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Atlantic Yards project has Brooklyn family fighting for home

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Jerry Campbell (l.) and neighborhood activist Patti Hagan (r.) tour the Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn after eminent domain forces him out of his family home.

This was where Jerry Campbell’s grandfather put down roots when he settled in Brooklyn after World War II. This was where Campbell’s grandfather raised rabbits and tended his lush garden. This was where the immigrant from Barbados entertained family and friends with stories about traveling across Europe as a saxophone player in a big-band orchestra.

The four-story brick home near the intersection of Dean St. and Sixth Ave. in Brooklyn was where Campbell’s grandfather Oliver Stewart, a heating and cooling engineer at Memorial Sloan Kettering, hosted countless family celebrations under the giant trees that towered over the backyard. This was the home where the family patriarch — “the Dean of Dean St.” — seemed to be constantly building, fixing or inventing things in his workshop.

“Grandad loved cooking, sharing and telling stories,” Campbell says of his grandfather, who died in 2003. “He was the consummate entertainer.”

Campbell and his wife Laleh hoped to raise their son Findlay in the home that had been in Campbell’s family for 60 years. But the state of New York seized it in May 2015 so it could turn over the property to the developers of the Atlantic Yards project, the controversial $ 4.9 billion development plan that includes 15 high-rise buildings and the Barclays Center, the 18,000-seat arena that is the home of the NBA’s Nets and the NHL’s Islanders.

The locks were changed and a security guard was posted at the front door. Furniture and other possessions were packed up and moved to a storage facility.

Campbell has been embroiled in a bitter decade-long battle over fair compensation for the property at 493 Dean St. with Ratner’s company Forest City Ratner and Empire State Development, the state agency that used eminent domain to boot home-owners and businesses from the project’s 22-acre footprint.

A state judge is expected to determine how much Campbell will be compensated later this year.

Hundreds of people who lived and worked in the footprint of developer Bruce Ratner’s massive project were displaced, most famously Daniel Goldstein, the Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn activist who agreed to take $ 3 million in 2010 for the condo he bought in 2003 for $ 590,000. But Campbell is actually the last residential holdout, although there are plans to raze two retail stores at the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic, P.C. Richard and Modell’s, to make space for a massive 1.5 million square foot office building directly across the street from the arena.

Ashley Cotton, the Forest City Ratner executive who serves as a spokeswoman for Greenland Forest City Partners, the partnership between FCR and Greenland USA, the Chinese real estate firm that bought a 70% stake in the project two years ago, declined to comment on Campbell’s case due to the pending litigation.

An ESD spokesman says the $ 1.5 million the agency offered Campbell “represents fair market value” based on a 2014 appraisal. The tower that will be built on the site of Campbell’s home will include a middle school, and the spokesman says the project will also bring badly needed housing and jobs to Brooklyn.

Campbell says the offer is the same he received a decade earlier when the Brooklyn real estate market was just beginning to heat up. He thinks the home is worth twice as much and he’s angry that some displaced homeowners, including Goldstein, received more than market value while he’s been offered a fraction of his home’s worth.

“They have the cheek to say they are providing affordable housing, but they took my affordable housing away,” says Campbell, a patent attorney who has spent much of his life in the United Kingdom and speaks with a slight British accent.

The tower will also house more than 300 market-value apartments, and Campbell says that it is unfair that he will lose his home while Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, the owner of the Nets and the Barclays Center, and Greenland USA will reap the profits.

Campbell says he was always willing to make a deal, but he didn’t want money, he wanted real estate. He wanted to swap his property for equivalent square footage in the tower being built on his lot or a similar home in the neighborhood. He wanted to be a junior partner in the project. He says

Campbell's grandfather (3rd from l.) bought the family home six decades ago in Brooklyn but now it is gone.

Campbell’s grandfather (3rd from l.) bought the family home six decades ago in Brooklyn but now it is gone.

Forest City Ratner promised it would provide opportunities to minorities and women in the community benefits agreement it signed in 2005.

“They said they wanted to invest in the community,” Campbell says. “I took them at their word.”

