Mark Winston Griffith
The Accountability Interview Series Presents: A Conversation with Daniel Goldstein of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn (Part II)
By Mark Winston Griffith
At first glance, the organized opposition to Atlantic Yards - the mega project that was proposed for the Prospect Heights community in Brooklyn by prominent New York developer Bruce Ratner of Forest City Ratner- might appear to be a text book example of community organizers fighting the threat of gentrification.
But Atlantic Yards isn't just any development project. Although modified since it was first announced in December of 2003, the original $4.5 billion plan featured a new sports stadium that would be home to the Nets basketball franchise, 16 high rise buildings (some as tall as 58 stories), over a million square feet of commercial space, thousands of residential housing units, and a 15 story billboard. Covering 22 acres of land, which includes the Vanderbilt Rail Yards that is controlled by the New York State Metropolitan Transit Authority, Atlantic Yards constitutes the densest housing tract in the country and the largest development project ever by a single developer in New York City. The proposed development requires street re-mapping, billions in public subsidies, and probably the razing of private homes through eminent domain (the process through which the government exercises the power to take private property for public use).
In addition to its considerable environmental impact, one of the most controversial aspects of the Atlantic Yards project is how it received approval from New York State to use state land, while by-passing New York City land use approval procedures. Among the arguments the state has used to take such aggressive action is that the land is currently blighted and would be better served with higher density development like the Atlantic Yards project, a contention that is intensely disputed by Atlantic Yards critics.
On the other hand, the project is welcomed by many who look forward to its promise of news jobs, affordable housing and the first big league Brooklyn sports team since the Dodgers left for Los Angeles. In 2005, Ratner entered into an agreement with a group of community organizations in which he promised to create job and job training opportunities, affordable housing, and other supportive measures for people living in the surrounding area. One of the most prominent co-signers of the Community Benefits Agreement was the community organizing group, ACORN.
Today, the project remains in limbo. Recent news reports have begun to cast doubt on whether Ratner will have the financial resources to complete the project. But no matter what the fate of Atlantic Yards, there is much to be learned from the various, and often competing, attempts by community stakeholders to bring accountability and transparency to this project.
Part II: The Mechanics of Accountability
The Accountability Project resumes the Interview Series with the second of a two-part conversation with Daniel Goldstein, the founder and spokesman of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn.
Goldstein, whose condo is located in a building that sits in the proposed Atlantic Yards footprint, has refused to accept a buy-out from Ratner and make way for demolition. Along with his wife, he is the sole remaining occupant of his building.
Ever since Atlantic Yards was announced, Goldstein has been leading an effective David vs. Goliath campaign against Forest City Ratner's development of Atlantic Yards. He has also sharply criticized the actions of the organizations that co-signed the Community Benefits Agreement with Forest City Ratner.
Goldstein is, of course, not without his own critics, many of whom have painted him as arrogantly standing in the way of progress. But even one of Goldstein's most vocal enemies recently noted that Goldstein and his allies , through their organizing and day-to-day blogging [found, most notably, in the Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn website, Norman Oder's Atlantic Yards Report, and the No Land Grab website, for example] have effectively managed to control the terms of the Atlantic Yards debate.
In Part I of the interview, which was originally published on August 22nd, Daniel Goldstein defined what he feels are the community interests that are at stake with the building of Atlantic Yards. Part II looks under the hood of the Develop Don't Destroy organization and offers a primer on effective community organizing.
MWG: Let's switch gears for a moment and talk about the tactics and strategies you've employed in your campaign.
Goldstein: There’s been the organizing stage, the political stage and the litigation stage. They've operated simultaneously.
MWG: Give me some examples.
We took about sixty people on a bus up to Albany and saw about fifty to sixty legislators and their staff; We’ve produced white papers; which have rebutted claims made by the developer.
We wrote a "MOU [Memorandum of Understanding] for Dummies," [in response to MOUs that Forest City Ratner entered into with ACORN, with the MTA, and with the Empire State Development Corporation and the New York City Economic Development Corporation] as we called it, which included in the first section something we called the "Anatomy of a Sweetheart Deal." The second section was a break down of the subsidies and breaks as we could distinguish, and then a four to five page overview of what this MOU meant, what it would give Ratner, and what he would be allowed to do.
Our biggest struggle was to educate the public on what the project was. For a long time and even now, many people still think it's just a sports arena. Of course it's not just an arena. And from day one, Forest City Ratner, very wisely from their point of view, presented the project as "it's a done deal and there is nothing you all can do about it, and you’re all going to like it even if you think you won't."
What's still going on today is we're trying to figure out the cost of the project and what the different financing mechanisms are. These are things that you would hope that an established, well staffed, good government group would have taken up on their own, but none have really done that. So, besides being a grassroots community organization almost entirely volunteer run, we have tried to fill that gap, of the missing good government watchdog group, along, with the organizing, litigation and empirical work that we do.
We’ve filed three lawsuits. We’ve been the plaintiff on two of them and the other one is the eminent domain suit, which had owners and tenants as plaintiffs. So we organized this lawsuit suit, and organized the tenants and owners, and have funded the three suits.
Another thing that has come along is the explosion of a few important blogs that have filled that watchdog world, like the Atlantic Yards Report and No Land Grab. And Development Destroy started blogging a little over two years ago. Our website has served the purposes of exposing the project financing, publicizing the legal efforts, and pushing day-to-day our message and our goals.
And of course there's the Unity Plan which evolved from a community charette initiated by Councilmember Tish James and the architect Marshall Brown. The Unity Plan is an alternative to Ratner’s plan to develop the rail yards. It proposes a process to sell off the rail yard parcels to local developers. From that Unity Plan, we were very instrumental in putting together a document, “Principles for Responsible Development over the Vanderbilt Rail Yards”. The principles talked about the density and what different uses would be preferable and talked about environmental issues, talked about the zoning, talked about keeping streets open.
