Nets Arrive, Questions Remain At Atlantic Yards

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The Atlantic Yards project may fall produce fewer local jobs than expected, especially if the residential towers are built using modular construction, which would be produced off-site.

Photo by: Pearl Gabel

The Atlantic Yards project may fall produce fewer local jobs than expected, especially if the residential towers are built using modular construction, which would be produced off-site.

Over the last few weeks, the massive steel structure rising at the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush began looking less like a construction site, and more like a basketball arena. The last roof beam was put in place on January 12; inside, the first shipment of locker-room tiles has already arrived. If all goes according to schedule—and despite the sudden bankruptcy last month of the Indiana company fabricating the rusted-steel facade, developer Forest City Ratner insists the timetable will hold—the new Barclays Center will officially open with a Jay-Z concert on September 28 and the newly renamed Brooklyn Nets will arrive a few weeks after.

That much, Brooklynites have been able to envision ever since Forest City broke ground for the new arena in March 2010, after a headline-grabbing multi-year battle over the use of public money and state eminent domain powers for the project. But beyond the opening of the arena, the picture becomes much hazier: Now that the former Long Island Rail Road yards at downtown Brooklyn’s major crossroads and transit hub are about to become the city’s second major indoor entertainment venue, what will that mean for the surrounding neighborhoods of Prospect Heights, Fort Greene, and Park Slope — and for the borough as a whole?

Already, there are hopes (and fears) of the impact of 18,000 fans a night pouring out into the streets, bringing both spending money and noise and traffic to the neighboring brownstone blocks. At the same time, elected officials and construction workers are nervously eyeing the empty lots that remain around the arena, where promised — but as yet unscheduled — condo towers are supposed to provide both housing and some of the 25,000 new jobs that developer Bruce Ratner promised would result from his Atlantic Yards master plan.

“We get closer and closer to opening day, and there’s so many things that we just don’t know,” says Robert Perris, district manager of Community Board 2, which abuts the Atlantic Yards development site on the north. Among the known unknowns:

Traffic nightmare, or mass-transit paradise?

Already, arena construction has led to a fair bit of traffic mayhem, thanks in part to the de-mapping of a chunk of Pacific Street to make room for the two-block-wide arena. Last year, three local neighborhood groups set up the Atlantic Yards Watch website, which has collected a running stream of complaints about neighborhood disruptions, including a near-endless litany of construction workers knocking down street signs against illegal parking.

The construction workers will be gone this fall, but in their place will come 18,000 new visitors a night for Nets games, and an additional thousand for concerts, which can sell seats on the arena floor as well. Many will swarm out of the Atlantic Avenue subway station (soon to be monikered “Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center” or something similar, in one of the MTA’s first cash naming-rights deals) after arriving via one of the nine subway lines that serve the station, or emerge from the Long Island Rail Road terminal next door. Others will drive — and that’s what has many locals worried.

The image of thousands of cars cruising the already-overpacked streets for parking spaces every night has already sparked the City Council to approve the city’s first-ever residential parking permits in Prospect Heights (though the bill must now be taken up in the state legislature, where it faces a less friendly reception). It’s a scene that promises to be especially problematic if the Carlton Avenue Bridge—closed since 2008, and made famous via Ratner aide Bruce Bender’s profanity-laced conversation with indicted former senator Carl Kruger—doesn’t re-open on time, snarling traffic patterns even further.

“I think that many of the arena patrons, at least the first few times they go to the Barclays Center, they’re going to elect to drive,” predicts Perris. “I think a lot of people are going to come and look for free parking, and this could just be a nightmare.”

Forest City Ratner’s response has been to try to cut down on cars by cutting down on parking. Only 1,100 spaces will be provided on-site, in a razed lot to the east that’s ultimately slated to hold a housing tower—down from 3,670 in the 2006 environmental impact statement. Perhaps a few hundred more spots may be made available either at lots near the foot of Atlantic Avenue where it crosses the BQE or at MetroTech, with shuttle buses to take fans to the arena and back.

“You provide parking, it encourages driving,” Forest City Ratner senior vice president Jane Marshall explained at January’s monthly “cabinet meeting” of Atlantic Yards officials convened by the Brooklyn borough president’s office. The good news, she noted, is that the developer’s surveys and focus groups show a strong desire on the part of fans to take mass transit: “There’s a healthy fear that’s already there in potential attendees, and we’d like to encourage that.”

