Is Daniel Goldstein a sell-out, or an activist who made the best of an untenable situation?
That’s the question that all Atlantic Yards followers are wrestling with in the wake of Goldstein’s stunning $3-million settlement with their nemesis, the developer Bruce Ratner.
One side says he was a hero who risked everything — including the Pacific Street home where he lives with his wife and small child — to halt a money-hungry developer who is not on the hook for the public benefits that justified the project in the first place.
The other side says that Goldstein’s settlement — which was bigger than anyone else who lived in the Yards footprint — vindicates their perception that his “principled stand” was merely a bargaining chip.
This sentiment can be read in the comments section of every story written about Goldstein’s settlement — though only Bertha Lewis of the community organizing group ACORN has thus far gone on the record to address what some see as the negative side of his legacy.
“Finally, he got what he really wanted: a deal,” Lewis wrote in an e-mail sent to the media. Her controversial group has supported Ratner’s mega-project because of the 2,250 units of affordable housing that is part of plan, at least on paper. “[The deal was] not for the community he claimed to love so much, but for the only beneficiary of his community of one, himself, Double Dealing Danny Goldstein.”
Lewis’s scathing words came as a surprise considering she has been mostly absent during the climatic final year of the Atlantic Yards pre-construction process, but Lewis told us that her e-mail was merely the result of “seven years of pent up rage coming out.”
“What incensed me so much about Daniel over the years [was his] distortion of the facts — really denigrating folks in the community. Saying you don’t understand the project, you’ve been duped, hoodwinked.”
But it’s not just longtime supporters who have questioned Goldstein’s decision yesterday. Even the Atlantic Yards Report, which has been one of the most thorough critics of the project, noted that Goldstein’s settlement also requires him to withdraw from all litigation — meaning that it is now less likely that some lingering legal issues, such as the revised 25-year buildout of the project, will ever be considered in a courtroom.
Since Wednesday’s front-page settlement, Goldstein has sought to define his own legacy, re-focusing attention away from the naysayers and back onto the movement he led — something that he deftly managed as spokesman of the opposition group, Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn.
“We’ve done a lot of what the media should have been doing — what well established good-government groups should have done,” Goldstein said. “Watchdogging minute details of an attenuated process. Every false statement, exaggeration and broken promise has been exposed.”
So, what concrete accomplishments can Goldstein and his Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn actually point to?
“We have convinced nearly all good people of good will that the project is a sham and a poster child for the wrong way to develop cities,” Goldstein said. “We shined a bright light on the way eminent domain is abused in New York State to the point where there is now a legislative effort … to reform the state’s laws.
“We’ve exposed the way eminent domain is used and abused in New York as a tool for the most powerful interests in the state,” he added. “It’s on everyone’s radar. … I don’t think any developer will try to things this way again.”
Opponents like Goldstein can also take credit for delaying the project, but the delay ended up playing a role in the firing of architect Frank Gehry, whose ambitious design was one of the project’s original selling points — and whose departure, even the developer has admitted, has made the project worse.
Ratner, for his part, has been quiet about Goldstein — though yesterday’s settlement leaves little doubt he gave a lot of thought to this longtime thorn in his side.
The developer’s recent statements have not mentioned Goldstein specifically, but the presence of numerous lawyers and two top executives, Bruce Bender and MaryAnne Gilmartin, at Wednesday’s final negotiating session in Justice Abraham Gerges’s chambers in Downtown reinforce how coveted Goldstein’s Pacific Street condo had become and how badly Ratner needed him out quickly.
Ultimately, it is a stretch to call Goldstein’s opposition to the project a victory — ground has already been broken and demolition crews are getting off the bench and taking off their warmup suits to tear down his home as early as next month.
But his dissent, along with those that stood beside him, helped illuminate a project that has been criticized numerous times by numerous judges for its lack of transparency.
His decision to not face a physical eviction only avoided a colorful moment for the media, but not much else. Goldstein was left with few favorable options: he could have chosen to fight on and face an eviction date as soon as mid-May and less money for his apartment, or take a more generous settlement. Either way, the state was going to remain his landlord — it took title to his apartment in March.
“This was the only chance to avoid a really bad situation for myself and family,” Goldstein said. “[I could have been] evicted and still not been paid anywhere near fair market value for my apartment. If doing that could have impacted the project in any meaningful way, I would have done it.”
Goldstein had lost the war once his house was seized by the state. He chose to win a small battle by getting five times more than his apartment cost in 2003 — and he gave up very little in the process. In fact, his scathing criticism of the project continues to this day — a privilege that Ratner took away from other residents in the Yards footprint who agreed to not criticize the project in exchange for the deal.
So what is Daniel Goldstein’s legacy? He lost his home in a state-sponsored land grab by a billionaire — but he also got $3 million and retained his right to criticize such alleged abuses of eminent domain.
He didn’t stop the project — and played a role in making it arguably worse.
But Daniel Goldstein didn’t choose this fight — it chose him when state development officials knocked on his condo door one day and said, “We are taking your apartment for a basketball arena.”
He said, “No.” And like him or not, that was a principled stand — one that happened to pay off in the end.