The Atlantic Yards Fight: Why the Last Holdout Settled

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Daniel Goldstein, founder of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (Photo by Matthew Schuerman)

After seven years of fighting the Atlantic Yards Project in Brooklyn, the last remaining holdout is leaving. Daniel Goldstein, founder of the group Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, which filed several lawsuits to halt the project, has reached an agreement with developer Forest City Ratner. Goldstein will get $3 million and says he’ll leave May 7. 'It was never my goal to get that kind of settlement,' Goldstein says. 'It was never my goal to settle.'

The Atlantic Yards project withstood numerous court challenges by Goldstein and his supporters, including a decision last year by the state Court of Appeals, ruling that the use of eminent domain was justified. Also, while neither the full City Council nor state legislature voted on the plan, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and three governors (George Pataki, Eliot Spitzer, and David Paterson) all supported it.

In this interview with WNYC’s Matthew Schuerman, Goldstein discusses why he did settle, what the deal means to him, what he’s learned from his long battle, and whether it was worth it.


Matthew Schuerman: After six, maybe seven years of fighting this project, why today did you agree to leave?

Daniel Goldstein: On March 1 the state of New York took ownership of my home, and personally all that was left to fight over was how long I would have to live in my home, how long it would be before the state evicted me from what has been my home for almost exactly seven years now. And there weren’t a lot of good choices for me personally, and a decision I made today after about five hours of being in court with the other side and with the judge was that it was time for me to settle with New York State to leave my home. And what they wanted was for me to do it quickly, and that’s basically what was settled today. I would leave on May 7, and they would pay me to do that, and pay me the compensation for my apartment that I once owned but they now own.

MS: So can you tell me how much are you making on this deal?

DG: Well, how much money they paid me today is not something I intended to discuss, but it was said out loud in court, and leaked, and numerous reporters have called and asked me if that’s correct. The settlement is for $3 million. To my mind the settlement is to get me out of here way before I would have to otherwise. And some of it is for the value of my apartment. I have very mixed feelings about it. I have to pay a big chunk of that to my attorney, who did a good job for me so he gets paid for it. And I’m pleased that I was able to come out of all this in the end at least on my feet, and particularly for my family’s future. It was never my goal to get that kind of settlement. It was never my goal to settle. I was forced into it. And people might think I’m happy today. That’s not my emotion I feel at all. I’m tired and worn out. I feel – it’s the first time I’ve had to agree to something with New York State and Ratner when it comes to Atlantic Yards, and that’s difficult to do. It really is, even over that kind of money. It is what it is, and I’m pleased though that I –- the sticking point in that discussion in court today was they wanted me to give up my free speech rights, and I refused to do that and I managed to maintain those rights in our agreement.

MS: Did you intend to stay here for longer and be a holdout in order to gain a better price for your apartment?

DG: Was that my intention from the beginning, to stay here? No. My intention of staying here fighting the project – fighting the abuse of eminent domain, the abuses of power that I think this project demonstrates -– was all about the principles of fighting against those things along with the community that I’ve come to know opposes the Atlantic Yards project. There is great fervor about the resistance to the project and great conflict. People do not want this project, and that’s, you know, I’ve found myself in the position where I could be one of the leaders of that movement and organize that movement in opposition. So I didn’t stick around to see this day. This is the result of fighting, and it’s the only thing I’ve been able to do to protect myself. Over all these years I was really putting myself out there, and there was nothing left to fight about personally. My home had been taken, I lost ownership, I was going to be kicked out in a month, two months, three months –- if I stay that long it would not change anything for anyone. So I didn’t see any logical reason to prolong that inevitable day.

MS: Looking back, aside from maybe a million, maybe $2 million above and beyond attorney’s fees and what you paid for this apartment, what else did you gain from this experience?

