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Atlantic Yards (and Barclays Center) Tour: Brooklyn's Most Contested Development

You can't understand Atlantic Yards and the new Barclays Center arena unless you walk around and see the context for the 22-acre project, which begins at the edge of Downtown Brooklyn and extends through industrial and residential Prospect Heights. Tour guide Norman Oder also happens to be the journalistic expert on the project, writing the daily Atlantic Yards Report watchdog blog. 

I've provided Atlantic Yards tours to high school and college classes, visiting dignitaries from Korea and China, and the general public. Here's a comment from an appreciative participant on the tour when given May 5, 2012 as part of the Jane's Walks in honor of urbanist Jane Jacobs. I was asked to help 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, he wrote an essay for "Reuters, "Brooklyn's vaunted, tainted Barclays Center." 

The arena and project are set in Prospect Heights near the border with Fort Greene--see map.

The Background

The most contested development in Brooklyn has begun to change the heart of the borough. The project would be 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. Now the target date is 2019, but most people believe it would take much longer. Contracts allow the project to linger 25 years.

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. 

SHoP is also designing the first residential tower, due in late 2014,which would be the tallest building ever built via modular construction.

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. There's still labor unrest, as the photo below indicates.

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 must 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. 

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'll first start in nearby Fort Greene getting a sense of the the crossroads location and the history of development around the site. We'll then walk 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, as well as evidence of the ones demolished. 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. We'll continue to the rest of the project site, including the parking lot, 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. But there's little chance that the project benefits would be delivered within a decade, the official timetable, or even in the configuration promised.



As of late 2013, Forest City has agreed to sell 70% of the remaining project to a Chinese government-owned developer, the Greenland Group, which has promised to speed the project.
 
Details

Meeting place TBD.