This essay originally appeared in Common Edge.
U.S. House of Representatives Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries’ inaugural address to colleagues in the early morning hours of Saturday, Jan. 7, showed that the Brooklyn politician, the Democrats’ first Black leader in the House, should be a public fixture for years. While commentators hailed Jeffries’ tour-de-force A–Z passage contrasting Democrats and Republicans, what struck me most occurred in the last third of the speech, when Jeffries stated, “So on this first day, let us commit to the American Dream . . . if you work hard and play by the rules, you should be able to provide a comfortable living for yourself and for your family, educate your children, purchase a home, and one day retire with grace and dignity.”
An unsurprising list? Well, the reference to “purchase a home” reminded me of one of Jeffries’ first political victories, achieved in 2006 when he was about to assume elected office for the first time, as a New York State Assembly member.
It was a political victory, not a policy one, since the promise he received of lower-cost homes for purchase in Brooklyn’s controversial Atlantic Yards development project has not come to fruition more than 16 years later. The lesson, for observers of development battles, is that promises must be backed up in contracts, otherwise economic and political cycles can undermine them.
In 2006, Jeffries, a successful corporate lawyer with deep Brooklyn roots and clear crossover appeal, was the front-runner for the open Assembly seat long held by Roger Green, who had outmaneuvered a previous Jeffries challenge. One big issue was the pending Atlantic Yards development, which promised an arena for the NBA’s Nets, then languishing in New Jersey, plus 16 towers, mostly housing, near a key crossroads and the Long Island Rail Road’s Atlantic Terminal.
Developer Forest City Ratner’s plan to dramatically change the Brooklyn skyline, deploying Frank Gehry designs, provoked resistance and generated kudos. While the developer’s request for public assistance, including the use of eminent domain to assemble the 22-acre site, generated pushback, the promise of 2,250 “affordable” apartments, half of the project’s rentals, won backing from the housing advocacy group New York ACORN, with tens of thousands of members struggling for a more dignified life.
Jeffries, facing both a clear opponent of Atlantic Yards as well as a project booster, toed a fine line, criticizing “the private abuse of eminent domain” but not ruling out its use. Less than two months after Jeffries’ victory in the Democratic primary, and a month before he took office, New York State’s gubernatorially controlled economic development authority, then called Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), approved Atlantic Yards, smack in his district.
The controversial project faced its last hurdle: the state’s Public Authorities Control Board (PACB), which had the power to nix state spending and kill a project. Assemblymember-elect Jeffries asked board members—representing the Assembly speaker, the Senate president, and the governor—to delay their vote until “important issues” were addressed.
First was housing. While Jeffries called the affordable rental units “a significant step,” he criticized the absence of “affordable home ownership,” given the expectation of some 1,930 condominiums in the project and surely mindful of how ownership builds intergenerational wealth, often lacking in Black America. Echoing project critics, Jeffries called the project too dense and pointed to a federal lawsuit challenging the use of eminent domain, so he asked that the PACB wait until those issues were resolved.
He got partial results, it seemed, about two weeks later. Upon the PACB’s approval, Forest City announced seeming concessions. While it had “already agreed to build 600 to 1,000 affordable home ownership units on or off site,” the firm said, now it “will seek to build at least 200 of these … units on site [and] seek to build the remaining … units as close to Atlantic Yards as possible.”
Jeffries, who at the time wasn’t even in office, was understandably diplomatic in his response: “The inclusion of affordable home ownership in the Atlantic Yards project is a significant step forward for our community, and will provide hundreds of working families in Central Brooklyn with a piece of the American dream,” he stated. “I hope and expect to work closely with the [incoming Governor Eliot] Spitzer administration to address the quality of life and density concerns that many in the community, including myself, continue to have.” He didn’t mention the eminent domain case.
Though project supporter Errol Louis, then a columnist for the New York Daily News (and today the influential political anchor of Spectrum News NY1), hailed Jeffries’ request as a “model” for project opponents who’d resisted negotiations, Louis unwisely concluded that “Ratner agreed” to the politico’s request, which meant “hundreds more people will own their own homes.”
Actually, Forest City’s statements obscured much wiggle room. It hadn’t committed “to build 600 to 1,000 affordable home ownership units,” phrasing taken from a 2005 Affordable Housing Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that the developer signed with ACORN. The language was vague: “Developer and ACORN will work on a program to develop affordable for-sale units, which are intended to be in the range of 600 to 1,000 units, over the course of ten (10) years and can be on or off site.” That MOU was soon incorporated into the much-hyped Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), purported to “guarantee” community commitments, but ultimately toothless.
The key document approved weeks before Forest City’s seeming concessions, the Empire State Development Corporation’s 2006 Modified General Project Plan, didn’t mention affordable for-sale units. “Of the total residential units,” the document said, “it is expected that 4,500 units would be rentals; the remaining units would be market-value condominiums.” Nor was there yet an implementing document, a Development Agreement, to impose deadlines and penalties.
In September 2007, a State Funding Agreement between the developer and ESDC parroted the MOU’s vague language: “Developer shall seek to build 200 … directly on the Atlantic Yards project site.” The new document added a caveat: the plan was contingent on subsidies. No penalties for nonperformance were mentioned.
Not long after that, Atlantic Yards faced new headwinds. Both a global economic downturn and lawsuits delayed the project. The developer ditched starchitect Gehry’s gaudy arena design for a smaller, cheaper, more pedestrian arena designed by Ellerbe Becket, which was rescued by a new facade from SHoP. To save money, Forest City in 2009 asked state entities, the ESDC, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to reopen settled deals.
