Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Brooklyn's Hollywood Saga

Anyone not following the Atlantic Yards project is missing out on a classic Hollywood tale unfolding in a real-life setting. We have a classic big-bucks developer (Bruce Ratner) who, in cahoots with public officials with questionable motives (Mike Bloomberg and, earlier, George Pataki and Charles Gargano), are commandeering private property for a project local residents say will destroy their neighborhood. Some recent developments:

-- State lawmakers seeking documents from the Empire State Development Corp., the public agency overseeing the project, detailing Forest City Ratner's full financial plan, were forced to litigate. And only then received a few indecipherable pages. Because the project involves more than a half-billion dollars in taxpayer subsidies, lawmakers understandably felt their constituents deserved knowing more about it. Earlier, the ESDC refused a Freedom of Information Act request.

So, what's the ESDC hiding? If this eminent-domain-dependent development is furthering the "public good," why must the public be kept in the dark?

-- New York State Supreme Court Justice Ira B. Harkavy ruled yesterday that Forest City Ratner illegally obtained property from a landowner within the proposed Atlantic Yards "footprint." The property has been given back to its owner.

-- A new study finds that Park Slope drivers looking for parking spots account for half of the neighborhood's traffic. What's needed? How about another 20,000 cars?

-- In what's likely to be the Atlantic Yards' death knell, NoLandGrab unearths yet another example of the MTA offering explicit favoritism to FCR during the project's earlier stages:
Ratner, [MTA spokesman Tom] Kelley said, "would be given preference" for development [of the railyards] since he has already built the Atlantic Center and Atlantic Terminal in the immediate vicinity.
As Develop Don't Destroy notes,
In his concurring opinion to the Supreme Court's decision in Kelo vs. New London, Justice Anthony Kennedy warned that projects in which there was an "impermissible favoritism" might not pass constitutional muster. Examples of impermissible favoritism, Kennedy wrote, would include instances in which a governmental entity picked out "a particular transferee beforehand."
My prediction: The Atlantic Yards will be defeated in federal court, with Mayor Bloomberg haughtily blaming community organizations like Develop Don't Destroy. The real culprit -- political arrogance -- will go unmentioned.

-- Finally,
Reverend Dr. Daniel Meeter, pastor of Brooklyn's Old First Reformed Church, looks to the Good Book for the morality of eminent domain:
The concentration of power is a moral issue, because it affects human freedom and human choices, especially the freedom and choices of the weak and powerless. The Bible regards the secure possession of private property and its protection from eminent domain as a sign of human freedom and dignity. The defining story is 1 Kings 21, the story of Naboth's Vineyard.

Naboth had a vineyard. A little vineyard, because he was a nobody. But it was close to the palace of King Ahab, and Ahab desired it. Had Ahab been king of any other people than Israel, he could have just taken it. It's what kings do. But the Torah forebade it. The Torah protected as sacred the private property of the family. But Queen Jezebel, herself a gentile, and familiar with the ways of gentile kings, found this preposterous. So she used the tools of royal power to get Naboth's vineyard.

They got away with it. God did not intervene. But the anger and judgment of God was made clear, and in the end, the House of Ahab paid. "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house." In the Israel of God, not even kings have eminent domain.

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