Still, even assuming that visitors carpool, fitting them into the existing spaces will require that well over half of them take mass transit—something that’s exceedingly rare in the sports world. It’s especially questionable in the case of the Nets, whose fans — assuming they follow the team from New Jersey, as Ratner’s own economic study assumed 30 percent of them would—will be facing a multiple-transfer trip to get to Brooklyn via train.

Evidence from other cities’ new arenas is slim: As sports economist Brad Humphreys of the University of Alberta notes, traffic impacts of sports facilities haven’t been especially well-studied in the academic literature. Anecdotal evidence, though, says that it takes at least half a season for arena traffic patterns to shake out; Humphreys recalls that when Camden Yards opened in Baltimore 20 years ago, “the traffic for the first half season was a nightmare, until people learned to adjust their driving patterns.”

Forest City Ratner has hired “Gridlock Sam” Schwartz to conduct a “transportation demand management” plan for the arena—originally slated to be completed last December, now pushed back to May—and is promising an education campaign to tell patrons to stay off the roads. Still, critics remain unassuaged. At best, worries Perris, “I think that we are going to go through a very difficult transition period early on.”

Economic boon or giant sucking sound?

Bringing in new visitors, of course, was precisely the rationale for having the public support Atlantic Yards — to the tune of $350 million in city cash and property tax breaks, and $142 million in city and MTA subsidies, as tallied by the city Independent Budget Office. Ratner’s initial slogan for Atlantic Yards was “Jobs, Housing, and Hoops,” and many of those jobs were supposed to come from the spinoff effects of fan spending, as patrons filter out into surrounding neighborhoods before and after games, encouraging the appearance of sports bars and other fan-friendly amenities.

Yet the record of economic spinoff for the dozens of new major arenas that have opened in recent years, say sports economists, could generously be described as “checkered.” For every building like the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. or Nationwide Arena in Columbus that now sits at the heart of a new shopping district, there are others that that have sparked little change in their immediate surroundings.

Newark’s Prudential Center—the Nets’ temporary home while awaiting their Brooklyn move—is a case in point. Inside the gates, the five-year-old arena has been a sparkling success, ranking tenth in the world in gross income last year, while hosting the Devils, the Nets, and the WNBA’s New York Liberty (during their three-summers-long exile from Manhattan because of ongoing renovations to Madison Square Garden). A block or two away, however, there is little sign of economic spinoff from the thousands of people who now surge in and out of downtown Newark most nights.

What sports facilities can do, say economists, is focus spending in a particular area. Florida State University urban planning professor Tim Chapin, who’s studied the local effects of sports arenas, says that the best successes have been in cities where an arena can be used to bring people to an otherwise-desolate downtown, promoting the image of an “arena district” in a way that encourages both visitors and developers to see an underutilized neighborhood in a new light.

Needless to say, that’s not the scene around the Barclays Center. The Nets arena is bounded by not just rapidly gentrifying residential neighborhoods but by thriving retail strips along 5th Avenue in Park Slope, Vanderbilt Avenue in Prospect Heights, and Fulton Street in Fort Greene, already a burgeoning wonderland of “gourmet falafel” and wood-fired pizza.

Whether any of this retail development is in anticipation of the arena opening or just a sign that the local neighborhoods were booming even without the Nets is impossible to say for sure. “When people decide to open a business on Vanderbilt, they know they’re a couple of blocks away from the arena,” says Perris. “They cannot be unaware that people are going to have a bite before or after seeing something at the Barclays Center.”

Indeed, a mini-land rush appears to be in the works, at least in the blocks immediately adjacent to the arena. The owners of Triangle Sports, a 96-year-old sporting goods store across Flatbush from the Barclays Center, recently announced that they’re closing up shop and looking to sell their building to a store or restaurant eager to capitalize on the influx of basketball fans and concertgoers.

Whether that surge of neighborhood spending will actually materialize, though, is less certain. “A lot of existing bar and restaurant owners in the area are going to be unhappy when they actually lose business,” predicts Humphreys. “All the new arenas these days have all kinds of high-end concessions inside that wouldn’t be in Madison Square or older arenas.” (Forest City Ratner has promised that the arena will include “four bars/lounges, three clubs, and a restaurant.”)

