Brooklyn neighborhood faces uncertain future

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The signposts are everywhere for David Sheets. Some tell him he very well may lose his home. Others imply that his elected officials don't care.

This stretch of Pacific Street has turned into a ghost town, with most of his neighbors picking up and moving elsewhere.

Developer Bruce Ratner is now his landlord. And a month ago, Sheets spotted a small tank drilling into the ground apparently taking soil samples.

Around the corner and north of Sheets' Prospect Heights building sit the Atlantic Rail Yards, the proposed site of a future Nets basketball arena and massive housing development.

Sheets and every other resident all the way around the corner to Pacific Street and back would lose their homes to make way for the project.

It is a project that, not surprisingly, has soured them on the current mayoral administration.

"Elected officials are supposed to be custodial over the communities that elect them," said Sheets, who did not vote for Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2001 and does not plan to vote for him this fall.

"They are not supposed to be marauding all over town harassing people and telling them basically, 'You don't provide enough tax revenue, so you're not good enough to live here.'"

Sheets, who has lived in Prospect Heights for 20 years, will not budge from his apartment, even as Ratner has bought his building in plans of razing it.

As the mayoral election nears, those living in the shadow of one of the city's largest proposed development projects have seen scores of their neighbors take flight to make way for that development.

For those who stand to lose their homes, most other issues in the neighborhood -- like the presence of a 100-bed homeless shelter two blocks away, or the ongoing revival of once-depressed areas that surround them -- fade to the background.

Perhaps no other part of the city has seen such an aggressive redevelopment plan as Downtown Brooklyn.

From parkland and housing beneath the Brooklyn Bridge to the $435-million arena project and a slew of other projects in the middle, north and south, the city has proposed to redefine a vast stretch of land encompassing a handful of neighborhoods in 10 years' time.

The Atlantic Terminal shopping center, which includes a sprawling two-story Target store, is already open for business, drawing shoppers by the thousands.

They are plans that nearly everyone on this gentrified stretch say are ruining the lives of a community caught in its crosshairs.

In giving Ratner their blessing for the project, city officials including Bloomberg say the arena would be an anchor for all the Downtown Brooklyn projects. And they say the area immediately around the rail yards is in dire need of a face-lift.

The project does have its supporters, including those in nearby housing projects who welcome the promise of hundreds of jobs, and those who have seen the area's resurgence take hold and want it to continue.

Pat O'Connor, whose family opened O'Connor's Bar at Fifth Avenue and Dean Street, on the other side of Flatbush Avenue, in 1935, said he's seen the area surrounding the stadium change from "atrocious" to clean and gentrified in the last few decades.

He also watched as City Hall administrations going back to Mayor Robert Wagner made failed promises for the Atlantic Yards.

"I'm afraid that if you pass up this opportunity, this neighborhood could go back to what it was," said O'Connor, who is 72 and lives in Bay Ridge.

Still, O'Connor noted, past mayors were more wary of working closely with private developers, something Bloomberg seems comfortable doing.

That is a gripe often cited by many of those who would lose their homes or otherwise oppose the arena project.

"I think that obviously the mayor is extremely pro-business," said Leigh Anderson, a 31-year-old writer whose home on Pacific Street faces the rail yards. "His business decisions regarding the city have been extremely beneficial to wealthy real estate developers and fairly unhelpful to the average citizen who is perhaps just getting by."

Anderson's landlord is among those who have not sold to Ratner, but may be forced out by eminent domain laws through the city Economic Development Corp.

Come May 1, Craig Sterritt, 34, will leave his Pacific Street rental loft of 13 years, which Ratner now owns, for a higher-priced place in Harlem.

"The whole thing was put together in backrooom deals, treating the neighborhood as if it was the South Bronx in the late '70s," Sterritt, a medical writer and editor who is a lifelong Brooklynite, said of the arena project.

He scoffs at the thought that his neighborhood, which actually sits in the crossroads of Park Slope, Boerum Hill, Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, needs revamping.

"These megadevelopments strike me as a bad idea for the city," he said. "Particularly this one here, because of the way it literally puts up a wall dividing neighborhoods."

For Daniel Goldstein, the sole tenant left in his Pacific Street luxury co-op, one sign of change in his neighborhood is loneliness.

"The process is basically over. The idea of the city overseeing this is long past," said Goldstein, a graphic designer who a year ago founded Develop Don't Destroy, a key opposition group to the arena project.

"He stands by and puts too much power in other people's hands," said Goldstein, noting that Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff is widely viewed as the city's development draftsman. "At other times he is simply disingenuous. You think an MTA vote means the people have spoken?"

"He's going after grand schemes," including the West Side stadium project in Manhattan, said Will Lashley, 51, a film editor who rents on Pacific Street -- in a building also bought by the developer. "They are the kinds of things that get a lot of publicity."

Lashley, who noted that Bloomberg took office during a period in which the economy stalled, said, "I think that Bloomberg has made some tough decisions and has done well for himself. I wish he would worry more about the living conditions of working class people."

Losing your home and neighborhood to a wealthy developer has a way of drowning out all other issues.But sometimes, other concerns can resurface.

On a recent afternoon, Lee Houston, 58, a retired schoolteacher, was talking about the mayor's development plans while bending an elbow at Freddy's Bar, at the corner of Dean Street and Sixth Avenue.

Houston has lived in Prospect Heights for 38 years, atop the beloved pub and performance space for two. His landlord hasn't sold, but it is yet another building facing the wrecking ball.

"Come outside with me," Houston suddenly said. "I can't smoke in here anymore, and I have our mayor to thank for that."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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