Barclays Center: Brooklyns Community Arena?by Norman Oder
After one year, the arena is a marquee venue, but not the promised home for civic events.
In the year since it opened at the end of September 2012, the Barclays Center arena has made a big splash as home to the Brooklyn Nets, high-profile concerts, and family fare like the circus and Disney On Ice. It even lured the New York Islanders hockey team to move from the Nassau Coliseum by the 2015-16 season.
The heavily-branded arena has been celebrating a heavily-branded anniversary, as the in-house TV channel offered BCTV Odyssey, presented by Honda, in which a 2014 Honda Odyssey was driven cross-country from California. To appeal to a different audience, in late August the Barclays Center unveiled Ursula von Rydingsvard’s “Ona” (“she” or “her” in Polish), a large-scale abstract sculpture—which some liken to a gyro, “rock tornado,” or inverted tree trunk—on the Daily News Plaza.
On Sunday, September 22, the Daily News published a series of articles celebrating the Barclays Center as a nearly unmitigated success—while failing to acknowledge the newspaper’s business partnership with the arena.
Keep your eye on the ball, Brooklyn.
For years, trying to sway public opinion, backers of the larger Atlantic Yards project and state overseers promised that the arena would serve broader civic functions and meet local needs. The “community arena” would host local high school, college, and amateur sports; community activities; and high school and college graduations.
Few such events have been held in the past 12 months: one high school graduation, two college commencements, and two Police Academy ceremonies. There’s been no high school hoops, outside of the national Jordan Brand all-star triple-header, with one game involving players from “the greater New York area.” Of some 30 college basketball contests, about one-fourth involved Brooklyn schools, mainly LIU.
Before Atlantic Yards was officially announced, however, Borough President Marty Markowitz asserted that the arena would incorporate a long-planned Sportsplex aimed to accommodate amateur athletics. In 1997, Howard Golden, Markowitz’s predecessor, had secured $30 million each from the city and state, plus $7 million of borough funds, to support a Sportsplex dedicated “to indoor scholastic, intercollegiate and amateur athletics.”
That capped an 11-year effort by the now-defunct Brooklyn Sports Foundation to establish a building to host track and field, basketball, volleyball, wrestling, boxing, martial arts, and other sports. When the foundation launched in 1986, no borough facility could accommodate more than 2,000 spectators. While the Sportsplex was once aimed for a Coney Island site formerly occupied by Steeplechase Park, Mayor Rudy Giuliani instead decided to plunk down a minor league baseball stadium, now MCU Park. “One thing that is painfully clear is that there is no constituency for amateur sports,” Brooklyn Sports Foundation Chair Peter Kiernan commented in April 2000 after Giuliani’s maneuver. “People get excited by professional sports, but few get excited for amateur sports.”
Sportsplex backers then focused on the parking lot adjacent to the stadium. The 12,300-seat facility was promoted by Markowitz in 2002 and early 2003 as expandable to accommodate pro basketball. When Markowitz instead agreed to back Forest City Ratner’s arena project near Atlantic Terminal, he maintained support for amateur athletics. “I have no doubt that it would also double as a Sportsplex for high school sports,” he told the Brooklyn Paper in August 2003, acknowledging it wasn’t his call. “It has to be, and it would be, a borough facility, a borough resource.”
Others were skeptical. “They’re building a recreational facility for 12 millionaires,” declared Gregory Holder, board president at the nearby Hanson Place Methodist Church, shortly after the December 2003 unveiling of Atlantic Yards, “when what we need is a recreational facility for the 12,000 children in the neighborhood.”
A Community Arena?
Markowitzian rhetoric persisted. At Markowitz’s February 2004 State of the Borough address, retired N.B.A. basketball star Bernard King, then a consultant for Forest City Ratner, suggested the arena “will serve as one large community center.” At a May 2004 City Council hearing regarding Atlantic Yards, Markowitz declared that Brooklyn’s “best teams from youth programs to high school and college athletics should have a real home court.” The arena, he added, could “host national events, concerts and ice capades, graduations that sadly have to go into Manhattan to be held, trade shows, and my hope even someday a national Democratic Party Convention in Brooklyn.”
A May 2004 flier from developer Forest City Ratner promised “a venue for amateur athletics, graduations, the circus and other family events.” After the city, state, and Forest City signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) regarding the project, then-Governor George Pataki promised in a March 2005 press release that the arena would “host local community events, as well as concerts and school athletics for neighboring high schools and colleges.” And at a city council hearing in May 2005, Forest City executive James P. Stuckey asserted that, beyond pro basketball, concerts, and children’s productions, the arena would “be used for graduations, for amateur athletes, for job fairs, for sports clinics, and all sorts of other things that currently can’t occur in the community today.”
The Empire State Development Corporation, the state agency that approved Atlantic Yards, offered a similar, if slightly less optimistic, gloss in the November 2006 Final Environmental Impact Statement regarding Atlantic Yards. It promised an arena for major league sports and “a venue for local academic institutions, which currently lack adequate athletic facilities, and a new venue for a variety of musical, entertainment, educational, social and civic events.” Soon enough, Forest City pumped up the rhetoric, touting “a new community arena” in an October 2008 flier.
