In 2003 the city and state of New York partnered with a real estate tycoon named Bruce Ratner and began work on a massive redevelopment scheme known as the Atlantic Yards. The idea was to transform a 22-acre spot near downtown Brooklyn into what Ratner called an "urban utopia," replete with a luxury hotel, multiple high-rise office and apartment towers, and a shiny new sports arena for the NBA Nets, then partially owned by Ratner, to play ball.
The only problem was that more than half of the proposed site happened to be privately owned and occupied, and many of those owners and occupants had zero interest in selling their homes and businesses. So New York turned up the heat and invoked its power of eminent domain. If the holdouts still refused to get with the program, in other words, they'd be evicted and the bulldozers would follow.
Because it never looks good when the government forcibly seizes private property for the benefit of a rich developer, a few public relations sweeteners were also added to the deal, such as promises to build "affordable housing" and other "community benefits." In 2009, New York's highest court upheld the land grab, even though, as the court itself admitted, Atlantic Yards was most likely the product of a rigged system characterized by "political appointees to public corporations relying upon studies paid for by developers." One year later the new arena, now known as the Barclays Center, opened its doors to ticket buyers.
The promised "community benefits," on the other hand, have failed to appear—with one exception. As Andrew Keh reports in The New York Times, the Barclay's Center recently introduced something called the meditation room, "a locked, windowless, cinder-block room tucked near the arena's first aid office and a sushi stand." What's it doing there? As Keh explains, "the meditation room counts essentially as an asterisk in the long list of promises that Forest City Ratner, the project's developer, made to the borough." That pathetic asterisk represents the sum total of the "community benefits" delivered by Ratner and his government allies.
Is it time to say "we told you so" about this eminent domain swindle? Yes, it is. In fact, back in October 2009, Daniel Goldstein, the lead plaintiff in the legal challenge against the Atlantic Yards, basically predicted the outcome. Let's give Goldstein the last word:
When eminent domain is used in service of building a school, a railway, or a hospital, we know what we'll get. But when "economic development" is the justification, we have no idea what we'll get except for false hopes, false dreams, and happy talk, along with a land grab windfall for the developer and theft of homes.
In the case of Atlantic Yards the so-called "benefits" are illusory at best. No attempt has been made by the condemning authority or the lower court to weigh the public versus private benefits; meaning there has been no cost-benefit analysis of the project and no analysis of the developer's benefit. But it doesn't take a degree to see who gets the very short end of the stick.