Ratner Breaks Ground on Atlantic Yards Arena: Years Later

Developer Bruce Ratner finally got what he’s been waiting seven years for: the groundbreaking of the arena that will house the Nets basketball team.

And it was a grand groundbreaking at that, with several hundred movers and shakers from the city’s interlocking development, government, sports and music worlds. Gov. David Paterson was there, as was Mayor Michael Bloomberg, though the biggest buzz came when rapper Jay-Z, an investor in the Nets, entered the room with his wife Beyonce.

The normally reserved Ratner summed up the last seven years in a remarkably candid 17-minute speech that revealed just how much the poor economy imperiled the project. Two and a half years ago, he admitted to his parent company in Cleveland that the project was at a crisis point.

“No financing was available,” he recalled. “The arena plan was too expansive.”

At another point he said, “I can’t believe I’m standing here today.”

More than 100 reporters covered the event, according to a spokesman, including 20 from Russian publications. (Ratner solved his financial difficulties by selling a large stake in the Nets basketball team to the Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov in order to raise the capital needed for the $800 million arena.) And the food was appropriately lavish: hot cocoa in espresso cups, lobster sliders, and buttermilk panna cotta.

The controversy that has dogged the project continued right up to, and including, the groundbreaking. (And it probably will continue.) About a hundred protesters carried signs and bobble heads of the principal players from Freddy’s, a beloved neighborhood bar that will have to move to make way for the arena, to the tent where the ceremony was taking place. Their shouts and whistles could be heard inside the tent and through the official audio feed.

The actual “groundbreaking” wasn’t much of one: several dozen officials donned hardhats, picked up especially engraved shovels, and threw a bunch of loose dirt from one pile onto another.

But the symbolism meant a lot: after years of fighting lawsuits, changing architects, securing subsidies and changing the project’s outlines in order to keep it alive, Ratner now has the money and the legal right to move forward.

About a week ago, 22 households who live in the footprint of the project’s first phase received letters asking them to leave. If they don’t, the Empire State Development Corporation will seek a court order to evict them.

Preparatory work at the site has been going on intermittently for two years, and accelerated last fall. Actual foundation work will begin soon. Ratner says the arena will open in 2012. The first residential building, with 50 precent of its units reserved for low-moderate- and middle-income households, should open at the same time. There is no schedule for the other office and residential buildings in the first phase, nor for the second.