Arena foes mull suit

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A group of Prospect Heights residents fighting to save their homes from condemnations that would make way for Bruce Ratner’s Nets arena development have interviewed a noted civil liberties attorney to take up their cause.

Norman Siegel, the former executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, who has championed victims of police brutality and defended the right of the Ku Klux Klan to protest in the city, may be gearing up to take on real estate mogul Ratner next.

“We’ve just begun,” Siegel told a group of nearly 100 Prospect Heights residents who came out for a meet-and-greet with the lawyer at an artist’s studio on Dean Street Wednesday night.

“It’s not just about basketball and it’s not just about the arena,” said Siegel, fielding questions from the audience.

“The arena is the gimmick in his development plan for something larger,” Siegel said, explaining that building the arena was merely a means for Ratner to get the state to condemn adjoining land.

The battle could take several years and the community must decide if it’s in it for the long haul, cautioned Siegel, who said he could possibly challenge the constitutionality of eminent domain.

Ratner is proposing to construct a 22-acre, Frank Gehry-designed arena, office tower and residential village starting at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues and stretching six blocks into Prospect Heights. The plan includes 17 buildings reaching as high as 620 feet, dwarfing the nearby Williamsburgh Savings Bank tower.

A number of neighborhood groups and residents are seeking to block the plan, which would feature a 19,000-seat basketball arena to house his newly purchased New Jersey Nets.

To build his complex, Ratner would also likely ask the state to use its powers of eminent domain to seize the homes of approximately 850 people, including 400 residents of a homeless shelter, two recently converted luxury condominium buildings and one co-operative building.

But neighbors are not willing to go that easy or that fast.

A group of homeowners have already hired Manhattan attorney Jack Lester. If Siegel were to come on board, he would represent the whole community, he said.

A neighborhood decision on whether to hire Siegel was scheduled for the weekend.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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