Probing Atlantic Yards: Brown Memorial’s Rev. Clinton Miller and the D.B.L.C.

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Atlantic Yards, real estate developer Bruce Ratner’s proposed commercial and residential development in downtown Brooklyn, N.Y., has triggered great controversy over who will pay for and who will benefit from the 10-year, $3.5 billion project. The project will adjoin a new arena for the New Jersey Nets, the National Basketball Association team owned by Ratner. Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration has hailed Atlantic Yards as potentially a huge economic boon for the city in general and for Brooklyn in particular.

To be sure, there are benefits to any development of this magnitude. But local pastors are probing below the surface to determine what really is at stake for their community and its residents. Known as the Downtown Brooklyn Leadership Coalition (D.B.L.C.), the group includes the Reverends Dennis Dillon of the Brooklyn Christian Center, who also chairs the coalition; Clinton Miller, Brown Memorial Baptist Church; Mark Taylor, The Church of the Open Door; Patrick Perrin, Hanson Place Central United Methodist Church; David Dyson, Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church; and Anthony Trufant, Emmanuelle Baptist Church.

Other members include City Councilmember Letitia James and State Senator Velmanette Montgomery. The D.B.L.C. has been adamant from the outset that this project should serve the interests of the community.

“We are trying to figure out the best way to make sure that the community and small businesses and women- or minority-owned businesses get the best opportunity to grow organically,” says Miller. “We have to make sure that qualified minority entrepreneurs and women entrepreneurs are included. It’s not that we are antidevelopment. We want to see development. We want to see economic development. But we want to see it done so it is organically beneficial for the Black and minority communities.”

Ratner’s firm, Forest City Ratner, along with eight community organizations, signed a Community Benefits Agreement, that, ostensibly, would do just that. The D.B.L.C. has refused to ratify the agreement, however. “Our coalition was not included in the negotiation of it and the building of it. We were invited but we did not go to negotiate because the people were not objective,” Miller explains. “The agreement was signed by eight community organizations out of a possible 60 in Brooklyn. We don’t feel that the present agreement reflects organic development that will be beneficial to the community.”

Since the signing, it has become public knowledge that at least one signer, Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development, or BUILD, stands to receive a sizable donation from the developer. BUILD reportedly filed documents with the IRS in which it declared $5 million in donations from Ratner for 2005 and 2006.

Miller contends that the problem is deeper than a conflict of interest. “BUILD is in charge of work force development, preparing people from the community to be employed. They were not in existence until the announcement that the arena was going to be built. They don’t have a track record,” he says.

He argues that the BUILD affair also shows the developer is using a classic “divide and conquer” method to get its way. Since community organizations already have signed the agreement, it makes it more difficult for the D.B.C.L. and other dissenters to be heard. Undaunted, the D.B.L.C. established contact with Ratner and kept up the pressure for a renegotiation of the agreement to guarantee better benefits for the community. New negotiations were slated to begin in late January.

D.BL.C.’s actions are in keeping with the special responsibility church leaders have to their community, Miller says. “In theory, the Black church is supposed to exist so that it can make criticisms and tell the truth about what we should be doing, where we should be going, how we should be spending our money,” he says.