti (Hunter College’s Department of Urban Affairs and Planning), as well as journalists, lawyers and dozens of everyday community members who offer perspective on the deep-rooted, conflicting emotions that have risen since the Atlantic Yards project appeared.

Brooklyn Matters outlines the Atlantic Yards project’s evolution, starting with the announcement to bring the New Jersey Nets to Brooklyn, followed by plans to build a new sports arena. Building from the excitement of this opportunity, the Atlantic Yards housing, office and retail complex was soon unveiled around it. A marketing message — the promise of “Jobs, Housing and Hoops” — was sent out to sell the plan to low-income community residents. Soon after, flyers were mailed out to homeowners in more affluent surrounding neighborhoods showing idyllic couples reposing on park lawns, speaking of acres of public green space and environmentally friendly architecture. The flyers were stamped with a Community Benefits Agreement, suggesting that the plan was going forward with the input and endorsement of the community. Then, with the blessing of city and state government backing and the promise of hundreds of millions of tax dollars, Forest City Ratner has moved forward with eminent domain, bought out hundreds of local residents and begun tearing down vacant buildings in a community now classified as “blighted.”

“One of the most disturbing aspects of the Atlantic Yards project,” Isabel states, “is that taxpayer dollars ($200,000,000 in city money and $100,000,000 in state money) are being used to acquire and demolish historic structures that were just recently renovated for housing. This neighborhood was in fact developing on its own and would have continued to redevelop if Ratner had not stepped in, bought out property owners, left buildings vacant and demolished them.”

Tom Angotti, Hunter College professor and longtime Park Slope Food Coop member, is particularly troubled by how Forest City Ratner effectively exploited tensions about race and class to divide potential opposition, paving the way for his development. As Tom describes it, “The film Brooklyn Matters shows how a multibillion-dollar scheme to make a rich real estate company even richer is cloaked in false promises of jobs and affordable housing. I feel that Isabel’s film deals directly with the sensitive issues of race and class that people do not want to talk about.”

The film makes it clear that, if left unchecked, the Atlantic Yards project will have an irreversible impact on the surrounding community. The current plan calls for 17 high-rise buildings that will literally cast shadows over entire blocks of Brooklyn. The complex will feature a 20,000-seat sports arena, 247,000 square feet of retail space, 6,430 new units of housing and 330,000 square feet of office space. It will be 30% larger than the World Trade Center site in terms of acreage, and its towers will rise 15 to 20 stories higher than the World Trade Center site in terms of acreage, and its towers will rise 15 to 20 stories higher than the massive complex developed by Trump on the West Side of Manhattan. A 60-foot-tall “Urban Room” facing Atlantic Avenue will glow with illuminated advertising. As many of the speakers point out, there is no guarantee that Ratner’s development will include the promised 2,220 units of affordable housing and/or that any jobs will go to local community members.

The film demonstrates the potential impact of Atlantic Yards on all Brooklyn communities, not just Prospect Heights and Fort Greene. As Tom points out, “this is by far the biggest development project in Brooklyn. This is the intersection of six big neighborhoods. it is located at the intersection of three major arteries, numerous subway lines, the Long Island Railroad. This is the biggest traffic hub in Brooklyn.” Conservative estimates put the increase in transit at 83,000 new subway rides daily and 20,000 more cares daily. As Councilwoman James points out, “How are emergency vehicles going to get around this crush of traffic?” Conspicuously missing from any plan is how the surrounding neighborhoods are going to absorb 20,000 new residents — there are no plans for new schools, new transit, new hospitals or new emergency services.

To those who are concerned about the Atlantic Yards project and want to get involved, it is not too late. Tom points to two groups that are still fighting the development, which is now being fought legally. He is part of a team of urban planners who have created the alternative Unity Plan for Vanderbilt Yards, which will be presented September 24 at 636 Dean Street. It calls for a scaled-down development that is more consistent with Brooklyn’s unique neighborhood culture and architecture that is environmentally sound and that creates affordable housing and will not destroy the present buildings. For details about how to get involved, Tom points to the Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn web site (www.dddb.net), which includes a link to the Unity Plan. The Develop Don’t Destroy website is one of the best places to learn about efforts to fight the Atlantic Yards project, upcoming events and how you can get involved.

Brooklyn Matters will be shown in public venues throughout Brooklyn in the coming months, including the Old Stone House on October 2. To find a schedule of upcoming screening in the community, or to find out how to get a copy of the film, please visit http://www.brooklynmatters.com/stills.

UPDATE: Brooklyn Matters wasn't screened at the Old Stone House on October 2, but will be rescheduled in November. Please note that the web address for Brooklyn Matters *is now http://www.brooklynmatters.com.

Posted by lumi at October 3, 2007 10:10 AM