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Public Security in Brooklyn: A Systemic Failure of Common Sense

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Co-authored by Alan Rosner and Daniel Goldstein

From day one, with everything else on his plate, most especially the state's plummeting revenues, Gov. Paterson reasonably hoped the Atlantic Yards Atlantic Yards development project in Brooklyn would never become his problem. Unfortunately it is fast becoming so. Last Sunday, nationally syndicated columnist George Will continued his denunciations of the misuse of eminent domain by shining a spotlight on developer Bruce Ratner's corrupt alliance with New York State.

The core of the editorial is that; "(t)o seize the acres for Ratner's use, government must claim that the area -- which is desirable because it is vibrant -- is "blighted." Will ends by tying Atlantic Yards to Columbia University's expansion in the Governor's old district where he once famously opposed an earlier University eminent domain land grab:

Both Columbia's and Ratner's attempts at seizing property are "pretextual takings," using trumped-up accusations of blight to concoct a spurious "public use" for a preconceived project.

Still, blight and eminent domain abuse are not the only issues that make Atlantic Yards the Governor's headache...there is also the matter of public security. None of these issues were addressed in the Governor's State of the State Address today, but none will go away without his attention.

In the aftermath of the failed suicide bomb attack on a jet liner over Detroit, worldwide security arrangements were immediately thrown into turmoil. Institutions jumped into action, supported by elected and unelected officials alike. By way of example, Governor Paterson added his name in support of controversial body scan technology at airports, saying "...that for the time being, we're just going to have to live with some very inconvenient security measures... It's the only way to guarantee that an airplane with 300 passengers will reach its destination."

For Brooklyn residents, flying or grounded, there is a question as to where our Governor has been on the issue of Bruce Ratner building an 18,000 seat basketball arena that both Mayor Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly call a potential terrorist target.

Should the Atlantic Yards arena get built and Governor Paterson get elected in his own right, will his words of comfort to Brooklyn be that shutting down lanes on Flatbush and Atlantic avenues is something "we're just going to have to live with." You know, just one of those damn old "inconvenient security measures" the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) said in court would never be needed... hey, what's near perpetual gridlock for the borough's busiest avenues, don't they already suffer from constant traffic snarls... hey, what economic consequences... people have to get to see a basketball game and other entertainments in safety.

For the last week, and in the weeks to come, the constant talk will be about "connecting the dots," about our ignoring things right in front of our faces. That being the case, here are some of the Atlantic Yards dots that were connected for the same state agency, the ESDC, that George Will, and the Columbia University eminent domain case judge, both excoriated:

  • 1997 - Two suicide bombers are thwarted in their attempted attack on Brooklyn's largest transportation hub at Atlantic Avenue.
  • 2003 - Bruce Ratner proposes a 22-acre project including a sports arena, adjacent to the above-mentioned transportation hub, at Brooklyn's busiest traffic intersection and surrounded by skyscrapers.
  • 2004 - Heightened terror alert out of the Dept. of Homeland Security creates gridlock for days from the Manhattan Bridge to well past the proposed Atlantic Yards development site nearly two miles away.
  • 2005 - Elected officials and community groups make their security and security cost concerns known to then Governor Pataki, Mayor Bloomberg, the NYPD and the ESDC.
  • 2007 - As predicted in 2005 for Brooklyn, Newark decides to close two entire streets for security reasons just two weeks before opening their 18,000 seat Prudential Center hockey arena (elected officials raise concerns, again, with Governor Spitzer)
  • 2008 - As predicted in 2005, security costs associated with building a glass arena and skyscraper broke Ratner's budget, led to "value engineering" and architect Frank Gehry's amazing vanishing act.
  • 2009 - The Bloomberg Administration finally issues its urban focused security guidelines for new construction wherein they explicitly write all city sports venues must be treated as high value terrorist targets as previously designated by the Federal Department of Homeland Security. (Again, see dot 2005 above.)
  • 2009 - The ESDC ignores public concerns and approves a Modified General Project Plan for the project that still includes a sports arena structurally integrated with the Atlantic Avenue Station Complex for which no published plans yet exist!

Now it's 2010 and the question is whether Governor Paterson will make good on his recent promise to take a hard look at this high-risk project. Although, how hard can it be to "make the tough choices" he talked about on this Sunday's ABC News interview. What he needs do is direct his own State Office of Homeland Security to conduct a full study once complete plans are made available but before irreversible construction starts. Right now the only security plan that exists for the arena is a five-inch curb and some cameras to take pictures with.

It's hard to image that in a rational world that this could be a courageous choice. But it is certainly easy to imagine how security costs and vehicular traffic interference will eventually kick in once the official arena groundbreaking takes place. That is usually the timing Bruce Ratner expects for his campaign contributions and political friendships.

President Obama conceded that the near disaster in the air over Christmas was a "systemic failure." Here in the Empire State we are seeing a systemic failure of simple common sense. It's nothing new, and it has already had consequences; just ask Frank Gehry. As for Governor Paterson, it is past time for the Governor to step up and be the kind of leader someone would want to vote for.

Bottom line, what Brooklyn community groups really fear, and have for years now, is not an actual terrorist event here in the borough, but what happens when institutions wake up and decide they have to impose security measures where none had ever been planned. Before that happens we need adult leadership from our elected officials that doesn't pretend - as the ESDC did in court - that it would not be "reasonable" to consider terrorism when planning a sports venue next to an existing, previously targeted transportation hub. Governor Paterson should make sure that this time our predictions prove incorrect, by doing the right thing.