Once upon a time, a developer envisioned a mixed-used real estate development designed to bring big business to downtown Brooklyn. By June 1987—Brownsville’s Pearl Washington was a star rookie for the New Jersey Nets, and they stunk—a controversial deal, backed by Mayor Ed Koch and Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden, seemed all but inevitable. But that month, at a hearing before the now-defunct New York City Board of Estimate, a group representing 250 soon-to-be displaced residents argued that, if the project gained approval, state law required that it include housing because the developer was to receive tax breaks and state government subsidies.
The company was Forest City Ratner, and was owned by the family of a young lawyer who had recently resigned from his post as City Consumer Affairs Commissioner. His name was Bruce Ratner.
The project was MetroTech. At completion, it featured only commercial properties eventually leased by companies like Chase, J.P. Morgan and a host of several city and state agencies. The last building, 12 Metrotech Center, was completed in 2004.
But even if that group of residents and activists failed in getting MetroTech’s developer to offer broader benefits in exchange for subsidies, the episode foreshadowed a changing political landscape for builders in New York: Getting permission to construct a project was going to be easier if developers paid attention to a broad set of community desires.
This shift had two major implications. It meant, on the one hand, that developers had to figure out ways to make money beyond mere commercial development. But on the other hand, it suggested that developers had a fair amount of leverage. They could promise more than brick-and-mortar success. They could offer to create communities.
Over the following years, this trend would take firm hold at projects from Riverside South on the Hudson River to Melrose Commons in the South Bronx. But none approached the ambition of Ratner’s 2003 follow-up to MetroTech: Atlantic Yards, a 16-building complex featuring commercial and office space, thousands of apartments and an arena for the NBA’s nets.
It would earn Forest City Ratner an estimated $1 billion in profits. It would also displace over 400 families. In exchange, Ratner promised a slew of community benefits. The centerpiece was housing.
The real wonder of Atlantic Yards’ housing component as it was proposed was that it matched the project’s Frank Gehry-designed arena in both scale and ambition. It promised some 6,400 apartments, 2250 of which were reserved for low- to moderate-income families. The ratio of market-rate apartments to affordable units was 50-50. Of the affordable units, about half were promised to be “larger” two or three bedroom apartments.
Not only was the proportion of affordable housing unprecedented, the structure of the deal pioneered a new way of targeting subsidized housing. Traditionally, affordable housing ended up priced to best serve families with incomes close to 60 percent of Area Median Income, because that was the maximum level at which a development might use Low-Income Housing Tax Credits. But this practice left families below and just above that income level out of luck.
Atlantic Yards offered something different: Three tiers of non-market rate housing to serve distinct income groups.
Critics noted that because the income tiers were based—as federal affordable housing subsidies dictate—on regional measures of income, most of the “affordable” units at Atlantic Yards would be beyond the reach of many Brooklyn families. However, the sophistication of the deal impressed even some naysayers.
But none of the promised housing development will be in place when the Nets tip off at the Arena next fall. Commonly known as B2, the first residential tower has not yet broken ground; Forest City Ratner asserts that construction will begin early this year.
But according to a fact sheet for B2, 88 percent of the units in the 350-unit building are either studios (130) or one-bedroom units (180). The other 40 units, or 12 percent, will be two-bedrooms. Critics are opposed to the plan because it threatens to set a precedent of perpetual transience.
“You have a significant number of families with children in our community,” says City Councilwoman Leticia James, a staunch opponent of the project since the beginning. “And if you build studios and one-bedrooms, that’s geared toward single adults, not families. What we need is stability and families that will have a nexus to the community.”
Plans for the remainder of the proposed residential buildings remain murky. Opponents to the project predict that an agreement between the New York City Economic Development Corporation and the Empire State Development Corporation could yield just 300 affordable units by 2020.
Still behind the deal
Supporters of the project seem resigned to the fact that the housing will be dramatically different from what was initially promised. Rather than cast aspersions on the community benefits agreement, former ACORN head Bertha Lewis blames economic conditions and litigation for reshaping the Atlantic Yards deal.
Lewis, now president of The Black Institute, which seeks to frame and promote underreported issues affecting African-Americans, headed ACORN when it controversially backed the Atlantic Yards deal in 2005.
“What we should have done is allow those in power to negotiate for us and pat us on our heads,” said Lewis. “Deal after deal, one agreement after another, if you don’t have someone overlooking that, things happen.”
Lewis has remained steadfast in her support of the project, even saying she’ll be “the most popular girl” when it’s completed.
While she understands the frustration of the project’s opponents who lament its broken promises, she says looking forward is the only way now.
“Looking back now, sure, it creates a different frame of mind. If the [arena] is going up in a different way than we all were told, wouldn’t it stand to reason that the housing piece would look different as well?”
A proposal for modular construction for the B2 tower remains a point of contention. It would save Ratner millions in construction costs, but all but assure smaller apartments. Forest City Ratner has invested in research, but no modular building of this scale has ever been executed. Lewis says she views this not as an obstacle, but as a challenge.
“When was the last time someone talked about manufacturing that could revolutionize how we do affordable housing? Not just housing, but how we build buildings? Not to mention construction sites are cleaner and greener.”
Lewis says she speaks with Ratner two or three times a month. She sometimes frames the housing issue in racial terms, claiming that some who opposed the Community Benefits Agreement privately lambasted the idea of having a “high-rise ghetto.”
She remains convinced the project will live up to its billing.
“You will see the first building go into the ground this year. We build housing, we don’t build arenas. If I didn’t believe [in this project] and to put faith with works, then what’s the point? No, I’m a true believer, so that’s why I’ve got to dig in every month.”
As it concerns modifications the housing component of the initial Atlantic Yards plan, sentiment among residents of the area is split; to some, the broken promises seemed an inevitable result of the recession and mounting lawsuits against Ratner and his company. To others fed up with the lack of progress, blaming the economy isn’t a valid excuse.
Alece Oxendine, 25, and a resident of Prospect Heights, knew there was something awry with the planning of the residential buildings when, during her walks to work over several months last year, the arena soared while the other proposed buildings never broke ground.
“My opinion is that we can’t protest it going up because, well, it’s up,” she says. “But what we can do is not being afraid to hold them accountable for what they promised. Accountability is key. Just writing out a plan for what they plan to do for the community isn’t going to work any longer.”
The New Jersey Nets recently coined the slogan, “Jersey Strong, Brooklyn Ready” on the eve of their big move. The organization’s lack of success (the team is 8-19 as of Feb. 9) in its last season in New Jersey remains an ironic, if not sad, footnote to the continuing saga over jobs, traffic and the economy at Atlantic Yards:
If its roster is still in flux, the Nets at least appear a have a home—more than anyone who’d hoped to live at Atlantic Yards will be able to say, at least in the near future.