Welcome to Ratnerville
Shadows Over Flatbush: The thud you heard in July was the sound of thousands of jaws dropping in unison as Bruce Ratner’s starchitect, Frank Gehry, unveiled his design for the Atlantic Yards development. Gehry, who has garnered international acclaim by designing building after building in city after city that all look alike, managed to come up with something new for Brooklyn: a cartoonish nightmare-scape of skyscrapers popping out of high-rises and a basketball arena wrapped in monumentally garish signage.
Of course, even if Gehry had come up with a design that didn’t look like Battery Park City on acid, there would still be the problem of scale. Ratner wants to build a forest of 16 towers in the heart of Brooklyn’s low-rise Brownstone Belt, forever spoiling a skyline still dotted with 19th-century church steeples.
Sure, Ratner wants to build big—more buildings, more stories, more money for him. Nevertheless, one would think that with a multi-billion-dollar project on the line, a savvy developer would proceed cautiously, trying to ruffle as few feathers as possible. Instead, in an act of either colossal greed or colossal hubris—or perhaps both—Ratner plans to erect two towers that would rise higher than the elegant Williamsburgh Savings Bank, dwarfing what has long been the borough’s tallest building.
And that is the crux of the problem with Ratner’s Atlantic Yards plan: It is simply too big. It should be, as one local activist put it, “scaled back, in terms of height.” The activist who said this, by the way, is Eric Blackwell, an outspoken supporter of the development and the former executive director of the pro-Ratner community group Build, quoted in the invaluable Brooklyn Papers. Even Borough President Marty Markowitz, the project’s biggest booster, has now issued an 11th-hour appeal to “downscale” the development. One can only hope that the ever so community-minded Ratner listens to his community backers on this one.
Media Myopia: The blows came one after the other. The organs of the elite Manhattan media took turns insulting the County of Kings. First came the New Yorker cover illustration of Adam and Eve being exiled from Manhattan by God. As they walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, they looked dejected, perhaps because they realized that they couldn’t afford to buy real estate here either. (Predictably, Marty Markowitz, the living embodiment of Brooklyn’s inferiority complex, fired back with a superlative-laced letter proclaiming Brooklyn “the promised land itself.”) Next, New York magazine weighed in with an essay titled “I Hate Brooklyn,” written by a New Jerseyan-turned-Manhattanite eager to distance himself from his working-class background. But The New York Times took the cake with the special Brooklyn edition of its City section. Its editors, apparently unable to find enough interesting things about the borough to fill a whole section, devoted a full page to not one but two articles by Manhattanites explaining why they aren’t ready make the move across the East River (as if we were awaiting their arrival with bated breath).
Given that the Times seems interested in Brooklyn mainly as a chunk of real estate to which Manhattanites may or may not choose to move, it’s no surprise the Gray Lady would be bullish on Ratner’s bid to remake our borough in Manhattan’s image. In a July 10 editorial, the Times declared that the transformation of Brooklyn’s low-rise skyline into a “thicket of skyscrapers” is “almost inevitable.” Besides, the Times noted, building up Atlantic Yards is good for Brooklyn, insofar as it “furthers the prospect that it will may yet [sic] emerge from the shadow of its smaller sister, Manhattan.” And all this time we thought we were doing okay for ourselves.
Race to the Bottom: Backers of Ratner’s Atlantic Yards development argue that it will give Brooklyn more housing, more jobs, more fun, and more self-esteem—a sort of bricks-and-mortar Zoloft. One thing it hasn’t given us is more racial comity. Instead, the Yards fight has both sides resorting to racially charged rhetoric of the shrillest sort.
Among the opponents, City Councilman Charles Barron has compared Ratner’s project and the jobs it would create to slavery. “They see our community as a plantation,” he said, as quoted by the Brooklyn Papers. “They brought us here for labor in the first place—they can’t enslave you again, but they can give you slave wages.” (This is from an outspoken defender of Zimbabwean mass-murderer Robert Mugabe.) On the other side, Build’s president, James Caldwell, warned The New York Sun that blocking Ratner’s bid would amount to “a conspiracy against blacks.” Meanwhile, Build’s bete noire, Daniel Goldstein of Develop Don’t Destroy, told the Sun that there were “a lot of similarities” between Ratner’s anticipated use of eminent domain seizures and forced population relocations in apartheid South Africa.
The most disappointing remarks in this vein, however, came from Bertha Lewis, the pro-Ratner head of the supposedly multiracial activist group Acorn. She complained about all the attention project opponents have garnered, carping, “whenever you have a small group of white liberals running and screaming about something, people think it’s important.”
“They don’t have to worry about affordable housing,” she said, according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “They don’t give a damn about people of color. All they care about is preserving their little Prospect Heights community.”
Forget, for a moment, that the black elected officials who represent the neighborhood—Councilwoman Letitia James, State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, and Congressman Major Owens—actually oppose the project. Forget that local black ministers have lined up en masse against it. Is Lewis suggesting that only whites care about preserving their communities?
‘Affordable’ Housing: Ratner promises to build at least 2,250 “affordable” rental units at Atlantic Yards. For some (i.e. Bertha Lewis) this is the beginning and the end of any conversation about the project. But given that, according to The New York Times, the total public investment in the project is estimated at $1 billion, the “affordable” rental units—intended for a mix of low- and moderate-income households, including individuals earning up to $62,000 per year—aren’t exactly coming cheaply. If affordable housing were the whole story, taxpayers would be coughing up nearly $450,000 per “affordable” apartment.
But of course the development is so much more than 2,250 units of below-market-rate housing. On the plus side, Brooklyn gets a professional basketball team and a new arena, thousands more market-rate (read “luxury”) residential units, more commercial and office space, and the increased economic activity that all this entails. On the downside, we get worse traffic congestion, likely eminent domain seizures of currently occupied residences and existing small businesses, massive government subsidies, and a hideous new skyline.
A full accounting means looking at both sides of the ledger—and aesthetics as well as economics. If jobs and housing were the only relevant considerations, we would simply raze our low-rise borough and rebuild it bigger and taller—a process that actually is taking place in much of the city. But creating a livable urban environment requires considering the unquantifiable as well as the quantifiable.
Capra-esque: In Frank Capra’s 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life, the greedy Mr. Potter owns almost everything in the town of Bedford Falls. He owns the banks, he owns the slums—the only thing he doesn’t own is George Bailey’s scrappy Building and Loan. When the despondent George makes the mistake of wishing he had never been born, and God grants his wish, he awakes in a nightmare: Without the Bailey Building and Loan, Bedford Falls has become Pottersville.
Increasingly it feels as if Brooklyn has become Ratnerville. The well-connected Ratner practically owns the corridors of power. His developments rake in massive government subsidies. He doles out goodies to all the right people. He recently rewarded Build, the supposedly independent community group that has been working tirelessly on his behalf, with rent-free office space. He even launched a fake newspaper to promote his Atlantic Yards project, giving free ad space to the borough’s leading cultural institutions.
Ratner may not know how to build beautiful things, but he knows how to get things built. That’s why the man who has already given Brooklyn three awful mega-developments seems set to give us a fourth.
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Daniel Treiman is the editor ofThe Brooklynite.