Ghost of Brooklyn Dodgers Haunts Possible Arena Site

Posted April 12, 2005 at 5:32pm

Second in a two-part series

The intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic avenues is one of the busiest in Brooklyn.

[IMGCAP(1)]It also has its place in the lore of the late, lamented Brooklyn Dodgers.

It was just a short pop-up from there, over some Long Island Railroad yards, where owner Walter O’Malley wanted to build a new stadium for his team in the 1950s. But stymied by Robert Moses, the all-powerful city and state planning czar who thought the team should move to the World’s Fair site in Flushing, Queens (where Shea Stadium was ultimately built in 1964 for the Mets), O’Malley took the Dodgers 3,000 miles west. Almost 50 years later, Brooklyn still hasn’t gotten over the blow.

But now, there is a proposal to build a basketball arena over the very same train yards. Developer Bruce Ratner, the new owner of the New Jersey Nets, sees the arena as the centerpiece of his multibillion-dollar mixed-use proposal to revitalize the area.

Some Brooklyn sports fans — and politicians — are cheering the economic development dollars that they expect will come rolling in. But an equally vocal contingent of opponents say the arena — though not necessarily the rest of the project — is the wrong kind of development at the wrong time.

As improbable as it may sound, the issue could be a pivotal Player in the race to replace retiring Rep. Major Owens (D-N.Y.) next year.

“It will partially be a referendum on this project,” said Daniel Goldstein, a spokesman for a group called Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, which is opposing the arena.

The only candidate to have officially entered the race — Owens’ son, Chris Owens (D), an HMO administrator and former local school board member — is a staunch opponent. Other potential Democratic candidates, according to the project’s foes, are supportive to one degree or another.

So far, state Sen. Carl Andrews (D) is the closest to joining Chris Owens in the Congressional race. He has started an exploratory committee to raise money for a federal campaign.

Two city councilwomen who challenged Rep. Owens in the 2004 primary, Tracy Boyland and Yvette Clarke, are also eyeing the race, and state Assemblyman Nick Perry may also run.

“They will have to make clear their position,” Goldstein said.

Congress obviously has no jurisdiction over the proposal. Its fate will be determined by state development agencies and state and city budget writers.

But Owens believes that as poor Brooklyn residents are buffeted by the economic policies of a Republican president, a Republican Congress, a Republican governor and a Republican mayor, voters will look to the new Congressman to ensure that a lasting kind of economic development comes to the 11th district. And he understands why so many local pols are mouthing the developer’s line that the arena will be an economic boon for the borough.

“In a city where 49 percent of the black men are unemployed, when you say the word ‘jobs,’ people start foaming at the mouth,” Owens said.

But Owens sees many legitimate — and politically potent — reasons to oppose the sports venue, from neighborhood concerns over traffic and congestion to questions about the percentage of local and minority workers who would be hired to work on the project.

Equally outrageous, in the view of Owens and other project opponents, is that the developers, aided by state agencies, have largely been able to usurp the city’s normal development process, leaving the community in the dark about many relevant matters.

“I object from a process and fairness standpoint,” Owens said.

The opposition isn’t coming entirely from a group of Brooklyn NIMBY types. Mike Lupica, the popular sports columnist for the Daily News, sarcastically calls the team owner “Caring Bruce Ratner” and describes him as a man who has hoodwinked community leaders and Nets fans.

“He didn’t want the Nets because he loves basketball,” Lupica wrote last year. “He doesn’t want to build this Ratner World of his in Brooklyn because he wants to fill that famous void left by the Dodgers 47 years ago. What Ratner is trying to do is pull off one of the sweetheart real estate deals in the history of this city. To do it, he needed a sports team.”

Owens said arena opponents don’t need to apologize for their stridency.

“It’s not our problem that Bruce Ratner decided to develop a basketball team,” he said. “Had he talked to the community, he might have decided not to.”

But a developer like Ratner has very deep pockets, and he appears willing to throw his money around to politicians and certain community groups in an attempt to buy support for the arena. How this will play in the area’s political races, including the Congressional contest, remains to be seen.

Goldstein said there are two city elections this year that could prove to be bellwethers for the Congressional race. One is the re-election contest of City Councilwoman Leticia James (D), who opposes the arena. The other is the race for New York City public advocate. Civil liberties attorney Norman Siegel — who has done some legal work for Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn — is challenging incumbent Besty Gotbaum in the Democratic primary.

One thing arena foes may have that the proponents may not is passion, a good counterpoint to ready money. Goldstein said there will be many single-issue voters in the local and Congressional races.

“I think Chris is an excellent candidate,” he said, “and a very admirable human being.”