Seeds of Their Discontent
Angered by the massive Pacific Park construction project, residents take up a new form of protest
By Randy Gener
Talk about tactics. While many Brooklynites set off this past summer to storm housing hearings or to stage noisy rallies outside the Barclays Center, discontented residents in the Dean Street area of Prospect Heights joined forces to throw seed bombs in a clandestine protest.
Their foe? The private developers of the $4.9 billion Pacific Park development project (formerly Atlantic Yards) as well as the New York state and local elected officials who backed the development of 22 acres in downtown Brooklyn.
Their heads wrapped in black hoodies, these Dean Streeters packed balls of manure and disc-like soil with sunflower seeds. It was one o’clock in the morning. They dragged grocery bags of them across Dean Street between Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues and carted them to two empty lots, one of them close to a police precinct near Sixth Avenue.
Fancying themselves as guerilla gardeners, the Dean Street residents lobbed the seed bombs across tall chain-link fences of a construction rail yard. A couple of playful kids were in tow, asking their parents if the bombs were chocolate chip cookies.
“We made the seed bombs, because we wanted it to be pertinent,” said Peter Krashes, a Brooklyn painter and a vocal leader of the Dean Street Block Association. “This is something we can actually do ourselves. We were so frustrated. There were lots of feelings of uncertainty. We can’t do anything about anything — but we can do this.”
As major construction continues, the association advocates are pushing to make sure that the quality of their lives is not disrupted and undermined. Their actions are a far cry from the early and almost-a-decade-long opposition to what was then known as Atlantic Yards. (As a point of comparison, the association catalyzed a community-based effort in 2008 to sue the State of New York and the developer to force a supplemental environmental study for the project.)
Since 2014, the redevelopment project has been led by Greenland Forest City Partners, a joint venture between Greenland USA (a subsidiary of Shanghai-based Greenland Group Co.) and Forest City Ratner Companies. The Barclays Center arena is now the home of the Brooklyn Nets and the New York Islanders. Rebranded in 2014 as Pacific Park Brooklyn, the Atlantic Yard build-out has since been fast accelerating. The area is roughly bounded by Flatbush and Fourth avenues to the west, Vanderbilt Avenue to the east, Atlantic Avenue to the north, and Dean and Pacific streets to the south.
November 2016 marked the formal opening (and market-unit leasing) of 461 Dean St., Pacific Park complex’s 32-story prefabricated steel structure, adjacent to the Barclays Center. With new residents moving into the single tower’s 363 rental studios, one- and two-bedrooms, the developer has touted 461 Dean as “the world’s tallest modular building” and “the only modular residential high-rise in the world.” (Studios at 461 Dean can be rented starting at US $2,450 per month, one-bedroom apartments at $3,125 and two-bedroom apartments at $4,750.)
“The rents were set based on federal guidelines for affordable apartments,” said Tobi Jaiyesimi, who represents an advisory body for the New York state government agency Empire State Development (ESD), which ultimately shepherds and oversees the entire urban redevelopment.
These guidelines, Jaiyesimi added, “were based on the agreement between the developer and the New York City Housing Development Corporation. ESD has no role in determining rents for either affordable or market-rate units at the Atlantic Yards project.”
Contrary to blogs, press reports and stated claims made by some Prospect Heights activists, “Construction was never suspended and is ongoing on the rail yard,” Jaiyesimi said.
What’s more, three more of the complex’s 16 high-rise towers appear to be near completion by December 2017 or early next year. Jaiyesimi stated that two of those buildings have “started receiving residents in late 2016 and early 2017” — and that a third tower, located at Dean Street and Carlton Avenue, will soon “be fully operational, and residents will be moving in by end of the year.”
Still, stories of divisiveness and bitter upset shadow the construction megaproject in Brooklyn. Krashes and the association’s leaders Anu Heda, Robert Puca, Tracy Collins, Millie Barreto and Jennifer Bacon are direct neighbors of the Barclay Center and Pacific Park. Their blocks, they said, are constantly being overrun by construction problems and arena activities.
Now they face a new problem: the inevitable by-product of large-scale construction projects: rats.
“It’s just gotten worse and worse every time they dig up the streets and sidewalks for infrastructure,” longtime resident Patti Hagan said, adding that about 40 neighbors have hired an exterminator.
For its part, the developer has acknowledged the problem. During a “Quality of Life” meeting in October, Ashley Cotton, vice president for external affairs for the developer Greenland Forest City Partners, told a group of residents, “You’re right — it’s disgusting,” later adding that “partial progress is being made.” Work, she said at that time, was currently on hold while the developer and the local residents kept negotiating about construction protections.
A Department of Health press representative said that the department is “intensifying our efforts in the zone.” In individual cases, some property owners may or may not be monetarily responsible for baiting their own properties.
And Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams stated that investment dollars for “common-sense measures to combat rat populations in Brooklyn” are being made. “This coordinated approach to rat abatement will hopefully have a lasting impact that makes Brooklyn a more livable borough for all,” he said in an email.
Asked how frequently the rodent problem has occurred this year, Jaiyesimi of Empire State Development, replied that the rodent problem has been contained. Jaiyesimi’s group has the task of acting as a go-between for the developers, local community groups, elected officials and other public agencies.
Her agency, she added, had notified the developer and that developer “ has resolved the matter.”
In addition, an August independent mitigation report — prepared by Heningson, Durham and Richardson Architecture and Engineering — presents 144 pages of compliance reports, before-and-after photos and onsite improvement, all of it documenting environmental issues related to noise, traffic jams, illegal parking, and trucks on residential streets.
Still, said Krashes, “It is difficult for community members to reach the ear of the governor. Elected officials have a bully pulpit if they choose to use it. In the back and forth about the changes to our neighborhood, people telling their own stories has proven to be our most lasting tool.”
In recent years, Krashes has been painting canvases to commemorate the narratives of political events and community activism that continue to dog Pacific Park. His current exhibition gathers together his colorful “Metro Section-like” fresco depictions at CUNY Graduate Center’s James Gallery in Manhattan.
The canvases portray nameless persons, New York policemen, local politicians, young people and Brooklyn families protesting or taking part ng in block parties to sweep up a playground.
One painting depicts the sunflower seed bombs, which Dean Street residents molded overnight inside Krashes’ basement, which doubles as his art studio. His home sits directly across the street from still-empty construction sites — including a building sprawl noted on Google satellite maps as “Atlantic Yard Development.”
“Throwing bombs was very stressful,” Krashes recalled with a laugh. “You have to imagine that we lobbed the bombs over fences, hoping that nobody notices us. It was about all of us coming together and taking action for ourselves.”
There is evidence that the protest may have had an impact.
“Nothing at all happened for what seemed an interminable period,” Krashes added. “Judging by the photos a couple of months from distribution to sprouts.”