The house was in bad shape when Stewart bought it and an adjacent property shortly after the war, and he poured his heart and soul into transforming it into a model home. Stewart restored the wood floors, plastered the walls, replaced missing stairway spindles and the damaged wainscoting.

Stewart was battling the prostate cancer that would eventually kill him when he heard the rumors about the massive real estate project anchored by a basketball arena planned for Prospect Heights from a neighborhood activist named Patti Hagan, months before Ratner unveiled his ambitions at a Brooklyn news conference in December 2003.

The immigrant from the West Indies took a pragmatic approach when he realized his home — just a few hundred feet from where the arena would be built — was in danger.

Campbell, Stewart’s primary caregiver during the last years of his life, says his grandfather told him resistance would be futile: He should negotiate instead of fighting the developer. But Stewart said he should ask for real estate, not money. Cash can be lost or squandered. You can’t sink roots in a bank account. Property not only lasts forever, but it can generate revenue, too. Campbell continued to rent portions of the house to tenants, just as his grandfather had done.

Campbell, the executor of his grandfather’s estate, took control of the house at 493 Dean St. and the adjacent property after Stewart died. The second property was eventually transferred to relatives who negotiated a separate settlement with Empire State Development.

The negotiations about compensation for the home began in 2005 with a Forest City Ratner attorney who assured Campbell that he would get a fair price.

That’s when Campbell suggested what he calls “win-win” proposals. He could team up with Forest City Ratner for a joint venture on his property, or FCR could give him equivalent space in the tower. Campbell also suggested trading his grandfather’s property for similar real estate within a half-mile radius of 493 Dean St.

Campbell was open to a wide range of options except one: the $ 1.5 million he had been offered was insulting. “They were trying to lowball me,” Campbell says. “I wanted to be treated with more respect.”

The community benefits agreement FCR signed with several community groups says the developer will work with “community based developers” as well as minority- and women-owned businesses on “potential development opportunities.”

“They said they wanted to embrace the community and wanted to give opportunities to minority developers,” Campbell says. “Why not me?”

Forest City Ratner offered Campbell a nearby home, but Campbell rejected the offer because he says the company reneged on an agreement to provide money to renovate the building or find new homes for four elderly tenants living in the building.

The negotiations went downhill from there. Forest City Ratner, Campbell says, wouldn’t budge from the $ 1.5 million offer.

ESD took over the talks last year after the agency condemned the house.

“The system is stacked against me,” Campbell says. “This is not a negotiation. These people are bullies.”

Campbell, in many ways, lost his fight with the developer and ESD when construction began at the Barclays Center in 2010. “I think the plan was, ‘You don’t want to get out? We will get you out. You will be begging to get out,’” Campbell says.

Life in the home at 493 Dean St. became unbearable. Noise from the construction site made it difficult to sleep or even think straight. Construction machinery rattled the home. “The foundation of the house would rock,” Campbell says. “It was like living through an earthquake.”

The explosion in the rat population caused by the arena construction, he says, made it impossible to stay. “I noticed piles of sand in our garden and at first I could not figure out what it was,” Campbell says. “Then I realized rats were burrowing holes in the front lawn. We were living cheek and jowl with rats.”

Campbell’s wife and son moved to a much smaller apartment. Campbell hung on as a part-time resident and maintained an office in the home. Findlay returned to the Dean St. home from time to time during outings with his father to the Brooklyn Public Library.

The long-term tenants fled, too, although Campbell continued to rent rooms in the house by the week or by the weekend.

When an attorney representing ESD sent Campbell a letter last spring informing him that they would have him removed by a sheriff, Campbell replied that he would ask the judge presiding over his case for a temporary restraining order blocking his home from being seized. He needed more time, he says, to prepare for his case.

But the state removed the furniture and the rest of the family’s other belongings before Campbell filed for the injunction. The locks were changed and a guard was posted at the front door. “Clothes, toys, my son’s violin, his rubber ducky, all gone,” Campbell says.

The magnificent magnolia tree that towered over the backyard is gone. So is the huge apple tree. The home has been razed. The only question remaining is how much money Campbell will get for what was once Oliver Stewart’s pride and joy.

“This was my grandfather’s home,” Campbell says. “This was his legacy and now it is gone.”

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