Foes of arena keep heat on

The Brooklyn Paper
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As temperatures dipped well below freezing, former Yankee all-star pitcher Jim Bouton took to the streets of Prospect Heights Wednesday morning with reporters and local residents in tow.

While Bouton now lives in Massachusetts and hasn’t pitched for the Bronx Bombers in close to 40 years, the man who exposed the seamy underside of baseball in his 1970 book “Ball Four” came to Brooklyn this week to rally against a professional basketball arena proposed for construction at Atlantic and Flatbush avenues.

The tour capped a two-day whirlwind of speaking engagements, book signings, and rallies for Bouton, who recently published his second book, “Foul Ball,” an in-depth diary of his fight to save Wahconah Park in Pittsfield, Mass., one of the oldest baseball fields in the country. A group of developers wanted to tear it down and build a new one a couple of miles away.

Bouton says the fight in Prospect Heights is no different.

“You’re not alone, this is an issue nationwide,” Bouton told about 100 anti-arena activists gathered in the backroom of Freddy’s, a Prohibition-era bar on Sixth Avenue at Dean Street that would be taken by eminent domain to build the stadium.

Noting the similarities between his fight and theirs, he said that developers often use the same “fuzzy financing” and “secret meeting” tactics to make both stadium and arena deals.

Just last month, developer Bruce Ratner announced plans to buy the New Jersey Nets and bring them to Brooklyn by building what he is calling “Atlantic Yards,” a $2.5 billion housing and office complex centered around a 20,000-seat basketball arena. Renowned architect Frank Gehry has drawn up the designs.

The project would stretch from Flatbush to Vanderbilt avenues between Atlantic Avenue and Dean Street and would be built over the Long Island Rail Road yards.

Gov. George Pataki, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Borough President Marty Markowitz are rallying behind the proposal as a growing group of opponents, many of whom are in danger of losing their homes, are fighting it.

The Prospect Heights Action Coalition, which has been leading that fight, invited Bouton down from his home in Egermont, Mass., to visit the site and talk about his own experiences fighting a sports complex plan.

At Freddy’s, Bouton encouraged the opponents to fight the good fight.

Patti Hagan, a founding member of the coalition, announced the results of a community survey that she said found that more than 1,000 residents and workers in 71 buildings would be booted from their homes when the wrecking ball came.

“This is not ugly,” Bouton exclaimed as he admired the industrial and residential buildings that would be razed to make way for the 17 towers reaching as tall as 60 stories.

In order to build there Ratner would have to first obtain development rights over the Long Island Rail Road yards and get the state to take over two square blocks of privately owned property by eminent domain, a power of the government to seize private land for the public good.

The project, most of which is on MTA-owned land, would go through state review, bypassing the more rigorous city land use review process.

Spokespeople for both Ratner and the mayor have said the community will have input into the plan, but it is not clear what role, if any, the community will play.

The financing for the project is still not entirely clear.

Ratner, who is seeking Liberty Bonds to complete his New York Times building in Manhattan, has said he plans to use taxes generated from the arena — everything from concession sales to players’ multi-million salaries — to complete the surrounding office and residential buildings.

Bouton railed against the tax abatement calling it “corporate welfare.”

And he warned that if it gets built, the arena will one day also face obsolescence. “If this stadium gets built, 20 years from now you’ll hear, ‘These Frank Gehry stadiums are out of date.’ So we’re going to be leaving Brooklyn for another place with a Libeskind stadium,” Bouton said, referring to World Trade Center site architect Daniel Libeskind.

After retiring from baseball, Bouton worked for years as a sportscaster at WABC and WCBS, and did not go unrecognized during his Prospect Heights tour.

“Hey, I know that guy,” shouted a Long Island Rail Road employee as Bouton passed by.

Dennis Petersen, an avid sports fan, has been working for the LIRR for the past six years.

“Why should people have to lose their homes?” asked Petersen. “Just five blocks away the area is in total decay,” he said. “They could build over there.”

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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