Janet Babin, Economic Development Reporter, WNYC News
Janet Babin is a reporter at WNYC covering economic development.
After almost a decade of fits and starts, which included opposition from residents and delays resulting from the financial crisis, the first part of the $4.9 billion Atlantic Yards project opens Friday with a concert from borough native Jay-Z.
The 675,000 square foot Barclays Center is part of the first phase of the project, which also includes five other buildings, most of which will be residential buildings in the Brooklyn neighborhood. The second phase of the project includes 11 other buildings.
Developer Forest City Ratner has promised to break ground on the first residential tower before the end of this year.
“With Barclays Center, the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues has become one of the greatest crossroads in New York,” said Forest City Ratner CEO Bruce Ratner in a press release issued by Barclays Center.
But the hoopla surrounding the opening still can’t quell the controversy that has surrounded the project. The construction has been the subject of dozens of challenges from community groups.
Community Agreement Doesn’t Mean the Community Agrees
In 2005, Forest City Ratner signed a deal that was supposed to ease neighborhood concerns, called a Community Benefits Agreement. It laid out in detail all sorts of concessions Forest City Ratner would make to neighborhood groups in exchange for support of the Atlantic Yards project. The document was signed by eight community groups, including Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development (BUILD), the Downtown Brooklyn Neighborhood Alliance (DBNA) and the now defunct Association for Community Organizations for Reform (ACORN).
But some neighbors and groups opposed to Atlantic Yards alleged that the CBA failed to include all of the people who would be affected by the 22-acre Atlantic Yards development.
“It’s not enforceable, it’s not worth the paper it is written on,” said Candace Carponter, one of the attorneys for the group Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, which opposes the Atlantic Yards project.
Groups still opposed complain that the signatories to the Community Benefits Agreement lack the power to enforce the document, and have no reason challenge it, because they assert many of the groups were created — and are still in existence — because of funding from Forest City Ratner, creating a conflict of interest.
“It’s up to the parties to enforce the [Community Benefits Agreement], but that won’t happen since a number of the parties are funded by the developer,” said Gib Veconi, a member of the opposition group BrooklynSpeaks.
(Photo: The then unfinished Barclays Center looking East at the junction of Atlantic and Flatbush in Brooklyn on August 8, 2012. Amy Pearl/WNYC)
As of 2005, Forest City Ratner provided more than $100,000 to BUILD to begin to develop community outreach. The developer also committed at least $50,000 in funding to DBNA.
One group that signed the CBA defended its role in securing amenities for the surrounding area. ACORN secured a promise from the developer that 50 percent of the residential units created in the Atlantic Yards project would be dedicated to affordable housing units.
“People want to say the Community Benefits Agreement doesn’t represent the entire community because they’re speaking for themselves,” said ACORN CEO Bertha Lewis.
The group is in bankruptcy proceedings, but Lewis insists that ACORN is still alive. She said the whole process of signing the agreement was very open, and that the signatories to the CBA represented thousands of people throughout the borough.
“When we signed the CBA, ACORN had 30,000 members,” added Lewis.
Aside from affordable housing, the Community Benefits Agreement also called for a minimum of 35 percent of the jobs created by the project to be given to minority workers, and another 10 percent to women workers.
It also said that public housing residents and low and moderate income individuals in surrounding neighborhoods would get priority in available jobs.
The document even called for a meditation room to be built inside the arena.
“I can’t tell you exactly where it is, but there is a meditation room [in the arena], that will be open during events, a non-denominational quiet space for people to get away from the arena,” said Ashley Cotton, executive vice president of External Affairs for Forest City Ratner Companies.
Watch a time lapse video of construction of Barclays Center created by TheBronxBroolyn:
Legal Fights, Delays Put Project on Rocky Footing
Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, along with other groups, filed a lawsuit against the Empire State Development Corporation regarding Atlantic Yards, which has resulted in the developer re-evaluating the second phase of the Atlantic Yards project, and creating a new environmental impact statement.
“We will start a new environmental impact statement process, and there are not any more details on that now,” said Cotton of the outcome of the lawsuit. There’s at least one other major suit still moving forward against the project related to unpaid wages and broken promises.
The CBA included a channel — outside the legal system — for the developer to address neighborhood concerns. The agreement called for the developer to hire an independent compliance monitor to guarantee that the company kept its promises. But so far, that monitor has yet to be hired.
In a document released by Forest City Ratner on October 19, 2005, the company’s then Executive Vice President Jim Stuckey said plans for the compliance monitor were being finalized.
“The CBA Executive Committee is finalizing a Request for Proposals to retain an independent monitor to ensure that the CBA goals are met,” Stuckey said at the time.
“Forest City Ratner is one-hundred percent committed to meeting the targets in the CBA and that means we will have to partially fund many of these programs,” said Stuckey, referring to the community groups the developer helped fund.
Still, at the Wyckoff Gardens New York City Housing Authority Developments in Brooklyn, less than a mile from the Barclays Center, many residents just want the arena to open already.
“I can’t wait,” said 14-year-old Nassir Ali.
“I think it’s going to be great, because we finally got a stadium next to us, and we can just go there and watch basketball,” he said.
The arena will offer more than 200 events in its first year, including concerts from a diverse group of artists, from Neil Young and Crazy Horse to Barbara Streisand to Justin Bieber. Barclays Center will also be home to the Brooklyn Nets basketball team, of which Jay-Z is a part owner. The team is scheduled to play its first home game of the regular season against the New York Knicks on November 1.