Ultimately, the Brooklyn arena’s biggest positive could be its biggest negative: Because it’s surrounded by already-thriving commercial strips, the Barclays Center will have a tough time creating new development. “A big, new, super-expensive arena” in an already thriving area, says Chapin, is not necessarily the best recipe for the kind of neighborhood jump-start that has been seen in cities like D.C. “It could end up just being a small ripple on a big pond.”

Job creator or false promise?

The third pillar of Ratner’s 2003 slogan — “jobs” — has so far, all sides agree, largely been a bust. That’s because the bulk of the jobs created by any development appear in the first few years, in the form of construction workers. Yet aside from the arena, virtually all the other construction has been postponed or outright cancelled: The “Miss Brooklyn” office tower that was once supposed to anchor the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush (controversially blotting out views of the Williamsburgh Bank Building’s iconic clock tower) was eighty-sixed in early 2008 during the early stages of the economic downturn. Meanwhile, the 14 high-rise housing towers that were supposed to surround the arena by 2016 have become victims of the subsequent real estate crash, with the first tower (prosaically titled “Building 2” in Forest City Ratner documents) now on an uncertain timetable; Ratner recently told the New York Observer that “I think we’ll break ground sometime this year,” while Forest City Ratner’s Marshall declared at the January Borough Hall meeting that the developer is currently “finalizing the design and talking with the city about financing.”

As a result, Forest City Ratner has hired only a small fraction of the 17,000 construction workers it said would result from the project. At last count, according to Forest City Ratner spokesperson Joe DePlasco, 705 workers were on the job at the arena, 167 of whom were from Brooklyn—something he blames on “significant delays due to litigation by opponents,” but which some local elected officials have charged is reneging on the developer’s promises.
The prospect of future jobs, meanwhile, has been complicated by Ratner’s announcement last year that he was exploring a new method of erecting Building 2: modular construction, in which large components are first manufactured offsite in a factory, then trucked to the construction site and assembled there, like a giant Lego kit. It’s a method that’s been around for decades, say construction experts, but that has risen to new prominence as developers increasingly seek to put up technically precise structures in a short time.

Using modular construction for the 35-story Building 2, however, would be easier said than done. The current record for a modular building is 25 stories, and anything above 20 floors is “quite out of the ordinary,” says Brooklyn architect James Garrison, who himself is currently designing a 20-story modular apartment building to be built at a location near Flatbush Avenue. At a 35-story height, he says, structures must have exponentially stiffer frames to keep from toppling over in the wind, something that has yet to be attempted at that scale with a modular building.

It’s a key dilemma, and not just because Forest City Ratner insists that building modular is the only way to bring in the housing tower at an affordable cost, now that the Brooklyn condo market has stalled out. The modular method is cheaper in part because it employs mostly factory workers (Garrison compares it to an automobile assembly line), who earn a much lower wage than unionized construction workers. And there’s currently no modular factory in Brooklyn that could handle the load of manufacturing a 35-story tower (One existing factory at the Brooklyn Navy Yard is too small for the job, says Garrison.), though DePlasco says that the developer is “still looking at factory locations in the city.”

In the meantime, both prospective tenants and prospective workers wait for ground to be broken, and wonder how much of the modular talk is serious, and how much just a ploy to cut a deal with construction unions on a cheaper contract for a traditional build.

“If we go back to the automobile analogy, the R&D that goes into a new automobile model is daunting,” says Garrison. “In this case, that same investment has to be made, and it has to be made in a really serious way to really get the goods. Is Forest City Ratner willing to do that? I don’t know. I hope they are.”

Controversy, continued

Except for the concerns about parking, the NBA arena—arguably the project’s centerpiece—played second fiddle to talk about housing in the years-long debate over Atlantic Yards. When city officials gathered to christen the project’s community benefits agreement in 2005, they made clear that basketball wasn’t what really mattered “While we can’t wait to watch our new home town team play in a spectacular new arena designed by Frank Gehry, it’s the jobs and housing that will have the greatest impact on the borough and people of Brooklyn,” Mayor Bloomberg said. Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz added that “in addition to the thousands of new jobs, the economic development, the landmark architecture, and of course the arrival of the Brooklyn Nets—the reason Atlantic Yards works for Brooklyn is because it will help maintain our economic diversity.”

For the moment, the only piece of that picture that will be reality will be the arrival of the Nets. Whether Atlantic Yards ultimately contributes to that promised economic diversity—or creates an arena-based monoculture—will no doubt still be playing out for years after Brooklyn’s first NBA whistle.