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Atlantic Yards Fallout

Photos by Michael Short.
Photos by Michael Short.

Shortly over a year ago, I wrote a piece about the Atlantic Yards where I lamented our elected officials’ refusal to use their political leverage to demand a development over the rail yards that would be more in scale with and more beneficial to the surrounding community. Forest City Ratner’s proposal bypassed legislative bodies and skirted community input making it clear to many of us that any benefits the community would gain from the project were going to be accident more than intent.

My conclusion back then was, when all is said and done, it’s a pretty steep price to pay for a basketball team. Ratner announced last week that, for the time being, a basketball team and the outlandishly expensive $950 million basketball arena to go with it will be about all the “benefit” taxpayers and the residents of Prospect Heights can expect from Atlantic Yards.

Photos by Michael Short.
Photos by Michael Short.

I still don’t know quite what to say about all of it. The revised timetable gives the developer six years to complete the arena, 12 years to complete Phase 1 of the project, and there is no longer a timeline for Phase 2 where most of the affordable housing is meant to be. Apparently the politicians who I criticized last year don’t know what to say either. I received an e-mail from Borough President Marty Markowitz’s office shortly after Forest City Ratner Companies’ (FCRC) announcement:

I am obviously disappointed that some key components of the Atlantic Yards project may not be completed on the timetable we had envisioned. But like Coney Island’s famous Cyclone, the economy goes up and it goes down—and I remain confident that Forest City Ratner, with its successful track record of development through all economic climates, will fulfill its vision of bringing the Nets, affordable housing, and a new city center to Downtown Brooklyn.

You can’t make this stuff up.

The fact is that the seeds of what Nicolai Ourousoff from the New York Times recently referred to as a “fiasco” have been present since before the project was announced in late 2003. The proposal and its implementation were erected on a foundation of false assumptions that led former U.S. Representative Major Owens to foresee this present “boondoggle.”

The first false assumption was that the land grab was going to be easy. In some cases, the condo conversions on Pacific Street had only opened 6 months before Ratner announced the project. It would be logical that these new residents, with a not-so-veiled threat of eminent domain, would have little attachment to the neighborhood and would likely be happy to take a premium on their new homes and get lost. The other buildings were rentals and underutilized industrial and commercial space. Properties like these rarely engender attachment from landlords who often live elsewhere. And for longtime owners, the return on their investment would be massive in that real estate climate.

For the most part, this assumption was accurate. Most of the owners took the money. But a few, like Daniel Goldstein from Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB), stayed and invested unanticipated amounts of time and energy fighting the project.

The second assumption was that Brooklyn was still looking to be “saved.” When FCRC proposed MetroTech in the late-1980s, so the legend goes, only Bruce Ratner was brave enough to build in Brooklyn. A lot has changed in the interim. New and old residents were shaking off the borough’s inferiority complex. It was hip to be a Brooklynite, even in spite of that ugly office complex downtown. So, the idea that Frankenstein’s bride, “Miss Brooklyn,” and the rest of Frank Gehry’s monstrous high-rise and arena complex, would usher in a new era rang hollow.

It is interesting that this refrain of “salvation” cum Atlantic Yards was mostly sung by Manhattanites. Brooklyn politicians like City Councilwoman Letitia James and local residents weren’t going to simply fall prostrate in gratitude that developer Ratner chose their borough as the site of his hubristic endeavor. Markowitz did, but that seems a story for another time.

Photos by Michael Short.
Photos by Michael Short.

The third assumption was that no one would look into the developer’s claims all that deeply. If 10,000 jobs were promised, then that is what was going to be delivered. If a community benefits agreement was drafted, then it must have meant FCRC really labored to reach consensus with neighbors and stakeholders.

In many cases, this false assumption was also presented as truth. Papers dutifully reported the jobs number even when it seemed completely implausible and few bothered to dissect the community benefits agreement to see that it was largely unenforceable, selective in terms of whom it negotiated with, and demanded next to nothing that Ratner wasn’t already going to provide.

But, when you try to take peoples’ homes and play on dated notions of community identity, folks are going to wonder what you’re trying to hide. FCRC didn’t have deep, dark secrets, just a public relations discourse massively dissonant with the reality it pursued. In his pursuit of a crowning achievement, Bruce Ratner lost sight of all pragmatism.

Goldstein, DDDB and others are still in the midst of litigation. “We don’t accept an arena here,” he notes. Additionally, he worries that Ratner will pursue the arena but then take the next few decades to speculate on the rest of the acreage, building now and again when conditions are favorable. “The problem is that this isn’t a private piece of property,” Goldstein says. FCRC should not be allowed to control this land, letting it languish until they are ready to build. If that is the case, Goldstein believes, “this would need to go back to the Public Authorities Control Board.”

Although I am appalled by the aesthetic sense of MetroTech as well as the Atlantic Center and Atlantic Terminal malls, I contend that if FCRC had proposed a modestly scaled, mixed-use development that would be built exclusively over the Vanderbilt rail yards, such a project would have been lauded, not resisted. If “destination development,” was the goal, there is still plenty of opportunity for innovation and exciting architecture on a smaller scale.

Now, the arena has ballooned in price, the developer cannot find an anchor tenant to move ahead on “Miss Brooklyn,” and the rest of the project is on indefinite hiatus.

It is arrogance, not an economic downturn, that is sinking the Atlantic Yards.


Brian J. Carreira

BRIAN CARREIRA is a writer living in Prospect Lefferts Gardens. You can follow him on Twitter @BrianCarreira.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2008

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