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Jefferson Root Written by Jefferson Root
Aug. 18, 2011 | 11:29 PM

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Will the city of Brooklyn ever get over losing the Dodgers?  Even though the team has been playing at Chavez Ravine for over 50 years now, the move seems to have left a semi-permanent scar on the Brooklyn psyche.  It’s almost as if without a professional sports team of their own, Brooklyn is condemned to be a second class city.  Even though he was only a child when the Dodgers left the city, current Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz invokes them more than once in BATTLE FOR BROOKLYN, a new doc which delves into the fight by local residents to prevent a real estate developer from invoking Eminent Domain laws to build a new arena for the New Jersey Nets basketball team.

Directors Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley focus their film primarily on the efforts of Daniel Goldstein, a Brooklyn resident who becomes a kind of accidental activist.  Goldstein purchased a Brooklyn apartment near the Atlantic Yards railroads in 2003, only to find himself in the middle of a fierce land use battle.  Goldstein’s apartment happened to be right in the middle of the “footprint” for an enormous project proposed by Manhattan developer Forest Ratner, who as part owner of the Nets, announced his intent to move the team to Brooklyn.  The Ratner plan would build a new arena for the Nets as part of a sprawling complex designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry.  The project was to include surrounding buildings filled with affordable housing, plus of course, jobs, jobs, jobs.

The trouble began with Ratner’s intent to use Eminent Domain laws to realize their project.  Eminent Domain is invoked by governments when private property is seized for an ostensibly larger public good.  Owners are supposed to receive just compensation in exchange for giving up their property.  In order for the clause to be invoked, an area must first be designated as “blighted”, with the idea that the government would then repurpose it for more productive use.  Studies must be commissioned, and much red tape cut through in order for the clause to be invoked.  Unless, of course, corners can also be cut, and the required studies commissioned after construction begins, which seems to be the claim that Battle for Brooklyn is making.

The issues were further complicated by the great recession of 2008.  With their stock suddenly plummeting, Forest Ratner was forced to greatly scale back the project (Gehry was replaced with someone cheaper, for instance), and to turn to state agencies for additional monies to subsidize it.  The film follows Goldstein and Develop Not Destroy, the grass roots group he founded, as they fight the development all the way to the New York State Supreme Court.

It would be tempting to write off Battle For Brooklyn as a film that would have limited audience appeal outside of New York, and the film certainly has moments where it gets bogged down in the legal minutiae of its subject. There are also a handful of celebrity cameos (Steve Buscemi, Rosie Perez on Goldstein’s side, Jay Z and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Ratner’s) that add little to the film.  But this was a battle that went on for close to a decade, and it’s fascinating to see how Goldstein manages to balance fighting very powerful interests with trying to maintain a healthy personal life. (His future wife turns out to be a fellow activist, and they’re married with a baby girl by the time the fight with Ratner is over.)

Even if you don’t care much one way or the other about “the soul of Brooklyn”, the film still resonates because these same kinds of disputes are by no means unique to New York.  Los Angeles is currently in the middle of a very similar story, as the City Council has just approved a plan for entertainment promoter A.E.G. to build a would be NFL stadium downtown.  How this will affect residents and businesses in the surrounding areas remains to be seen, but Battle For Brooklyn is a potent reminder that vigilance is required to make sure that the development deck isn’t stacked against the common interest from the start.

Battle for Brooklyn opens Friday, August 19th at the Laemmle Music Hall Theatre in Beverly Hills.

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