In December 2003, developer Bruce Ratner stood in the old Brooklyn council chambers at Borough Hall and presented a dream that, he promised, would remake the borough's future. The dream was called Atlantic Yards, and as Ratner envisioned it—and celebrity architect Frank Gehry promised to make real, accompanied by a few hastily-assembled balsa-wood models—it would deck over an old Long Island Rail Road yard to make way for housing and office towers, plus an arena to lure the New Jersey Nets to the borough. Rap superstar Jay-Z, newly anointed as a minority Nets owner, offered a brief statement as cameras flashed; “We are on the threshold of restoring Brooklyn to its rightful place on the national stage!” roared Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, shortly before tearing up while recalling his boyhood sorrow at seeing the Dodgers depart for Los Angeles.
Atlantic Yards certainly put Brooklyn on the national stage, but not in exactly the way that Markowitz envisioned it. What came next was eight years and counting of very public neighborhood strife: protests and lawsuits by residents angered at the use of tax dollars and state eminent domain powers to tear down two city blocks of buildings to benefit a private developer; accusations and counterclaims in the wake of Ratner signing a “community benefits agreement” to promise jobs and affordable housing to local groups in exchange for their endorsing the project; cameos by high-profile local opponents like actor Steve Buscemi and novelist Jonathan Lethem, whose “open letter to Frank Gehry” in Slate raised Atlantic Yards to national attention; and on and on, all documented religiously in the borough's numerous blogs (in particular journalist Norman Oder's voluminous Atlantic Yards Report and leading to an award-winning documentary, “Battle for Brooklyn.”
All that—aside from a few straggling lawsuits — is done now, and the Barclays Center basketball arena is now taking shape at the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush, with its grand opening set for this September. (The first act: a concert by Jay-Z, to be followed by the arrival of the newly minted Brooklyn Nets.) Almost everything else about the project, though, has changed. “Miss Brooklyn,” the 500-foot office tower that was supposed to anchor the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush, has been scrapped. The 6,430 units of housing—2,250 of them at “affordable” rates, though many critics have noted that most of the discounted rates would still be well out of the reach of most Brooklynites—are uncertain, with no groundbreaking set for even the first tower. Both Gehry and his designs are gone, replaced by a cheaper building that features a facade of rusted steel girders in place of the legendary architect's glass-walled plan.
Even Ratner himself has receded from the foreground. After the 2008 financial collapse nearly scuttled the project, he raised cash to complete the arena by selling a majority share in the Nets, and a minority share in the arena, to Russian oligarch (and current presidential challenger) Mikhail Prokhorov at a bargain price. Prokhorov, in turn, after promising an international marketing push, has assumed a lower local profile of late while occupying himself with his campaign to be elected president of Russia.
Lost in all the tabloid headlines has been a deeper question: Now that the first stage of Atlantic Yards is set to arrive, what will Brooklyn get for its near-decade of discord? What will the project—possibly the biggest single change to arrive in the borough since Robert Moses rammed the BQE through a half-dozen neighborhoods in the 1950s and 60s—mean for Brooklyn residents, workers, and businesses?
In some ways, the argument that Atlantic Yards prompt eight years ago persists today. The impact of the project on rents, businesses, the job market and quality of life is no clearer now because of the delays and uncertainty surrounding every aspect of the Ratner plan but the Nets arena.
Still, if housing was the political linchpin of the Atlantic Yards deal—the element that brought community groups and many local politicians onto Ratner's side—it's now the missing link. Critics of the plan say the absence of apartments vindicates them. Supporters like one-time Acorn head Bertha Lewis insist their 2005 deal still makes sense.
Around the site, there's mounting anxiety, as well as guarded optimism, from business owners about what the project will mean for them. Community groups remain as concerned as ever; the reduction in the project's ultimate size doesn't seem to have assuaged fears about its impact.
Of course, while Atlantic Yards drew most of the heat in the past decade, it's far from the only development project in the city's biggest borough. A look at other development efforts, from the western waterfront to the southern coast, reveals that many initiatives are colored by the same uncertainty that obscures the Ratner development.