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New York Like A Native

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Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park and Barclays Center: Brooklyn's Most Contested Development

You can't understand Atlantic Yards (in 2014 disingenuously renamed Pacific Park) and the Barclays Center arena unless you see the context for the 22-acre project.

It begins at the edge of Downtown Brooklyn and extends through blocks in Prospect Heights that were formerly residential and mixed-use industrial/residential/commercial. I'm also the journalistic expert on the project, writing the daily Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Report watchdog blog and working on a book.

I've led Atlantic Yards tours for high school and college classes, visiting dignitaries from Korea and China, and the general public. (Here's a comment from an appreciative participant on one tour.)

I helped vet the scripts for two documentaries concerning Atlantic Yards, the play In the Footprint and the film Battle for Brooklyn (and appear briefly in both). 

In June  2010, I wrote an pointed essay for the New York Times Sports section headlined "A Russian Billionaire, the Nets and Sweetheart Deals." In December 2012, I wrote an essay for "Reuters, "Brooklyn's vaunted, tainted Barclays Center." And in January 2015, I warned (presciently) in the Times that it would be unwise to hold the Democratic National Convention in Brooklyn.

The arena and project are set in Prospect Heights near the border with Fort Greene--see mapPlease note 25+ minutes travel time from Midtown Manhattan to the starting place, and 15+ minutes from Lower Manhattan.

The Background

The most contested development in Brooklyn has begun to change the heart of the borough. The project is being built over and beyond an 8.5-acre railyard, including a basketball arena (for the new Brooklyn Nets, formerly New Jersey Nets) and 16 mostly-residential towers, up to 510 feet tall. Three streets have been demapped. 

The project, announced in 2003, was supposed to take a decade. Then it was supposed to be finished by 2016. Contracts signed in 2009 allowed the project to linger to 2035. In June 2014, a new schedule accelerated the much-desired affordable housing to 2025; more quietly, the affordability standards for the next towers were relaxed.

The much-touted original project architect, Frank Gehry, was dropped in order to "value-engineer" the Barclays Center arena, designed by the firm Ellerbe Becket, which designed Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, with a pre-rusted metal "skin" by SHoP, a buzzy New York firm, which rescued a derided design. 

SHoP is also designinge first residential tower, originally due in late 2014 but stalled for months at ten stories (below left photo) and now due by late 2016. It's now the subject of bitter lawsuits. When announced, the 32-story tower was to be the tallest building ever built via modular construction. 

The next towers at the eastern end of the project, to be built conventionally, are being designed by Cook Fox, while SHoP is designing the three towers at the arena block (right). Note, however, the absence of the planned tower over the arena plaza.

Most architecture critics and sports facility mavens have lauded the arena, though neighbors are less positive. Still, it's difficult to evaluate the entire unbuilt arena block, much less the full project.

Initial arena operations provoked some surprises: less traffic than feared, but drivers and limos inundating residential streets, and leaking bass from certain concerts, which in 2014 provoked the installation of a new green roof.

The project, which received official approvals in December 2006, was changed somewhat and was re-approved in September 2009 by the unelected Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC). After the dismissal of major lawsuits, the groundbreaking for the arena was held on March 11, 2010. 

The arena opened Sept. 28, 2012, though controversy lingers: the state agency and developer Forest City Ratner lost a lawsuit filed by community groups, and the ESDC had to conduct a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement regarding the impact of a potential 25-year buildout.
"It may surprise some given my developer DNA, that I identify more with Jane Jacobs than Robert Moses," declared MaryAnne Gilmartin, the new CEO of Forest City Ratner, who in 2014 along with Bruce Ratner surprisingly won the Municipal Art Society's highest honor, the Jacqueline Onassis Medal

Then again, as critic Paul Goldberger has written, following Jacobs today has less to do with "a physical model for city form than a perceptual model of skepticism."

I share that skepticism, especially since an arena proponent, forgetting the promise of a job-containing tower at the arena plaza, now posits it as an exemplar of the "high-low city."

The Tour

In 2-2.5 hours, we can visit adjacent neighborhoods, including nearby Fort Greene and the recently designated Prospect Heights Historic District, to get a sense of the the crossroads location and the history of development around the site. We'll also go to the arena plaza--officially temporary--with its important new subway entrance to the Atlantic Avenue transit hub.

Among the issues: the scale of the project, the role of "smart growth," transportation access and traffic challenges, interim surface parking; the provision of open space (initially designed by Laurie Olin), the claims of blight, provision of affordable housing, and developer Forest City Ratner's history in Brooklyn, including two malls near the project site. (One sits on land once proposed for a new Brooklyn Dodgers stadium.) 

We'll see the buildings that are left, and/or slated for destruction, and the 
construction under way. At right are three houses taken by eminent domain just east of the arena and, as of May 2015 scheduled to be razed.

We'll also see the new businesses that are trying to take advantage of the arena, as well as sites that likely will have new operators in the near future. As suggested in the photo below left, some businesses very near the arena have changed hands but still haven't found tenants.

We'll continue to the rest of the project site, including the location of new development, the under-construction railyard, and the adjacent historic district.

Proponents tout "jobs, housing, and hoops," including a restoration of Brooklyn to the major league status it lost when the baseball Dodgers left for Los Angeles in 1957. They also point to the need to develop over the MTA's Vanderbilt Yard, a functioning railyard but a gap between gentrifying Prospect Heights and Fort Greene.

The project would be very dense, involving 6430 apartments. Among them would be 2250 subsidized rentals, part of a negotiation with the housing advocacy group ACORN, which has generated significant political support for the project.

In late 2013, Forest City agreed to sell 70% of the remaining project to the Greenland Group, owned by the government of Shanghai. The deal closed in June 2014 with a pledge to build the project, or at least the full 2,250 subsidized units, by 2025.

The design of one tower, and new architects Cook & Fox, was announced in August 2014, along with the name change to Pacific Park. Two buildings broke ground in December 2014 at the southeast block of the site, which originally wasn't even supposed to be part of the project.

The near-to-last round of eminent domain began in late 2014 (there's one more site to go) and the properties vacated in early 2015. 

I often say "Atlantic Yards is a never-say-never project." Who would have expected that the Nets would be bought by Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov? That the new majority owner of the project would be a company owned by the government of Shanghai?

So stay tuned for the next twists.