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PACKED HOUSE

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Several hundred Brooklynites packed Borough Hall Wednesday night to tell Borough President Marty Markowitz just what they think about a city plan to convert Downtown Brooklyn into a mega-blocked, high-rise metropolis.

While most such public hearings draw just a handful of concerned citizens, on Wednesday night more than 100 people were turned away from the main room and forced to watch the hearing on a television screen in a room downstairs. Nearly 100 people spoke.

“I got a hunch that I’m gonna hear plenty,” Markowitz said before settling in for what turned out to be a five-hour hearing.
Armed with placards, signs and plenty to say, those who took the microphone expressed a decidedly split view.

In one corner, critics raised concerns about traffic and transportation, preserving the character of the surrounding neighborhoods, and the seizure of private property for private developments under the state’s power of eminent domain.

Others rallied behind the plan, saying that it would create much-needed jobs for Brooklyn residents.

As part of the Downtown Brooklyn Plan, the government would condemn seven acres of private land including 130 residential units, 100 businesses and a college.

Developer Bruce Ratner’s plan for the adjacent Atlantic Yards would have the state seize more than three square blocks of privately owned land, a portion of which would be used to build an arena for the New Jersey Nets basketball team, which Ratner is acquiring. The Atlantic Yards and downtown plans overlap at the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic avenues.

The city says the downtown plan is intended to attract businesses here that might otherwise lease space in New Jersey or elsewhere.
Darnell Canada, leader of Brooklyn United for Innovative Development (BUILD), a supporter of the plan, quipped, “How high this building is isn’t important to people who don’t have a job and are out there dodging bullets.” Noting that the unemployment rate among residents of the nearby Walt Whitman and Farragut housing projects was well over 65 percent, he said, “There are a lot of people who need jobs.”

Residents opposed to construction of Ratner’s $2.5 billion Nets arena, office and apartment complex in neighboring Prospect Heights were prominent in their attendance, urging Markowitz, a vocal proponent of that plan, to reconsider.

The scope of change and property condemnations envisioned by the Downtown Brooklyn Plan, together with Ratner’s Atlantic Yards site, would alter the character of the greater downtown area and have an impact on the neighborhoods that surround it — Fort Greene, Park Slope, Boerum Hill, Clinton Hill, Cobble Hill and Brooklyn Heights, as well as Prospect Heights.

Kicking off the meeting, Councilwoman Letitia James, a vocal opponent of the arena plan whose district includes the neighboring areas of Prospect Heights, Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, said she “supported the concept” of the Downtown Brooklyn Plan but called for major modifications.

Those changes, she said, would include capping building heights at 250 feet, and removing the section of the plan at Flatbush and Atlantic avenues where Ratner wants to build a 620-foot office tower as a gateway to his arena site.

James also called for 50 percent of the housing to be designated for middle- and low-income tenants, which she described as earning less than $40,000 a year.

Civil liberties attorney Norman Siegel, who signed on this week to represent the residents in Prospect Heights who would be displaced to make way for the arena, called on Markowitz to make the planning process as open as possible.

Siegel criticized the borough president for not listing the public hearing on his Web site and asked him to provide a full calendar of events with explanations relating to all Downtown Brooklyn and arena plan meetings.

Residents and business owners facing eviction under the Downtown Brooklyn Plan also testified, asking Markowitz to help protect them.

Joe Betesh, owner of Brooklyn USA, a three-story clothing store at Duffield and Fulton streets, said his 25,000-square-foot business would be seized if the plan goes through.

“I have 50 employees that all have families,” Betesh said at the hearing.

The Downtown Brooklyn Plan would allow for the construction of at least 6.7 million square feet of office space, 1 million square feet of retail space, 1,000 units of housing and 2,500 parking places.

Vincent Battista, executive director of the Institute of Design and Construction, a college at 141 Willoughby St., on the corner of Flatbush Avenue Extension, said that under the plan his 57-year-old college would be knocked down to “plant grass.” An open space is slated for that location.

City Housing, Preservation and Development Commissioner Daisy Lopez outlined compensation measures for displaced owners and met with some of them individually during the meeting.

Councilman David Yassky, whose district includes Brooklyn Heights, DUMBO, Downtown Brooklyn and Boerum Hill, said he supports the plan but has a few traffic-related concerns.

“We have to make sure the surrounding residential neighborhoods are not overrun by traffic,” said Yassky, who called on the city to implement a pilot residential parking program for residents.

Plan supporter Canada, of BUILD, said “the last time we fought the process, the process went forward and we got nothing,” a reference to the construction of Metrotech, an office campus between Adams Street and Flatbush Avenue Extension from Willoughby to Tillary streets.

Other supporters of the plan included officials from Con Edison, Keyspan, the New York Marriott Brooklyn hotel, Polytechnic University, Long Island University, Brooklyn Academy of Music and Brooklyn Public Library, most of whose properties are within the plan area.

“My job is to represent the borough of Brooklyn to the best of my ability,” Markowitz said after the last speaker finished, just before 11 pm.

Markowitz has until March 9 to submit his final recommendation, before the plan goes for review before the City Planning Commission and then the City Council.

“My door is always open,” Markowitz added.


Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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