DG: I’ve gained a community of friends and acquaintances and colleagues and cohorts, comrades in Brooklyn who are like-minded when it comes to what they feel are the rights of a community, the rights of individuals in the city and anywhere. I’ve come to understand how our government works or doesn’t work, how it’s dysfunctional and you can see it everywhere you look. Atlantic Yards is just one big example of it. I met my wife, who’s an activist against the Atlantic Yards project – before we ever met that’s what she was doing. And we met, we got married, and we now have a baby. I’m a lucky person because of that. None of that would have happened. But I think I personally have learned a ton from so many people. I’ve made relationships that would last forever. But I feel very proud, and it goes on. Just because I did what I did today doesn’t mean it doesn’t go on. I’m very proud that the community and that’s thousand of people have resisted the project and exposed it to be what I think and many people think it is; an illegitimate project that underwent an illegitimate process.

MS:The opposition talked a lot about how unjust it was, how it was a fixed deal, how it wasn’t good for he public benefit, but in the end it got the approvals it needed to get and it won in court several times. Do you think the opposition accomplished anything in terms of convincing the broader public of how this deal or others like it are wrong?

DG: I think anyone paying attention knows that the MTA’s sales of the rail yards to the low bidder was wrong. I think the public understands that when you give 22 acres or so of land to a developer through a no-bid deal, no-vote, that’s wrong. I think the project has been exposed to, consists of broken promises and public relations campaign that has nothing to do with reality. I think, yes, we’ve litigated a lot because the project never went through any political process and I think what all that litigation has shown is that this kind of what I believe is an abuse of power by our city government and particularly our state government and letting a private developer drive a project of this magnitude what our litigation has shown is that that’s all legal and that’s all fine apparently amongst our court and our legislators and what I’ve seen is that legislators write laws from decades ago that allow unaccountable and unelected bodies such as the ESDC to make huge decisions about the future of communities and then those communities resist and go to court and the court says we need to defer to that unelected unaccountable agency and though this all looks very bad they seem to have made a rational decision and this is a political issue anyway, so the buck is passed from the three branches because the governors have, of course, always said the courts are taking care of it, talk to the legislators. I think we’ve shown that this project and the development process in New York State is really broken and I think people have paid attention to that.

MS: Will it keep it from happening again?

DG: I hope and believe that there will be reform of New York State’s eminent domain law that will bring back some protections for property owners and tenants and stop this sort of abuse of power that happens when a developer goes to the governor and says I want 22 acres take it for me. I think the powers that be will think many times before bypassing the city’s land use review process. I don’t think anything quite like Atlantic Yards, a no-bid deal for 22 acres in the heart of Brooklyn that never received a single vote by an elected official is going to happen again.

MS: How did you find yourself in the middle of this?

DG: I was a renter in Gowanus for seven years, for about four of those years I was looking for an apartment to buy. I bought the one we’re sitting in. Six months later Atlantic Yards was announced, and my home and the rest of the blocks around me were on the map, but in Ratner’s plan they weren’t there so I found myself, along with a lot of people facing the idea that the government was going to take our properties or the threat of taking our properties was going to be hanging over us and my natural reaction was that’s crazy, how can that be. And very quickly the communities: Fort Greene, Prospect Heights, Park Slope, Clinton Hill, Boerum Hill organized and I found myself at the center of it, reluctantly.

MS: Did you ever do anything like this before? Did you have any skills that came in handy?

DG:I’ve never been a public speaker of any kind. I did study social movements for my undergraduate degree. I was a little bit of an anti-war activist, but nothing like this. I became a leader and an outspoken leader against the project and organizing the community. No I hadn’t done that before. I made a decision that I was going to throw my creativity and intelligence into this fight. I thought it was a fight well worth fighting and I still feel that way.

MS: But after all of this and there were a lot of poisonous words that went back and forth on both sides on this issue, you lost, you’re giving up your apartment, was it all worth it?