“Imagine what an arena like the Barclays Center will do for children, for high school sports, for teens,” Markowitz declared in June 2009 testimony (read by a deputy) to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. His words backed Forest City’s successful request to renegotiate its deal with the M.T.A. for development rights to the railyard at the heart of the Atlantic Yards site.
Today, the official Atlantic Yards web site describes the Barclays Center straightforwardly: “a home for the Nets basketball team...[and] a venue for over 200 events a year, including tennis, the circus, boxing, concerts, and other sports and entertainment events.” The Barclays Center’s mission statement offers more grandiose claims: “We present unparalleled Entertainment in Brooklyn, in a State of the Art Venue, with global appeal that lifts the spirit and creates lasting memories.”
No Home for Amateurs
The earliest rhetoric may relate to Forest City’s initial plan to have the arena leased not just by the developer but by state and city agencies so it could house high school and college sports, plus community athletics. To do so, however, the city and state each would have had to shell out $9 million a year in rent, essentially requiring the public to pay directly for most arena construction.
That funding plan—surely considered unwise by government officials—was abandoned before the parties signed the MOU in early 2005, replaced with a more opaque mechanism, using tax-exempt bonds and payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs), plus direct subsidies.
Today, there may be some mismatch between the cost to operate the arena, which seats 17,732 for basketball, and the number of spectators willing to pay arena prices for amateur events. For example, when L.I.U. met St. Francis in a basketball game last February at the Barclays Center, tickets, which started at $20, apparently weren’t selling. So the arena offered a special: free hot dogs and sodas for those who bought four tickets. (At L.I.U., general admission costs $8.) The game drew only 2,436 spectators, though L.I.U.’s own gym, which opened in January 2008, accommodates 2,500 people. (That new gym represents an improvement, on at least one front, in the capacity of amateur sports facilities in Brooklyn.)
The local colleges may like the occasional spotlight, but if the Barclays Center was supposed to do something dramatic for “high school sports” or teens as Markowitz suggested, government overseers could have required it as condition for the public support they provided. Instead, there has been just trickle-down support from Barclays to the community. In the past few years, the Barclays/Nets Community Alliance has helped refurbish nearly two dozen school playgrounds in Brooklyn; though the Borough President’s office has contributed a far greater share of the cost, Markowitz has let the alliance take the credit. (Individual Nets and team/arena CEO Brett Yormark have also supported other recreation projects.)
The much-promoted Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) Forest City signed with a select group of local partners stipulated that “[at] least 10 events a year will be set aside for multicultural, recreational, and nonprofit uses.” However, in the Barclays Center’s first year of operation, no events that followed the CBA’s specific guidelines were held.
Sharon Daughtry, executive director of the Downtown Brooklyn Neighborhood Alliance, a CBA signatory, said her organization, which focused on distributing free arena tickets to nonprofit groups during the arena’s first year, plans to organize those 10 events in the coming year.
The arena has begun to host some events outside, such as a Back to School Bash on the plaza in September. Then again, it should be remembered that the plaza is officially temporary, since there was supposed to be an office tower looming above the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic avenues.
As if belatedly trying to make up for its lack of community events, the arena announced that it donated use of the Nets’ practice court and Calvin Klein Courtside Club for a medical seminar September 21 focused on the disease spondylitis. (A relative of Forest City chair Bruce Ratner has the disease.)
The few charitable events held at the Barclays Center seem to reflect the business interests of Forest City. Proceeds from a February 2013 concert of cantorial music went to a music camp associated with violinist Itzhak Perlman and the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty (Met Council), which is closely associated with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Forest City ally.
In May 2013, Forest City partnered with the Met Council on a bid to develop the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area on the Lower East Side. (The surprise August 2013 firing of Met Council Executive Director William Rapfogel after findings of financial irregularities likely undermined that bid. He now faces grand larceny and other charges.)
In June 2013, the Brooklyn Hospital Center, an arena corporate partner, held its 2013 Founders Ball at the arena. The honoree was Forest City’s new C.E.O., MaryAnne Gilmartin, and Yormark co-chaired the event. The first college graduation, in May 2013, was held by L.I.U., another arena corporate partner; Bruce Ratner got an honorary degree. The other commencement involved Polytechnic Institute of New York University, which partnered with Forest City on the MetroTech project.
The arena, tellingly, has also hosted two major political speeches. Mayor Mike Bloomberg delivered his last State of the City address this past February, while Markowitz gave his final State of the Borough talk there in April. As the New York Post revealed, in both cases, the elected officials secured use of the arena—which received city financial aid and benefited from the officials’ vocal support—for free. “We are honored,” declared arena spokesman Barry Baum, “to do our civic duty.”
Brooklyn journalist NORMAN ODER writes the Atlantic Yards Report watchdog blog and is working on a book about the project.