A quarter century from now, when the planners analyze what went wrong in Brooklyn in the early 2000s, they will have a lot to say (and none of it good) about the chain of events that started on December 10, 2003, when developer Bruce Ratner, flanked by a beaming Marty Markowitz and other public officials announced a magnficent plan called Atlantic Yards. There would be an arena for a basketball team call the Nets (stolen from New Jersey) designed by Frank Gehry. And, a sea of housing and office towers, also Gehry designed, that would become a new center for Brooklyn. By 2006, they said, the Nets would be playing ball at Flatbush and Atantic Avenues and all would be well. Taxpayers would pay little. An eyesore called the Vanderbilt Yard would be covered up and, well, we’d all live happily ever after.
Well, here we are five years later and Atlantic Yards has turned into a case study of how not to develop a major urban project. It has proceeded with a top-down arrogance that is almost unique in the annals of American planning history. The process has been one of the most anti-democratic we have witnessed anywhere in America in three decades of coverage of urban development. (Robert Moses and Richard Daley the First notwithstanding.) Neighborhoods have been excluded. City planners have had no say (not that the outcome would have been signficantly different). An epic eminent domain case and other legal battles have developed. And the process has been conducted in such a way that deep community divisions have been created that could easily have been avoided by creating an inclusive process rather than fostering a divisive and hateful one.
Deadline after deadline has been missed. Public costs have skyrocketed. Key details have been kept from the public. The mainstream media has totally abrogated its responsibility to investigate the somewhat sleazy goings on in Albany and Prospect Heights. And, in the meantime, the entire economy has changed and the financial systems has nearly collapsed. The developer has started trimming the project. First, saying that it could stall, and then noting that affordable housing would be cut and that its signature tower wouldn’t be built until a tenant was found. Even the architect involved in the project–Frank Gehry–has found his good name dragged through mud via his association with this out-of-context, community-destroying project.
There are no heroes here among the pubic officials charged with protecting the public trust. Governor George Pataki allowed the process to run amok. The Empire State Development Corp. led by the very questionable Charles Gargano practically wrote a manual on how to ram a project down the public’s throat in the most opaque manner possible. Disgraced former Gov. Eliot Spitzer wouldn’t touch the project with a ten-foot-pole and even Gov. David Paterson has held Atlantic Yards at arm’s length. Mayor Bloomberg has embraced it. Planning Director Amanda Burden has displayed a frightening lack of familiarity with key details of one of the city most important projects. And Borough President Marty Markowitz’s conduct as booster would be deserving of a prison sentence if acting like a buffoonish booster and Nixonian hater of project opponents were a criminal offense. Sadly, they’re not. So, Marty just foams at the mouth when the opponents are mentioned and looks like a Kremlin Apparatchik on May Day 1989 when it was clear the whole shit house was about to go up in spectacular flames.
If one good thing has come of the Atlantic Yards debacle, it is that a determined opposition, led by a principled person like Daniel Goldstein who has simply refused to bend, can slow a project down for so long that the entire economy changes around it and it begins to choke on its own wretched excess like a $950 million arena built by a development firm that could be tanking. Online journalist Norman Oder has created an invaluable public record for the future of every twist and turn of this proect and we look forward to the book he should write. Lumi Rolley of No Land Grab has created an invaluable record of all Atlantic Yards Coverage. Every print reporter who has botched the job of covering Atlantic Yards–starting with the Post’s mediocre Richard Calder, should hang their heads in shame at the disservice they have done to Brooklyn and the shame they have brought on their profession. Had they been covering Watergate, Richard Nixon would probably have managed to run for a third and fourth term and G. Gordon Liddy would have become Attorney General. It would be fitting if the government launched an investigation into Atlantic Yards on this fifth anniversary–both into whether it will ever be possible to build it, what laws have been broken (and by whom) in the rush to get it done and into the entire sleazy process used to approve the project.
If Atlantic Yards is built, the odds are we will end up with a $1 billion sports arena, a castrated office building and not much other than a neighborhood destroyed and turned into a parking lot. Not to mention the story the horrendous impact on historic neighborhoods like Prospect Heights and Park Slope. If it chokes on its own financial vomit brought on by legal delays, we will have one of the century’s premier case studies in how a determined, principled group of people managed to legally delay a project until it collapsed under its own weight. Unfortunately, the damage has been done. The area around the project has already suffered so much demolition that it reminds us of urban corridors gutted during the 1960s to build expressways that were never constructed. Generations later, they’re still figuring out what to do with some of that empty land that stands where communities once existed.
One thing is certain, when Mr. Ratner and his friend Mr. Markowitz held up Brookyn Nets jerseys on December 10, 2003, we’re pretty certain none of them imagined things would ever reach this point. We’re rather amazed ourselves. Here’s a solution that would seem to be a win-win: sell the Nets to a Newark investment group so they can play in the Prudential Center–itself a facility built by a public official who is now in prison because he was corrupt to the core and restart the planning process from the community level for redeveloping the Vanderbilt Yard. Of course, the problem is that the Bloomberg Administration does not have a good track record with this kind of thing. But, you know, hope springs eternal.