Groundbreaking at the RatnerDome

More than a dozen of the most powerful players in New York politics and business gathered yesterday to break ground on the long-awaited construction at Atlantic Yards, a massive $4.9 billion development now under construction in downtown Brooklyn.

One after another they took the stage to praise the development. Embattled New York Gov. David Patterson promised "job creation the likes of which Brooklyn has never seen!"

A few hundred feet away from the invitation-only event, a few hundred disgruntled residents gathered at a neighborhood bar to protest the groundbreaking. "I do hereby declare March 11, 2010, the destruction of Brooklyn's Soul Day!" intoned one protester, who impersonated Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, with the help of a four-foot tall Markowitz mask.
Opposition from some community members to the Atlantic Yards project has been relentless since the development was announced. The sheer size of the project -- a collection of high rise towers centered around a sports arena at one of the busiest intersections in Brooklyn -- drew criticism from residents of mostly low-rise Brooklyn. Further, the public had little say in the initial scope of the plan or the choice of the developer, the Forest City Ratner Companies, according to protest organizers Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn.

Atlantic Yards does include a "community benefits agreement" between the developer, city officials, and some community groups like ACORN. The agreement was the first of its kind and included some significant promises by the developer to build affordable housing and hire workers from the neighborhood around the project. However, since the public was not invited to negotiations over the agreement, Atlantic Yards still felt to many opponents like a backroom deal. (And the developer's high profile bait-and-switch move -- dangling the prospect of Frank Gehry-designed structures, only to have the famous architect dropped from the project -- didn't help its standing).

There is a better way. For many large public projects using government-owned land, land seized by eminent domain, or even simply large amounts of government financing, the development process now starts with a public discussion. Called a "charette," local officials now sometimes invite anyone who feels they have a stake in the project to a series of meetings over several days before major decisions are made. The meetings are often messy - the first often involves hundreds of people screaming at each other in a gymnasium. But in several cases, such as at the Via Verde redevelopment of city-owned land now under construction in the Bronx, the process has ended well, and opposition to aspects the development plans tends to be confronted early on.

Instead, Atlantic Yards confronted opposition in a grueling series of lawsuits -- a fact Forest City Ratner Companies chief executive Bruce Ratner acknowledged at the groundbreaking. "Nothing would be complete without talking about our 150 lawyers," he said. "They are New York's finest." To gain approval to build Atlantic Yards, Ratner fought 34 lawsuits. Eventually, he won all 34, but at tremendous cost. Along the way, the public benefits of the project shrank, Gehry left, and planned office towers and promised affordable housing were scaled back.

Photo: Marty Markowitz and Bruce Ratner at the groundbreaking.
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