In early February 2004, I got a call from James Caldwell, with whom I had worked on the 77th Precinct Community Council for seven years. “There’s a meeting tomorrow night at One Metrotech. It’s about Atlantic Yards. I think you should come down there.”
Atlantic Yards had been announced maybe six weeks before. I was impressed with the scope of the vision. I had already heard about the prospect of a “community benefits agreement” similar to the one which had been agreed at the Staples Center project in Los Angeles. But I was concerned about how the people living in and near the footprint would be treated.
The next night, I was shown into a conference room at the Forest City Ratner offices. The Frank Gehry models were on a side table, and the Laurie Olin renderings were pinned to the walls. There were cans of soda and bags of snacks. Many of the people seated at the conference table were people I knew from community organizing in Crown Heights and Fort Greene.
Bruce Ratner stepped in. He thanked everyone in the room individually for supporting his project. This struck me as strange—we hadn’t even heard a pitch yet. Then Mr. Ratner left the room. The door closed behind him, and I realized that there was no one left in the room from his company.
One of the community organizers, Darnell Canada, spoke up. He explained that this was the first organizational meeting of BUILD, whose formation had been announced the week before in a press release from then-Assemblyman Roger Green. “We’re here because we’re going to sign a Community Benefits agreement with Forest City Ratner,” he said. The purpose of the meeting was to decide what to ask for.
"Wait a minute," I said. "We haven’t even heard the pitch. We don’t know what’s going to be built. And we don’t know what’s going to happen to the people who live there now."
"That’s not important, said Darnell. “Where were they when the City cleared people out of Ingersoll Houses? They’ll get what they deserve.”
I looked around. Most of the room, including James and others I had worked with for years, were nodding their heads. At first I couldn’t believe it, but then I understood. This was all part of the developer’s plan. Forest City was going to use a CBA as a wedge to separate civic leaders residing mostly in outlying neighborhoods from the more affluent residents of the community immediately surrounding Atlantic Yards.
My stomach sank. The cynicism of this was shattering. The people sitting around the table clearly did not perceive the extent to which they were in danger of being horribly abused by the developer. Any firm that would be so brazen in manufacturing support as to stage a “community” strategy session in its conference room would certainly have no qualms about disposing of such support as soon as its usefulness had ended. It was simply a matter of time before those taking the bait were going to be let down hard, most likely after suffering humiliation and public scorn.
This early scene in the Atlantic Yards experience turned my reaction to the project from interest to disgust. It was pretty clear that nothing good for the community was going to come out of something that started this way.
The first casualty was Darnell himself, who, along with co-leader Eric Blackwell, left BUILD a several weeks after the February 2004 meeting. They were replaced by the team of James and Marie Louis. (Darnell passed away in May 2011, and Marie passed away in December.) James had done a tremendous job of turning around the 77th Precinct Community Council in the late 1990s, but this time the deck was stacked against him. Although the CBA may have been in theory “legally binding,” enforceability would only have been possible if BUILD was not dependent upon Forest City for funding. Forest City never even bothered to hire the independent compliance monitor the CBA required. BUILD failed to convert promises of a pre-apprenticeship training program into union jobs for local residents. For its efforts, BUILD and its leaders had to endure the pain of being caught lying about funding by Forest City, and later being sued by disgruntled construction “trainees” who claimed to have been promised union jobs, but were instead forced to work for a month at a different site without pay.
As of next Friday, BUILD will be gone, the second CBA signatory after ACORN to dissolve under financial stress. Unlike ACORN, an established developer and marketer of affordable housing at the time Atlantic Yards was announced, BUILD had no history of operating a workforce development program before that fateful meeting in February 2004. I believe James truly wanted to create permanent, living wage jobs at Atlantic Yards for unemployed residents of Crown Heights, Clinton Hill, Fort Greene and downtown Brooklyn. Forest City was looking for something else, and now that it is done with what it needed, it’s obviously willing to let BUILD fold.
The network of civic leaders and organizations serving working communities in this part of Brooklyn is a fragile ecosystem, and Forest City’s CBA has had the effect of infecting it like a cancer. Its actions sowed distrust among diverse groups that had for years been working closely together. Forest City’s behavior in this way fit the same pattern of corporate avarice and contempt for the community evidenced by the firm’s hijacking of affordable housing bonds to finance luxury apartments, its subversion of the State UDC law to take property and rezone it without public review, and its continued PR efforts to marginalize Atlantic Yards criticism.
In the end, the reason BUILD failed is the same reason that BUILD was created: a total lack of government oversight at Atlantic Yards. BUILD stands as one sad illustration of how a Mayor and four Governors have cleared a path for a developer to run roughshod over a community, and have avoided putting in place controls that would make Atlantic Yards accountable for promised jobs and housing. We can't control Forest City's profit motive or its ethics, but we certainly deserve much more from our elected leaders.