If Daniel Goldstein doesn’t win the appeal on his lawsuit, the largest single-source development in New York City history will swallow up his apartment building, along with the surrounding 22 acres. New York State has approved the use of eminent domain for the developers eyeing his property, and construction has started across the street. All but two of the units on his block are completely empty, and some of the vacant buildings are already girded with scaffolding in preparation for demolition. Once these small brownstones are out of the way, Forest City Ratner hopes to replace them with a 20,000-seat arena for the Nets basketball team, nestled amid 16 Frank Gehry-designed skyscrapers. These are the last days of resistance to the controversial Atlantic Yards Project, and things don’t look great for Goldstein and his cause — there’s simply too much money to be made.
Bruce Ratner already owns a hefty chunk of real estate bordering the proposed footprint of the Atlantic Yards, and as far as Goldstein is concerned, the developer is now seeking more land to add to his monopoly. A block and a half north of the apartment stands the Atlantic Terminal Mall, whose green-and-brown institutional façade stretches west down Flatbush Avenue. It was built in 2004 over the demolished Long Island Rail Road Terminal; three years later, Ratner is eyeing another functioning rail yard, directly across the street. Although Forest City Ratner will not technically own the land until (and if) the development moves ahead, the MTA has granted them permission to begin construction without formally owning the deed.
Ironically, one of the buildings condemned to make way for the sports arena is a loft space converted from an old Spalding factory, purveyors of the NBA’s official basketball. That space is located on Goldstein’s street and sits derelict and empty. A short distance away is pre-Prohibition watering hole and neighborhood institution Freddy’s Bar and Backroom, which, if destroyed, would be a real loss to drinkers (and historians) throughout the borough. The bustling Bear’s Community Garden is outside of the danger zone, as far as demolition goes, but it will be hard to keep it green in the shadows of the skyscrapers; it’s in direct line with the tallest of Gehry’s planned buildings, the unfortunately named (and for many, unfortunately designed) “Ms. Brooklyn,” which is projected to block a significant amount of the garden’s summer sunlight.
Though the fight over Atlantic Yards has been well covered, many New Yorkers haven’t seemed to grasp the immense scope of the project, which will include seven skyscrapers far taller than the current tallest buildings (by at least 30 stories). Critics, citing the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS Report), contend that, in practical terms, many of the nearby neighborhoods will be in long periods of darkness, with skyscraper shadows stretching as far as the Fort Greene Historic District. Opponents also claim that FEIS proposals for handling game-time traffic surges are woefully inadequate, limited as they are to two road closures, three changes in street directions, and small adjustments for traffic signals.
Author Jonathan Lethem, a prominent activist against Atlantic Yards, called the language used to describe the project “mendacious flimflam” in an open letter he wrote to Gehry, referring to purported “open spaces” that include private rooftops, and the promises of “affordable housing” when only 12 percent of the units are below Brooklyn’s median income, according to Goldstein’s organization in opposition, Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB).
As representatives of DDDB, Goldstein and his fiancée Shabnam Merchant are struggling to stop the Atlantic Yards Project, and are in the unique position of doing so by simply fighting for their house. “Since I’m very public and loud and a spokesson for this group, some people think I’m fighting my own personal crusade,” says Goldstein, “but I know from doing this work for over three years that the people here are opposed to it.”
As I visit Goldstein’s place for the interview, I’m surprised to find so many cars parked along his block. He explains that people use the spots for the nearby shops and business during the day, but at night the streets are as empty as one would expect of a residential block stripped of the vast majority of its residents.. And the condominium seems well maintained: its hallways are clean, the intercom works fine, and the elevator functions more comfortably than those of many offices in Midtown Manhattan.
As the elevator lets out on Goldstein’s floor, I notice placards, boxes, and office supplies in the hallway — one of
the protest signs is written in Chinese. Apparently, the proprietor of a fine-art supply store had about 25 legal immigrants make the sign after his business was forced out, but the shop-owner was not allowed to reveal his identity because — pushed into a corner with his business — he signed a contract with Ratner. One of the advantages of living in an empty building is that nobody can object to the use of the hallway as storage space. I leave my bicycle in the hall without locking up. Who would be there to steal it?
When I ask if being surrounded by a big, empty building ever leaves him with an eerie feeling or leads him to worry about crime, Goldstein answers matter-of-factly, as though the idea never occurred to him. “No. Maybe it was because I knew the day was coming, and I prepared myself for it.”
Needless to say, Goldstein and Merchant (who also started the No Land Grab website) have been keeping busy. I have to wait a few minutes on the couch when I get there because Daniel has to take a business call. When asked to describe his daily activities with DDDB, he jokes, “I get up and start working, and I finish sometime late at night.” Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Merchant is multitasking, preparing food while working on fundraising from her laptop. In addition to their full-time jobs with the organization, they’ve been preparing for a wedding this fall, but their final plans are contingent on the legal battle to keep their home. “Most people plan weddings for a year, but because our very home is up in the air, it’s hard to make plans,” he says.
Right now, Goldstein says that the developers still need to take “three more legal steps” to take over the building. Theoretically, that can begin as early as the fall, because a federal judge recently dismissed their lawsuit (Goldstein v. Pataki), but the plaintiffs — who include all the remaining property owners — filed an “expedited” appeal. It will take four to six months to have the case looked at again, delaying Ratner’s ability to move forward with an Article II or IV action — that is, a transfer of the deeds. “We have to see what the State does,” he says, “if they dare to move forward while we’re doing that appeal. It could be months; it could be years.”
Under the terms of the contracts, none of the former residents who signed with Ratner is allowed to speak to the press, attend public hearings, or donate to groups opposing Atlantic Yards. There’s even a provision in the
contract, says Goldstein, “that they would try to get me to sell.”
“There were a couple of people who said that they regretted what they did,” he says, “not out of any principle, but whatever kind of payday they thought it was, it didn’t turn out to quite be that because of taxes and the way the market had changed.” Though, he adds, some people “made out very well with money. Of course, I knew what they were getting because they offered it to me.”
As for why Goldstein got involved in such a difficult battle?
“This is the first home I bought,” he says. “I’d been looking for a long time, and I bought it because of the neighborhood and the location — just like Mr. Ratner. It started out that I wanted to keep this home. And by luck of the draw, I bought into a building that’s key to this project happening. The project can’t go forward while I’m here. Putting aside my own feelings, that’s a responsibility that I have. I wouldn’t be doing this if I felt that the surrounding neighborhoods wanted this thing.”
I hesitate a little before asking, “What would you do if the eminent domain— ”
“I don’t know.” He pauses. “We never discussed that seriously. We’re optimistic that it won’t happen.” •