DG: I understand the attention on me, particularly today. This fight is not about me. It really isn’t. I know people like to personalize everything. To me this project is about a failure of our government, a failure of a democratic process, and about corruption and decision making that’s not about the public or the public interest. And add to that the abuse of eminent domain, taking people’s homes for a private developers’ profit, it’s all wrong. And I think it was well worth fighting. Taking on fights that you know you’re going to win, that’s not difficult to do. Taking on fights that you know are right, are principled, and maybe you will win and if you don’t win you’ll still succeed in exposing it. I would argue that the community that opposed the project, while we haven’t stopped the project, I think we’ve won in a lot of ways. We stuck to our principals. We always talked about the facts, as we saw them at least, but facts. It was never about anything other than that. And I don’t think the facts are on the side of Forest City Ratner, I don’t they’ll prove to be and unfortunately I think what we’ll see at the site is not anything like they promised. Their focus is clearly on the arena. I hope if they’re going to go forward they will build all of the affordable housing they’ve promised in ten years. I don’t see it happening.

MS: Do you have any regrets? Do you wish the fight that you waged was waged differently or different things happened along the way that could have yielded greater success?

DG: I wished that particularly our local state elected officials were more engaged in the issues we were discussing. Most of them popped in and out here or there. But I really wish our elected officials, beyond Letitia James and Velmanette Montgomery who were very engaged, understood the magnitude of what’s being proposed here. And that we’re going to have to live with it and they’re going to have to live with it for decades. And I wish we could have done a better job at convincing them to pay more attention. None of them were happy with the project. But nothing was going to happen unless they made an effort with the governor and others. I wish the organization had had more money to hire the best lobbyists. We didn’t hire any lobbyists. Unfortunately, this stuff is all about access and that’s what Forest City specializes in. There’s always more community outreach you can do. Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn has been run, for the most part, by volunteers who come and go and their time is precious and they don’t always have a lot of time. We worked with scores of community groups and individuals in all the neighborhoods. But there’s always more you can do.

We made a great effort, for example, to work with public housing residents because I think most of them are going to be hurt by this project. And I think many of them understand that and are troubled by it. But I think divisions that plague this city throughout are always going to make organizing for whatever the cause is or issue, difficult. That’s unfortunate. I think bridges were built between many communities in opposing this project. So, there’s always more we could have done. But I do not for a second regret the fact that we went to court numerous times to expose the project, because I feel very strongly that on the legal arguments we made we were right.

MS: Where are you going to move?

DG: I only found out today that I have to move in about two weeks. I have been looking for a while, I haven’t found anything yet. I plan to move somewhere in Brooklyn, in one of these neighborhoods--unfortunately, not that far from Atlantic Yards--Fort Greene or Park Slope or Prospect Heights, these surrounding neighborhoods.

MS: What will you miss the most about this apartment?

DG: It’s been very quiet for a long time because we’ve been the only ones in the building. We have unique views, rare views of Brooklyn, of Park Slope, all the way to the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. I don’t think we’ll have that again. I’ll miss that. It’s the kind of light and views that are hard to get. It’s a beautiful building, It is extremely well situated, which why Forest City Ratner wanted it. I can walk literally two blocks in any direction and find a subway or a different neighborhood, and these are some of the great neighborhoods in the world, I would argue. And I won’t be able to enjoy that aspect.

MS: And what will you do with your time?

DG: Once we get a little rest and a new place to live. I’m going to pursue any number of things. I’m going most likely to be involved politically in the city, whether it’s through lobbying or public relations or working on campaigns. I suspect that’s the direction I’ll go. I might go to law school, we’ll have to see. That’s uncertain. Being involved in this kind of fight day-to-day, I’ve found it very difficult to plan for the future. But I’ll have to find a new home and a new job.

I want to make it clear that Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, though it obviously has to transition a bit, will still be here. It will still criticize the project and watch out for problems that occur. If something really big happens and the site is no longer something Forest City Ratner wants they’ll step in. So I’m not going anywhere.

MS: Is there anything else you want to add?

DG: I just want to say that I hope people understand that Atlantic Yards was never fundamentally a fight about how tall a building is, how dense a site is, about traffic and these sort of things. The project itself and the impacts of it were all symptoms of a completely broken process and a government willing to let a developer make all of the decisions. Even today in court, even though it was the state officially trying to evict me it was all about Forest City Ratner they were the ones making the decisions. We can’t let any private entity make huge decisions about what to do with huge pieces of property in this city without a vote, using public money and eminent domain. To me that’s the fundamental problem with this project, was the process, and all the rest is a result of that fundamental problem.