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Tensions still simmering over Atlantic Yards project as arena rises

The scene across the street from the Barclays

The scene across the street from the Barclays Center construction off Altantic Avenue in Brooklyn. Credit: Danny Ghitis

It's a project so big that it has reshaped a neighborhood and inspired a movie, a play and, in time, a book.

Twenty-two acres of Prospect Heights was zoned for the $4.9 billion Atlantic Yards project, 14 percent of which is being transformed into the Barclays Center set to open in September 2012. As construction continues on the arena and underground infrastructure, the past decade’s disputes about the use of eminent domain to displace residents and businesses still simmer.

And the lack of visible progress on the dilapidated non-arena portion of the parcel — developers ascribe it to the economic downturn and dozens of lawsuits by grass-roots opponents — has continued to galvanize a community that still wonders how much more of Atlantic Yards — including planned high-rises with housing and office space — will actually get financed and built, and when.

"We certainly have been managing a schedule that, for quite a while, was more protracted than we had anticipated," said Mary Anne Gilmartin, the Forest City Ratner executive who oversees development at Atlantic Yards.

Gilmartin said she anticipated that the first 400-unit residential building will break ground this fall.

"And with the arena under construction, we have real momentum,” she said. “Time is going to demonstrate that we have every intention of building the project out, and we're going to build it as quickly as we can."

Since the announcement 2003, opposition to the megadevelopment in what many consider "Brownstone Brooklyn" has crystallized.

"The idea that you're going to build this high-rise complex and the arena smack in the middle of mainly residential communities is offensive, and it's going to cause a lot of problems — it already is," said Daniel Goldstein, who founded Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn after his former home, an apartment in a Pacific Street building that once rose above the Nets' future center court, was threatened by the project.

Goldstein lost his apartment via eminent domain takeover in 2010 after accepting a $3 million buyout. He is now the activist protagonist of "Battle for Brooklyn," a documentary about the struggle against the project's developers that premieres in Manhattan Thursday.

Norman Oder, a watchdog journalist who runs the Atlantic Yards Report blog, is working on a book that he said will offer an alternative narrative to the one "created by the developer, backed by the political establishment and too often aided by unskeptical or cheerleading media coverage."

Just this week, Goldstein's Develop Don't Destroy group led a meeting aimed at influencing plans for the site's non-arena acreage. Meanwhile, the project's developers are trying to make amends through community initiatives such as those that bring Nets players to the area to read to children.

"My goal is to make sure the community sees the Nets and the Barclays Center as an enhancement — as an asset to the borough and the community," Nets CEO Brett Yormark said.

The competing views of the Atlantic Yards project prompted Steve Cosson to stage a social theater production called "In the Footprint: The Battle Over Atlantic Yards," which debuted last winter.

"We had the experience of people being very surprised by the story when they came to see our play," Cosson said. "I think a lot of people came out of the show pretty pissed off, and might see the story as something that's a little more complex than just a basketball team coming to Brooklyn."

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