Around the same time, thanks to short-lived Democratic control of the state Senate—oversight from the Assembly had been stymied by Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Forest City ally—a joint legislative hearing was finally called regarding Atlantic Yards, and Assemblymember Jeffries asked some tough questions. During that hearing, ESDC head Marisa Lago told him, in hedged language, that her understanding was that Atlantic Yards would include 600 to 1,000 subsidized homeowner units, with 200 targeted on site.
“I personally think that 200 is not significant enough,” Jeffries commented. Despite Lago’s “understanding” and Jeffries’ preference, the ESDC’s 2009 Modified General Project Plan echoed the 2006 document, again failing to mention affordable for-sale units.
Was the failure to guarantee the affordable condos a sign that forceful opposition had hamstrung developer Bruce Ratner’s largesse? Unlikely, given the developer’s tendency to promise more than he could deliver. After all, Ratner in September 2010 told WNYC that the project’s much-touted 10-year timeline “was never supposed to be the time we were supposed to build them in. … I would say it’s really market-dependent.”
A little more than a year later, touting an ambitious, risky plan to build the 16 Atlantic Yards towers via modular construction—which ultimately didn’t work—Ratner told the Wall Street Journal that the project’s affordability plan didn’t “work for a high-rise building that’s union built.” Of course, that’s what he had proposed, and the state had approved.
Meanwhile, the ESDC had granted the developer considerable slack. The project’s governing contract, the Development Agreement signed in March 2010, allowed Forest City 25 years, far longer than the professed timetable, to finish the project, including the 2,250 affordable rentals. As to the below-market condos, the document stayed vague, using language like “seek to build,” with no time limits or penalties. Again, the plan was subject to available subsidies.
Since then, the affordable condos have provoked little discussion. In 2013, Forest City announced it would sell 70 percent of the project going forward (excepting the arena operating company and the sole modular tower, 461 Dean) to Greenland USA, an arm of a Shanghai-based conglomerate, which soon renamed the project Pacific Park Brooklyn.
Before that sale reached fruition in 2014, activists in a coalition known as BrooklynSpeaks threatened a lawsuit against the project on fair-housing grounds, given that delay in building affordable rental units meant that Black residents might be pushed out of the area before they could take advantage of locals’ preference in the city’s affordable housing lottery. Several legislators, including Jeffries (by then in the U.S. Congress), urged a faster buildout of such rentals.
To avert that lawsuit, Empire State Development (ESD)—the new name for the governing authority—imposed a new May 2025 deadline for the project’s affordable rentals. It came with teeth: fines of $2,000/day for each missing apartment. (Still, the definition of “affordable” remains far looser than what Ratner originally promised, which means that a lot more income-targeted apartments have been built for middle-income households earning six figures, rather than where the need is greatest.)
Affordable condos, a far fuzzier obligation, went unmentioned. I did find an agreement between Greenland and Forest City: their joint venture was obligated to build 200 on-site affordable condos. But the additional 400 units—meaning a total of 600, not the once-hypothesized 1,000—would be Forest City’s unilateral responsibility.
But the government support was gone. When in 2017 the state legislature modified a key tax break known as 421-a, that made large buildings with market-rate condos ineligible, upending the overall plan for the project. Only condo buildings with 35 units or fewer might be eligible. For now, of the eight residential buildings completed or under construction at Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park, only one contains condos.
And the affordable units came well after the Barclays Center arena, the first building in the project, opened in 2012. Noting the slow progress in delivering on public promises, Jeffries in January 2012 joined legislative colleague state Senator Eric Adams—then gearing up to run for Brooklyn Borough President, before becoming mayor—at a press conference, criticizing the failure to establish an “appropriate government structure… to make sure there was transparency and accountability and meaningful public input.”
“Over the last decade, when it comes to big development, we’ve gotten it wrong,” Jeffries said in a 2016 speech, noting that, as of then, “not a single unit of affordable housing has been made available … and that is a shame.”
Local legislators have occasionally followed up. In June 2016, several officials, including Jeffries’ then-Assembly successor, Walter Mosley, asked the state authority about the “200 units of affordable condominiums.” In his letter of response, Howard Zemsky, then the authority’s CEO, ignored the issue. Greenland Forest City Partners has stayed vague. And Forest City, which later sold nearly all the rest of its stake to Greenland, is out of business, having been absorbed into Brookfield Asset Management. There’s no incentive to build those off-site condos, much less the on-site ones.
What next? It’s not impossible that changes in city and state policy might resurrect affordable homeownership units at Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park. However, given the absence of penalties, it’s hard to bet on that. Still, the issue lingers. Housing policy analyst Moses Gates has said the city should more readily subsidize homeownership for middle-income households, given the lack of supply, rather than rentals. Indeed, some middle-income “affordable” rentals have lingered unleased at Pacific Park.
Elected officials should know that promises deserve implementation, and oversight. Jeffries and his successors in the state legislature could have kept a focus on how project contracts, whether regarding the loose definition of affordability or the failure to guarantee the below-market condos, were written to favor the developer, not the public interest.
Today, the House Minority Leader has a lot on his plate. But when Rep. Jeffries goes home, he’s not far from the site of Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park. Perhaps he’ll be reminded one day to use his bully pulpit to focus attention on an American Dream deferred just a few blocks away.