Brooklyn brouhaha: the controversial drive to host a sports team

Moving the Nets here could displace 850 residents. Some are worried about changes to the borough's character.

Freddy's Bar in Brooklyn feels and looks like a lot of local hangouts.

Lou Reed plays on the stereo. A great marlin is mounted on a wall, and a stuffed squirrel, frozen in mid-screech, hangs above the stools, where the local psychiatrist rubs elbows with the electrician down the street.

But these days, the most notable thing in Freddy's is the backroom. That's where one revolt is being launched against a gigantic new real estate development that would house the Nets, the basketball team that currently calls New Jersey home.

"This building is condemned," says a flier taped to a window. The sign is not far from the truth: If the entire $2.5 billion plan is approved, a bulldozer will turn the long bar into splinters.

Whatever happens at Freddy's, the battle for this part of Brooklyn is on. On one side are the governor, the mayor, and Bruce Ratner, a wealthy real estate developer. Mr. Ratner recently bought the Nets for $300 million with the intent to move them to a streamlined 19,000-seat arena designed by acclaimed architect Frank Gehry. Surrounding the arena, Ratner also intends to build high rises that will change the skyline of the borough.

But Ratner faces a coalition of residents worried about congestion on their streets, the impact on local merchants, and the displacement of some 850 residents. The plan is to take their land through the right of "eminent domain," a process that condemns land and forces an owner to sell at "fair market value."

"It's wrong to think this is economic development when you're destroying neighborhoods," says Patti Hagan of the Prospect Heights Action Coalition.

The upcoming battle is not unusual in mega sports projects. In northern Virginia, there is vocal opposition to an effort to build a new baseball stadium. Residents of St. Louis recently balked at paying for a new stadium for the Cardinals. "Almost everywhere these are being built using public money, it's a controversial topic," says Bruce Johnson, a professor of economics at Centre College in Danville, Ky.

A tough sell

It's usually those who are most affected by the projects who are most skeptical, says Michael Beyard at the Urban Land Institute in Washington. "There is often an imbalance between those who work and live in an adjacent area and those in the larger region," he says.

Those in favor of a new home for the Nets argue it will create jobs. Vincent Viola, a partner in the Brooklyn Atlantic Yards Project - the current name for the development - estimates it will bring an extra 1 million people a year to the borough and will result in 40,000 new jobs. "This is going to be the greatest transformational social and economic event in the history of Brooklyn," he says.

Supporters of the development also argue that Brooklyn deserves a pro team - 46 years after the Brooklyn Dodgers broke many hearts when they moved to Los Angeles. Now, the borough is a hotbed of basketball where such pros as Michael Jordan first laced up sneakers.

But others question whether stadiums really bring in that many jobs. "There have been a lot of independent economists - those not working for developers or teams - that have found the stadiums don't create jobs," says Mr. Johnson. "The arena is not used most of the time, and the jobs they provide are mostly things like selling hot dogs."

This will be second ongoing stadium battle in the Big Apple. More than 10 years ago, there was a proposal to build a domed stadium on Manhattan's West Side. Later, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani proposed moving the Yankees there. Now, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is offering a plan for a football arena for the Jets that would be connected to the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center.

All these plans have run up against a coalition of activists, some of whom have tied up the developers with lawsuits or procedural issues. "Sometimes delay is as good as stopping them," says John Fisher of the Clinton Special District Coalition, which has sued in the past. "The city is riddled with projects that didn't happen."

An upside to change

Back in Brooklyn, anti-arena residents acknowledge that some urban renewal is good. A significant portion of the proposed area is now a rail yard where old trains are stored. Some buildings are eyesores.

As she walks around the neighborhood on a cold day, Jezra Kaye, a member of the anti-arena coalition, points out that the Battle of Brooklyn (fought during the Revolutionary War) went on near Freddy's Bar.

"Didn't it have something to do with taxation without representation?" she asks. "This is the second Battle of Brooklyn."

Kimberly Chase contributed to this report.

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