Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park: Brooklyn's most contested real estate development, the story of its tangled path, a look at current construction, and what is to come.
Proponents touted "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. But Atlantic Yards, to me, symbolizes "the theater of land use," how questionable promises and ever-changing plans surround a complex private-public partnership.
You can't understand Atlantic Yards (in 2014 disingenuously--as I wrote--renamed Pacific Park Brooklyn) 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, with industrial and commercial buildings. The arena and project are set in Prospect Heights near the border with Fort Greene.
I'm the journalistic expert on the project, writing the skeptical daily Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Report watchdog blog and working on a book. I've led Atlantic Yards tours for high school, college, and graduate school classes (urban studies, urban planning, New York history, architecture), visiting dignitaries from Korea and China, and the general public.
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 about 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 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 to "value-engineer" the Barclays Center arena, designed by Ellerbe Becket (designer of Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis). A pre-rusted metal "skin" by SHoP, a buzzy New York firm, rescued a derided design.
SHoP designed the first residential tower, originally due in late 2014 but stalled for months and now due by late 2016 (and the subject of bitter lawsuits). This 32-story tower is supposed to be the tallest building ever built via modular construction.
Two 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. KPF is designing another eastern tower). Note the absence of the planned tower over the arena plaza.
Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park tour scope
In 2-2.5 hours, we can visit adjacent neighborhoods, including nearby Fort Greene and the new 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, the provision of open space (initially designed by Laurie Olin, now hyped as a "park," designed by Thomas Balsley), 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. 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. 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.
Most architecture critics and sports facility mavens laud the arena, though neighbors are less positive. Initial arena operations led to 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.
Contrasts and changes
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.
I often call Atlantic Yards a " never-say-never project." Who would have guessed Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov would own the Nets. Or that the project's new majority owner would be a company owned by the government of Shanghai? Stay tuned for the next changes, and the questions they raise.