Those principles were signed on to by twenty-some odd organizations from these surrounding neighborhoods, signed on to by our councilwoman, by our state senator and by our congressman, Major Owens at the time. More groups supported it than were involved in the eventual community benefits agreement.
We sent out a letter to a hundred developers around the country with these principles and the Unity Plan. One developer, Extell, liked what we showed them and put it in a proposal. Extell outbid Ratner and submitted a plan that, for the most part, followed our principles and followed the Unity Plan. The tallest building went up to 30 stories, which is the height of the Atlantic Terminal public housing tower. It didn’t have an arena, it didn’t use eminent domain, it didn’t create superblocks, it didn’t de-map streets, but It did include a school.
MWG: What do you think about Community Benefits Agreements in general and the Atlantic Yards CBA in particular. Is a CBA an effective and legitimate way to hold someone like Ratner, or any developer, accountable?
Goldstein: The other CBA example that everyone talks about is the Staple Center CBA in California, Los Angeles. What I know is that in that situation there were some real attempts to bring in as many stakeholders and interested parties as possible - community groups, union groups, housing groups. And they all came from a starting point of opposition to the project and that makes sense because, you know, it’s hard to drive a hard bargain if you’re accepting the project from the beginning.
The CBA with Ratner is, on the other hand, not actually a CBA - it’s a privately negotiated business deal between Ratner and a number of groups. And I think the groups with Atlantic Yards did accept the project from the beginning, except for maybe ACORN. So I think CBAs can be positive things depending on how they’re done and if they are not used as a public relations tool for the developer, which is what I think has gone on with Atlantic Yards.
MWG: What would have made the Atlantic Yards CBA, in your view, the product of a more legitimate process?
Goldstein: It would have attempted to bring in as many stakeholders as possible instead of as few as possible. It would not have been primarily handpicked groups. It would’ve included groups that maybe didn't support it or were unsure. It would’ve had the project itself on the table, not just little parts of it, like the housing and jobs. It would’ve included the impacts of the project. It would’ve been done in as public a way as possible, understanding that you can negotiate out in the open. Maybe it would have even involved - and this is a debate among CBA advocates themselves – government. The developer wouldn’t be funding one of the chief community organizations in the CBA group, in this case B.U.I.L.D.
Why haven’t the CBA signers, groups, called a public meeting, now or last year, well after it was approved, to inform the public what they’re doing, how the CBA and stuff is coming? They’ve never done that. Or maybe they’re doing it in communities I don’t live in.
MWG: What do you feel you and your organization have done really well and what have you not done well. And what would you have done differently if you could do it all over again.
Goldstein: I don’t know how exactly we would’ve done it, but I think we could’ve found a way to bring more diversity to the leadership of Develop Don't Destroy and the day-to day-activists. I don’t think it’s for a lack of trying and I’m not saying there is no diversity right now at all.
I think it would’ve been very helpful to have had a high power lobbyist in Albany.
I think we were a little too righteous in our presentation to politicians. We said, "We’re going to give you this information and you will oppose this, right?" We did not always meet people where they’re at and bring them along. I think that came from anger, inexperience, and frustration. So I think a little more political chops and savvy would’ve been good. On the other hand, when you take a position like we’re taking which is, I think, principled and you're uncompromising in those principles, there are going to be very few politicians who are going to want to associate with you.
Also, we have over eight hundred people signed up to volunteer with us, but we have not always found a way to really make use of many of them.
What we’ve done well: I think we’ve done public and media communications very well which includes a block captain system of delivering newsletters every three or four months, door-to -door. hardcopy newsletters that reach about 10,000 people. In the warm weather months, we do a lot of flyering, tabling and actually just this weekend we were at the Smith Street fair and people now see us, come up to us, and say, "What can I sign? What’s the latest?"
What has occurred has made people like Bill de Blasio a critic of the project. Jim Brennan has been moved, I think, and David Yassky.
I think we have been a part of changing public perception. This project's name is mud in a lot of places. With a development fight this big, over a development this big and this expensive, you have to have a media campaign of some kind. I mean you have to have someone dealing with the press who knows how to do it or will learn how to do it. What we have found, is there’s been someone, a volunteer, to do everything we have needed, except the lobbying. Marshall Brown [an architect] has shepherded this Unity Plan, we’ve had lawyers, volunteer lawyers step up and we had volunteers write this economic impact rebutta,l and we've had an urban planner write a study of why Coney Island was a better location for the arena. I think we’ve been really smart and probably too wonky at times, but which is necessary for some things.
And you know, a community has grown around this campaign. Personally, I've made a lot of friends through this and met a lot of people that I never would have met and you know, there are a lot of old timers actively involved. People who have been here a long time. So I think we have a lot to offer from our experiences to other community organizations.
Next Week: A Conversation with Bertha Lewis of ACORN
About the Accountability Project Interview Series
The Interview Series provides insight into the process of social change organizing and advocacy by conducting extended inquiries into campaigns and strategies used to address economic justice challenges. The Interview Series features frank discussions with activists fighting to hold corporations and government accountable to working families and neighborhoods of color.
The Interview Series is presented by DMI's Accountability Project. By dissecting economic justice issues and asserting the voices and perspectives of progressive-minded organizations and the marginalized communities they serve, the Accountability Project seeks to shift corporate behavior and spur progressive public policy change.
All of the interviews are conducted by Mark Winston Griffith, the Senior Fellow for Economic Justice at DMI, and the director of the Accountability Project.