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Hearts, not wallets, drive anti-arena restaurant week

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Nearly two-dozen Brooklyn restaurants have agreed to donate up to 5 percent of their proceeds this week to help Develop-Don’t Destroy Brooklyn fight Bruce Ratner’s plan to build a 19,000-seat basketball arena, office towers and high-rise apartment buildings in Prospect Heights.

But for many of the owners of these restaurants, the decision to help the anti-arena group had nothing to do with protecting their businesses.

Most of the restaurant, cafe and bar owners participating in DDDB’s “Brooklyn Dodge” restaurant week fundraiser — it runs Oct. 17-24 and a complete list can be viewed at www.dddb.net/restaurants — could not predict how the arena would impact their businesses. Many even acknowledged that the Ratner development might generate more business for them.

But what has brought these owners together is the overwhelming sense that the developer and his allies have neglected to include the community in their plans.

“It’s not an issue of there being any new business in the community or who will prosper or not. I’m not willing to trade off my prosperity for your misfortune,” said Bob Law, who owns a seafood cafe on Vanderbilt Avenue that bears his name. “

“I have a concern about the process by which Ratner is bypassing the community,” by going directly to the state, said Law.

Francine Stephens, owner of Franny’s, on Flatbush Avenue at Prospect Place, said a lack of community involvement is her main concern, too.

“On some level, I think it will be a positive for the business. But that’s not what matters to me,” she said. “We not only own a business in this neighborhood, we live here as well.”

Stephens said she and her husband, Andrew Feinberg, have invested a lot in their neighborhood, and that type of investment, not outside investment migrating in, is the best way for the community to prosper over the long run.

Eric Goetze, who owns the Blue Sky Bakery, on Fifth Avenue at Bergen Street in Park Slope, said he, too, is mostly upset about the lack of community involvement in a project that he describes as hastily pre-approved. “I don’t think there’s any disagreement that the community needs to be developed, but it’s a question of doing it the right way,” Goetze said.

As it stands, he said, the fate of the project is being determined by state and city politicians without the consultation of a neighborhood that might have specific needs and desires very different from what the developers have in mind.

“There wasn’t inclusion of the community about whether this is what we want as a community,” he said.
A Forest City Ratner spokeswoman this week refuted that claim. “I would have to disagree that the community has been excluded,” said Lupe Todd. “We have shown a tremendous amount of inclusion.”

Todd noted that Ratner’s company has been negotiating a community benefits agreement that includes representatives from Community Boards 2, 6 and 8, along with associations representing Prospect Heights and surrounding neighborhoods.

“I’m not certain I’ll be negatively affected, but I’m not sure that it will have a positive effect either,” said Adam Robertson, who opened Total Wine Bar only nine weeks ago. “I’m more concerned about quality of life issues,” he said.

While Robertson said he is not opposed to the idea of development, Robertson is worried that this project could open the door for giant chains like Wal-Mart. Once that happens, he said, the neighborhood would lose the charm and flavor that he values.

“It becomes just another place to land an airplane,” said Robertson.

Lucy Koteen, who organized the fundraising drive for DDDB, disagrees with project advocates and even some participating restaurant owners that the arena will bring more foot traffic, and thus more business, to the area. “People who come to the arena for basketball games won’t even see the street,” Koteen said.

But many restaurant owners also said that the 5 percent donation DDDB is asking for will be difficult for them to swing.

“I’m a new business and I have a lot of misgivings about giving away 5 percent,” Robertson said. Like many of his counterparts, Robertson said he would donate what he could.

Koteen said that 5 percent is just a target DDDB is shooting for. And while Franny’s owner Stephens said she doesn’t know of a single restaurant owner who can afford 5 percent, she believes giving DDDB a way to showcase their support is the most important thing.

“We’ll give what we feel is appropriate,” said Stephens, “because we support the work that they’re doing that we can’t do ourselves.”


Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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