‘Don’t sell out’: Brooklyn holdouts’ message to Willets Point owners

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Properties in Willets Point, including this swath of land across from Citi Field, continue to be out of the city’s reach. THE COURIER/Photo by Melissa Chan
Properties in Willets Point, including this swath of land across from Citi Field, continue to be out of the city’s reach.

The battle against the behemoth billion dollar Barclays Center has long been lost for some Brooklynites, but leading opponents of the project are hoping the war waged against the city will be won in Willets Point.

“Fight to the bitter end,” said Donald O’Finn, one of 14 Brooklyn plaintiffs that took state developers to court in 2009. “These are really important fights. We lost our battle, but the war is not done.”

The Barclays Center — Brooklyn’s new 675,000-square-foot sports arena and home to the Nets — opened on Friday, September 21, but only after a decade of debates by community activists who opposed the project and multiple lawsuits filed by landowners fighting to keep their properties.

Daniel Goldstein, co-founder of “Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn” (DDDB), a volunteer-run community coalition, said he fought against developer Bruce Ratner of Forest City Ratner, for seven years in federal and state court until eminent domain was used to condemn the entire 22-acre site, including 171 units of housing and 35 businesses, in 2009.

O’Finn, co-owner of Freddy’s Bar — which received a “Ratner payout” to vacate — recalled the seven years spent aggressively fighting legal battles as “sad,” in light of the arena’s grand ribbon-cutting last week.

“It seemed wrong the way things were happening, with the misuse of Eminent Domain, how things were sort of just taken by people who have power and wealth just because they want to,” he said. “It was just so wrong.”

Meanwhile, a similar battle has been brewing over in the next borough.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced in June that he had selected the Wilpons of the Mets, Sterling Equities and Related Companies to develop 23 acres of land in Willets Point into a major hub for retail, hotels, entertainment and dining.

But before “environmental remediation” can begin, the entire area — home to scores of long-established auto repair shops near Citi Field — must first be vacated, according to Benjamin Branham, a spokesperson for the city’s Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC).

Twenty-seven property-owning entities in the “Phase 1” area have reached deals with the city for an undisclosed amount, while four have refused to sell, Branham said. They are Janice Serrone, Ralph Paterno, George Romano and Tony Crozzoli — none of whom returned calls for comment.

The city rescinded its first bid to acquire the “Phase 1” neighborhood using Eminent Domain in May. Branham said the city would only go back to using it “as a last resort.”

“It remains our strong preference to reach negotiated agreements with these remaining owners, and we’re optimistic that we can achieve this,” he said.

O’Finn, who urged remaining residents in Willets Point not to sell out, said the key to securing victory is to ignite the community.

“You need to get people to listen,” he said. “If you can find a way to get people to actually hear you — that would be my advice, especially in New York, where everything is so busy and fast. I really hope at some point we can win this war.”

Goldstein, however, said the land grab in Willets Point is only similar to what happened in Brooklyn in one way.

“They’re getting screwed just like we are,” he said.