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June 16, 2011

Lawful Land Grab Sparks A 'Battle For Brooklyn'

by Mark Jenkins

When Brooklyn's Atlantic Yards project was announced some seven years ago, its boosters — who included Mayor Michael Bloomberg, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer and Borough President Marty Markowitz — touted the scheme's extraordinary potential. But there was nothing unusual about the developer-politician alliance recounted by Battle for Brooklyn. The way this deal went down exemplifies how urban redevelopment is done all over the United States.

Atlantic Yards was conceived by an Ohio development firm, Forest City Ratner, but relied heavily on New York state and city subsidies. The project would encompass 16 skyscrapers and a new arena for the New Jersey Nets; much of it would be built on rail yards owned by the state's Metropolitan Transportation Authority. But the plan also involved acquiring several blocks of private property and — where the owners wouldn't sell — getting the state to use eminent domain: the power to seize private property for the public good.

Why did the developers need so much land? Well, perhaps because everything's bigger in New York. But it's worth noting that Atlantic Yards' designated designer was Frank Gehry, American architecture's prince of wasted space.


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“Battle for Brooklyn,” a documentary about the unending mess that is the Atlantic Yards project, is unabashedly slanted and as a result will probably be dismissed by those it portrays unflatteringly. That’s unfortunate, because this film should be discouraging and dismaying for people on all sides of the project, for what it says about oversize expectations and missed opportunities.

Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley certainly know how to edit film to make public officials sound like manipulative weasels or clueless buffoons, and that’s what they do here as they tell the story of Bruce Ratner’s billion-dollar plans for a huge Brooklyn development centered on a basketball arena, and the residents and businesses displaced by it.

Actually, they are manipulative weasels or clueless buffoons.

The film is full of bombastic promises about jobs and other benefits from Mr. Ratner and the politicians who support him. With the project now a shell of its former self, they seem particularly outrageous. But it will be years yet before the definitive story of this exercise in urban reinvention can be told.

Posted by eric at June 16, 2011 11:16 PM