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Everything contested with large Brooklyn development of old rail yard

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Brooklyn, NEW YORK -- A state senator stood up and endorsed a development project that includes a new arena for the New Jersey Nets. He was shouted down by a woman who opposes the plan.

The woman was immediately engulfed in boos and jeers by a crowd including construction workers, affordable-housing advocates and teenagers wearing NBA jerseys.

It was just one of many heated encounters at a recent hearing on the project that dragged on for seven hours.

Supporters say the hearing illustrated the breadth of an extraordinary local coalition in favor of the plan -- a group that believes the poor and middle class will benefit through jobs and affordable housing promised by the developer.

But for opponents, the hearing was indicative of what they believe is a stage-managed public review process.

"The fix was in from the start," said City Council Member Letitia James, who opposes the project.

The $4.2 billion Atlantic Yards project, to be built over and around a rail yard, was designed by architect Frank Gehry. It includes an 18,000-seat arena, apartments, office buildings, stores and a hotel in 16 towers as tall as 58 stories. The arena would become home to the New Jersey Nets, bringing major professional sports back to Brooklyn for the first time since the Dodgers left in 1957.

Developer Bruce Ratner, who bought the Nets in 2004, believes the project will breathe life into a void etched by the rail yard. He has agreed to make environmental improvements to the neighborhood -- recently declared blighted by the state -- and turn seven acres of the project into publicly accessible space.

"This project guarantees the growth of Brooklyn for the future," said Jim Stuckey, executive vice president of Forest City Ratner Cos.

Opponents say the biggest blight is on the horizon.

"Atlantic Yards is inconsistent with the character of the community," said James, whose constituents live in the project's proposed footprints.

The scale and striking design, with undulating, glass towers of varying size and angles, would transform the image of predominantly low-rise and brownstone Brooklyn neighborhoods. Opponents say it will create a traffic nightmare.

Forest City has been buying up land and buildings with offers above market rate. It says it now owns or controls 93 percent of the condos and co-ops in the area and the majority of the rest of the real estate.

In 2004, Daniel Goldstein and other condo owners helped start Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, which has grown to include 21 community groups. Members have dissected the developer's plans, proposed alternatives, published copious critiques in print and Web logs, protested against eminent domain seizures and threatened litigation.

"We want to see development over the rail yards that is in a reasonable scale for the existing community, and we are against using eminent domain for a project like this," Goldstein said.

Project supporters think the opposition is distinctly local and fueled by transplanted Manhattanites. Developers have the backing of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Gov. George Pataki and the majority of the City Council, state Assembly and Senate.

They also have a key partner in the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, a national advocate for low- and middle-income urban families. ACORN agreed to support the plan in exchange for an agreement that includes integrating affordable housing into Atlantic Yards.

Under the deal, 50 percent of the 4,500 rental apartments proposed would go to people with income starting at $21,270 per family of four and reaching $113,440. Those apartments would be integrated so that low-income families and market-rate renters would live side by side.

"The elevator has to work for everyone," said Bertha Lewis, executive director of ACORN New York. She said that if the deal can set a template for other developments, it might mitigate the plight of poor people, who have watched Brooklyn improve only to be priced out.

The plan awaits the end of a 60-day comment period in mid-September before a state agency overseeing the project can send it for final consideration to the Public Authorities Control Board, controlled by the governor.

Even with swift approval, the fight over Atlantic Yards is likely to spill into the courts even though backers hope the Brooklyn Nets will be playing basketball in the new arena by 2009.

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