October 28, 2006: New York, New York. It's a wonderful town. Unless your piece of
it gets targeted for eminent domain.
Forest City Ratner, New York's
largest development firm, hopes to bulldoze and rebuild a sizable
chunk of the Prospect Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn. The area
Ratner covets is a low built, mixed income neighborhood just
across the river from Manhattan. Ratner wants to replace the nabe
with Atlantic Yards, an 8.8 million square foot combo of a sports
arena and 16 residential towers. The arena would service the New
Jersey Nets, a team owned by Bruce Ratner. The towers would
contain luxury condos and subsidized "affordable" units. Many of
these units would go to people with solid middle class incomes,
in the top strata of eligibility. All in all, developing Atlantic
Yards will require at least 1.1 billion dollars in public
assistance. Proponents paint the massive taxpayer contribution as
an investment, to be returned via projected tax revenues.
Should Atlantic Yards come to fruition, a fluid small society of
commercial and residential property owners, tenants, businesses
and employees, would be replaced by a behemoth complex pumped by
public money and government might, yet owned by one private,
politically connected, corporate entity.
When Atlantic Yards was announced in 2003, it was made clear that
property within its perimeters would ultimately be acquired via
eminent domain, under the aegis of New York State's powerful and
quasi-public Empire State Development Corporation. The "public
use" justification required by the U.S. Constitution would be
the projected trickle down effect of increased tax revenues,
construction jobs, and "affordable" housing. Over the past few
years Forest Ratner has been buying out property owners. Some
went willingly. Others bowed to what they feared was inevitable.
But a hard core didn't move or mourn. Instead they organized a surprisingly effective resistance.
The resistors' latest gambit is a federal law suit (Goldstein v.
Pataki) filed on October 26th in the Eastern District, charging
that the use of eminent domain on behalf of Forest City Ratner
and Atlantic Yards is unconstitutional. Among those named as
defendants are Governor George Pataki, Bruce Ratner, Forest
City Ratner in its various permutations, Empire State Development
Corporation Chairman Charles Gargano, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
No one can say Brooklynites lack brass.
Ten people, representing a spectrum of neighborhood resistors,
make up the plaintiffs. Daniel Goldstein, lead plaintiff and one
of the property owners, is a founder of the group Develop Don't Destroy
Brooklyn (DDDB). Other plaintiffs include low income tenants
fighting displacement. Plus Freddy's Bar & Backroom. The
neighborhood's unofficial war room. With added bennies of good
food and drink.
A number of attorneys represent the plaintiffs. Lead counsel is
Matthew D. Brinckerhoff of Emery, Celli, Brinckerhoff & Abady, a
firm specializing in constitutional litigation. The firm won
a past case against New York City in the U.S. Supreme Court,
forcing the city to change its form of government. Co-counsel is
DDDB attorney Jeffrey S. Baker, plus a number of DDDB volunteer
attorneys. Tenants are being represented by attorney Jennifer
Levy of South Brooklyn Legal Services.
Goldstein v. Pataki (PDF file) will not be retrying
Kelo v. City of New London. Instead, the plaintiffs will argue
that the "public use" criteria for legal application of eminent
domain, as defined by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Kelo
decision, are not being met by Governor Pataki, Forest Ratner,
the Empire State Development Corporation, et al. Hence their
Atlantic Yards land grab is unconstitutional and illegal.
You gotta love the idea that an evil call like Kelo might have a
hole (or possibly several) through which an anti eminent domain
victory could pass. The irony and implications of the situation,
the heft of the defendants, and the David v. Goliath chutzpa of
the plaintiffs, makes this an eminent domain battle to watch.
Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
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