Chamber bows to Ratner

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Kowtowing to demands by developer Bruce Ratner, the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce this week barred the public from an official Chamber function, a luncheon where Ratner’s controversial Atlantic Yards project was discussed.

The event had been advertised for three weeks as “free and open to all businesses” on the Chamber’s web site as well as on postcards sent to the Chamber’s mailing list, which, in addition to Chamber members, included the news media, community board offices and non-members.

In unusual form for the Chamber, which serves to publicize and promote businesses in the borough, the Chamber barred several merchants and residents who have expressed criticism of Ratner’s plan, as well as reporters, from attending the meeting.

“This was not set up to be a debate about the project,” said Randy Pierce, a spokesman for the Chamber. “We knew there wasn’t going to be any new information; that’s why we didn’t invite the press.”

Some local newspaper publishers were invited on the understanding that they would not report on the meeting. The chairman of the Chamber is Dan Holt, co-publisher of the Courier-Life newspaper chain. Holt could not be reached for comment by press time.

Pierce said the meeting was closed to foes of the Ratner plan in order to avoid stirring controversy, and the Chamber had complied with Forest City Ratner’s requests to ban certain community members and business owners from the meeting.

“We did work with Forest City Ratner in terms of discouraging any individuals we’ve known to be disruptive at these kinds of things in the past from attending,” said Pierce. “We did everything we could to reach out to them and get them to know they wouldn’t be on the list of attendees.”

Forest City spokesman Barry Baum said it was “collectively agreed it would be best to keep this as a non-media event.

“We wanted business leaders to feel comfortable to have an open discussion without concern about being quoted in the press.”

Among the community activists barred were Daniel Goldstein, an organizer with the anti-Ratner arena group Develop-Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, and sisters Patti and Schellie Hagan, who created the Prospect Heights Action Coalition, also an opponent of the plan.

Along with several other Brooklynites, they stood outside the gates of Gargiulo’s restaurant throughout the luncheon, handing out fliers to exiting attendees.

“Forest City Ratner is receiving this red carpet treatment,” Goldstein said. “I highly doubt that they paid anything for it. If they did pay for it, then I don’t know that it’s proper for the chamber to be an advertising arm for any particular business.”

Pierce said that “Forest City paid for the event,” and he classified the meeting as “non-newsworthy” and something they wouldn’t have announced to the press.

“We hold informational seminars on a lot of economic development projects around the borough. If EDC [the city’s Economic Development Corporation] wanted to come and talk about the South Brooklyn marine terminal and what’s going on at the marine terminal, we’d hold an event for our members,” he said.

“We have a responsibility to brief our members on economic development projects going on around the borough,” Pierce said.

Besides activists, The Brooklyn Papers learned of six businesses that had difficulty registering or attending the luncheon, and who the Chamber either refused to add to the guest list, did not send a confirmation to, or rejected at the door.

Those barred businesses included Red Lipstick, a boutique formerly on Sixth Avenue, half a block from the Atlantic Yards site‚ but now on Washington Avenue; Freddie’s Backroom Bar & Lounge, a Prohibition-era bar on Dean Street at Sixth Avenue whose owners have been vocal opponents of the Ratner plan; Circa Antiques on Atlantic Avenue at Bond Street; Prospect Perk on Sterling Place at Flatbush Avenue; and Community Bookstore on Seventh Avenue near Garfield Place.

“If there were some legitimate businesses that tried to register and were told they couldn’t, then we may have made a mistake,” said Pierce.

Rachel Leibowitz, who owns Circa Antiques, said she had not yet seen a presentation of the arena plans. She said she tried to RSVP to an invitation she saw on the Internet, but received no calls back from the Chamber. So she just showed up.

“I told them I owned a business on Atlantic Avenue, but they said I couldn’t come in because I wasn’t on the list,” said Leibowitz, who runs her shop by herself.

“It’s very difficult to leave my store in the middle of the day,” she said, noting that she had to pay someone to fill in for her during her afternoon absence. “I don’t understand what they’re trying to hide.”

Stacey Joy Elkins, who owns Red Lipstick, said she received a message on her answering machine two days before the event “saying that because I wasn’t a member of the Chamber of Commerce, I wasn’t allowed to attend.”

Her business, which used to be located on Sixth Avenue near Bergen Street, has already suffered from Ratner’s project.

“My whole customer base — not all of it, but a majority of it — was on Pacific Street,” she said. “Because Ratner bought it all out, my customers started disappearing. It most definitely affected me.

“The middle of last year I realized I had to move,” she said.

“I was actually very upset that I wasn’t allowed to get into this,” she said of the meeting.

Donald O’Finn, the manager of Freddie’s Backroom, said, “They told me it’s only for Chamber of Commerce members due to the overwhelming response for people attempting to register.”

“It’s a big conspiracy if you ask me,” he said.

Freddie’s stands in the footprint of Ratner’s plans.

Aricka Westbrooks, who owns Jive Turkey, a restaurant on Myrtle Avenue in Fort Greene, attended the meeting and said afterward that she thought it gave a “positive take” on the project.

“It was a very positive meeting, they presented all the positive aspects of the plan, from their perspective,” said Westbrooks.

Last November, The Brooklyn Papers reported that Westbrooks’ repeated attempts to market lunchtime delivery by her company were rebuffed by the Metrotech Business Improvement District, which operates out of Forest City Ratner’s building and encompasses mostly Ratner-owned properties. Ratner developed the Metrotech campus of high-rise office buildings.

“Based on what they said today, I am afraid it is going to be a fortress, exactly like Metrotech,” she said of Atlantic Yards.

“They said they would try to reach out, but they didn’t say how,” Westbrooks said.

She said she was one of only four people who had asked questions at the meeting.

Ken Diamondstone, a member of Community Board 2, said Forest City Ratner Executive Vice President James Stuckey “filibustered that question and the other questions.”

“He did a good job keeping out the people they didn’t want to see here,” said Diamondstone.

Dolly Amigon, a real estate agent for Coldwell Banker Realty in Park Slope, stood outside after the meeting with a handful of the people who had been refused entry.

“It was a good presentati­on,” she said. “They presented a lot of information. But there’s two sides to every story, and that’s why I’m out here. I want to hear what the other side is.”

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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