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Holdout hopes dim as NBA arena moves ahead

The last holdouts against turning a residential area into an arena for the New Jersey Nets are low on options after the developer sold half a billion dollars in bonds last week.
Brooklyn Arena Last Stand
Daniel Goldstein stands on the roof of his condominium building overlooking the Prospect Heights neighborhood in the Brooklyn on Dec. 30. Goldstein, 40, his wife and 14-month old daughter are the only remaining residents of the nine-story building that sits in the footprint of a proposed NBA arena.Kathy Willens / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

On many mornings, Daniel Goldstein wakes to the sound of work crews demolishing the neighborhood around his Brooklyn apartment. Every crash and bang is a reminder that it may only be a matter of time before the wreckers come for his home, too.

The 40-year-old and his wife and daughter are among a handful of holdouts still living on several once-thriving urban blocks being cleared to make way for a new arena for the NBA's Nets.

The place isn't quite a ghost town, but it's getting there.

Goldstein's family is the only one left in their nine-story condominium building. Everyone else sold out years ago when the team's owner, the developer Bruce Ratner, offered nearly double what their homes were worth to try to get control of the site quickly.

Other owners have cleared out, too. The two biggest apartment buildings nearby have been vacant for some time. Several structures have been reduced to rubble.

A hardy few — the stray tenant here, the homeowner there — remain.

As Goldstein's neighbors negotiated rich buyout deals, he ignored invitations to join the talks and instead became the lead spokesman for a neighborhood group opposed to the arena plan.

Money wasn't the issue. Nor did he have any burning love for the neighborhood — not initially, anyway. He only bought his place a few months before the arena project was announced.

He just didn't like the idea of being pushed around.

"I made a commitment to myself that I wasn't going to be forced to sell. ... I wasn't going to be pressured or bullied," he said. "I didn't know what that would mean. But I knew I was committing myself to it."

Developer lowers offers
Only now is the cost of defiance becoming clear.

After a six-year fight, the state has begun the final legal steps to seize the family's condo using eminent domain law and hand it to Ratner's company.

In November, Goldstein got a letter saying the state planned to pay him $510,000, about $80,000 less than what he paid in 2003.

That's a fraction of what Ratner was offering years ago, and nowhere near what he needs to buy a comparable place in the same part of Brooklyn.

Other remaining residents will get even less.

Years ago, Ratner's representatives offered David Sheets $75,000 to give up his rent-regulated apartment.

He turned them down, in part because they insisted he sign a gag order and stop criticizing the project.

"Essentially, they wanted me to sign away my citizenship," he said.

Now, all he's being offered is a little help finding another place to live. In the meantime, life on the block has gotten tougher.

He spent much of 2008 without gas or electricity when the city ripped up the street.

"We were overrun with rats. The jackhammering went 22 hours a day," he said. "If I had any idea what a living nightmare this would be, hell no, I wouldn't have stayed around."

"You're standing there in the morning shaving, and the jackhammers are going and they are demolishing an eight-story building a few feet away. You have to ask yourself, 'Why am I living like this? This is insane. This is lunacy.'"

It looks like that perseverance won't pay off.

It has been years since a state authority approved Ratner's plans to replace a rail yard and existing buildings with the arena, 16 new apartment and office towers and thousands of new residents for the development, called Atlantic Yards.

Russian billionaire a backer
The financing has been falling into place, too. A half-billion dollars in bonds have been sold. Ratner has a new deep-pocketed business partner, Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who is also buying the Nets franchise.

Goldstein still isn't ready to concede defeat, but he isn't blind either.

"We'll have to find somewhere to live," he said. "Look, we're human and rational. We need to think about it now," he said.

Sheets is more bitter.

"There is no winning," he said. "My neighborhood has already been ruined. A thousand people have been displaced."

All that's left, he said, is the idea that opponents can make the process so painful for Ratner and his allies, government officials will think twice the next time they want to seize people's homes.

"If, in fighting Atlantic Yards, we've made it any easier for people to fight their own battles, then we've accomplished something," he said.

There may be a grain of truth there.

A judge overseeing a similar eminent domain case involving Columbia University recently ruled that the state's process for declaring healthy neighborhoods "blighted" so they could be seized for redevelopment was, at least in that case, a farce.

There is also occasional talk now, though no action yet, about reforming the state's eminent domain laws.

Victory for the Brooklyn holdouts, though, has always been a long-shot.

By the time the arena project became public knowledge in 2003, Ratner had already lined up support from the city's most powerful political figures.

Plus, there was excitement about pro sports returning to Brooklyn, as well as the mini-city Ratner planned to build.

When architect Frank Gehry unveiled his initial designs for the site, New York Times architecture writer Herbert Muschamp pronounced the plan to surround the arena with a remarkable collection of towers, public plazas and greenery, a "Garden of Eden."

There was plenty of criticism, too. Residents complained the project was just too big for the neighborhood. Traffic would be terrible, parking impossible, schools overcrowded.

Over time, many things that excited people about Atlantic Yards have disappeared.

Gehry was fired because his designs were too expensive. Plans for the towers and apartments have been put on hold because of the uncertainty in the real estate market.

The latest renderings of the arena show a conventional dome that will, at least for awhile, stand alone while the cleared blocks around it lay empty or are used as parking lots.

Arena boosters promise that the project will, indeed, all get built, including units of affordable housing that will replace the inexpensive rental dwellings being torn down.

Maybe, or maybe not, but the endgame is clearly at hand.

One business still operating next door to Sheets, a beloved tavern called Freddy's, recently installed chains so patrons can resist eviction by handcuffing themselves to the bar.

Goldstein is talking with other activists about what sort of symbolic last stand they could take in his building when authorities finally come to evict them.

As for a new home, he hopes to find one in Brooklyn.

"We've really come to love where we live," he said.