When Developer Bruce Ratner of Forest City Ratner Companies announced the fanciful vision of a sports stadium in Brooklyn surrounded by world-class architecture designed by Frank Gehry, little did he know he was about to head one of the most controversial development projects in the history of New York.
A protest mural on the Atlantic Yards site. Image via flickr.
In addition to the stadium, the master plan of the project, in an area known as Atlantic Yards, showed a mixture of commercial, retail, and housing units, as well as green space. The original price of the project, slated for a 2006 completion, was $2.5 billion and included 8 million square feet and 22 acres of development. By the time the Public Authorities Control Board finally approved it in December of 2006, the cost had doubled to $4 billion, partly due to rising costs associated with Gehry’s designs.
The original design for the 20,000-seat arena, named Barclays Center after the British Bank, incorporated Gehry’s now almost customary usage of titanium. The plan also consists of 16 towers, including a 620-foot tower dubbed “Miss Brooklyn.” In 2008, the tower, which had drawn some controversy for its size, was scrapped for a new 511-foot tall Gehry design, named B1. The general design was quickly met with concern and opposition from numerous residents in the area who feared the size of the development, as well as related factors, like traffic congestion, which they believed would negatively alter the character of the neighborhood.
Locals were more enthusiastic about the proposed addition of housing, particularly affordable housing. Forest City stated that almost 2,000 of the 6,400 approved units would be condominiums, and about 200 of those would be subsidized. Half of the rental units were supposed to be reserved for moderate to low-income households. To further express their commitment to affordability, the developer and Brooklyn office of ACORN signed the Housing Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in 2005 to solidify their pledge of making 50 percent of the residential units affordable.
However, as time has passed, affordable housing has become an issue that many opponents of the project have scrutinized as the project continues to change. One of the big issues has been what the term “affordable” really means. Brooklyn Speaks, an umbrella group that is more generally concerned with the fact that the scale of the project makes it impossible for it to integrate with the rest of the neighborhood, makes the point that “60 percent of the affordable units would only be affordable to families making in excess of the Brooklyn median income…$35,000.” The Atlantic Yards Report, a blog that follows news on the project and offers analysis, has brought to light a variety of possible loopholes in the MOU and the way Residential Project was defined as consisting of 4500 (rental) units, leaving a gray space for units added later that may not have to be part of the 50/50 program, as well as non-rental units.
Seen as the project’s main opponent, Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn makes it very clear that they support growth and development in the Atlantic Yards area but are against Ratner’s “inflated, false claims,” and lack of interest in community input. They are also opposed to the use of eminent domain in this project, which they see as “inappropriate and abusive.” The project proposes to seize 68 privately held properties through eminent domain, which the developer sees as necessary to deal with “blighted conditions” in the area. Such seizures would displace many residents and businesses in the area and disrupt the general fabric of the neighborhood by introducing very dense development.
Such opposition, which in a few cases has manifested into lawsuits and court challenges, has added to construction delays and dramatically changed the timeline of the project. In fact, in June, the New York State Appellate Court agreed to hear an appeal challenging the use of eminent domain to take the property for the project, which could cause another significant delay. Still, Ratner is determined to break ground on the project before the end of the year and is very aware that in order to qualify for tax-exempt bonds the project must begin before the end of 2009.
Since June, when the anticipated completion date was announced to be 2019, the cost of the project has ballooned to $4.9 billion. In addition, the $25 million in revenue that the city hoped to gain once Atlantic Yards was completed is seen as a lost cause to most. Furthermore, Frank Gehry, the man whose architectural vision won over many proponents, will no longer be designing any of the buildings. The rising costs, coupled with the current economic situation, called for designs that are less expensive than Gehry’s (albeit less impressive).The Kansas City firm, Ellerbe Becket, will now design the less expensive –and more generic-looking—stadium. The New York blog, Gothamist, describes the redesign as “a banal homage to any number of unremarkable ‘field house’ arenas across America.”
Being able to borrow money and raise capital in this fiscal climate has placed the project at a severe disadvantage. And with a less than exciting main attraction, resolute local opposition, and legal and financial hurdles, it is hard to say if Ratner’s Atlantic Yards will ever—or even ought to—come to fruition.