The Stadium on the Corner: Atlantic Yards, the Barclays Center, and Unsolicited Urbanism

When I moved to Prospect Heights—a community of 30,000 nestled between the well heeled bohemia of Park Slope and the rapidly reconditioning Crown Heights—last year, the neighborhood seemed to be finishing a particularly robust round of gentrification. You can still get a cup of coffee at the corner store for $1.00, or you can try out a $4.50 latte at any of the half dozen high end coffee shops that have sprung up along Washington, Vanderbilt, and Flatbush Avenues. You can still rent a two bedroom apartment for under $2,000 or you can splurge on a $3,250,000 penthouse in the new Richard Meier-designed glass-and-steel behemoth with panoramic views of Prospect Park and Manhattan (Jay Z and Beyonce are reportedly interested, as well).

Brooklyn’s slow march towards becoming Manhattan-lite could be coming to a climax, though, with the SHoP-designed, Bruce Ratner-backed Barclays Center slated for a grand opening in September 2012. (Frank Gehry was the original architect of the project but the starchitect’s design, which included a park on top of the stadium, was deemed “too expensive” by the developers.) The $1 billion complex will house the Nets (who just landed Joe Johnson! And Deron Williams! And gave Brook Lopez $60 million!), a professional basketball team moving 10 miles east from Newark, NJ as well as a couple hundred other events from Justin Bieber to Andrea Bocelli. There will be a 500 space parking lot a block away. There will be a $550,000/year “clubhouse” inspired by part-owner of the Nets, Jay Z.

 The Stadium on the Corner: Atlantic Yards, the Barclays Center, and Unsolicited Urbanism

Barclays Center Rendering. Copyright SHoP Architects

I hope everyone is sufficiently excited now because no one in Brooklyn seems to be. I can’t seem find a single person in my neighborhood who thinks the Barclays Center is a municipal blessing, much less a necessary evil on the path towards cultural relevance—in fact this crossroads of Brooklyn was pretty resoundingly significant before Target, Chuck E. Cheese, and Kris Humphries showed up. Some bar owners are salivating over the extra foot traffic through Prospect Heights, Park Slope, Boerum Hill, and Ft. Greene, of course, but are also weary of dismissing Cash Only policies, a quaint Brooklyn calling card that endlessly pisses off visitors who think they’re too good for those standalone cash points outside of shady bodegas and lets watering hole owners hold onto that ~5% that the good folks at Visa and American Express take for the privilege of plastic.  Other residents and business owners worry about the specter of commercial ghost towns surrounding the Barclays Center since concertgoers and Nets fans (?) don’t have much need for dry cleaners or daycare centers.

If I can be completely honest for a minute, though, I’m going to be buying Nets tickets on a regular basis. I really like going to basketball games, the Nets (and their billionaire oligarch owner Mikhail Prokhorov [if you have five minutes to spare, please read about this man because it is worth your time, as is this video featuring megayachts and forgetting about them. Also, he thinks books are for pussies] have definitely star studded this otherwise forgettable franchise) will probably be a mediocre-to-decent team on a nightly basis, and I now have two NBA courts within 30 minutes of me when, in my previous life as an Orange County resident, going to the Staples Center meant at least a six hour misadventure. I won’t go as far as to buy a Nets hat or jersey (though that black and white color scheme was a risky bet that paid off beautifully in a literal sense) but I will definitely spend $40 every once in a while to see Gerald Wallace sky for a few improbably difficult rebounds while wearing an Iman Shumpert Knicks jersey.

And therein lies the main problem with conjuring a new team from geographic scratch where there is already a diehard fan base like, say, that of the New York Knicks: fans simply have too much invested to abandon ship. Professional sports teams in America move, especially when owners are constantly looking for the greener pastures of large media markets and cushy government subsidies. In the last 15 years of the NBA we’ve seen the Grizzlies go from Vancouver to Memphis, the Hornets head south from Charlotte to New Orleans, and, sadly, the Sonics head to Oklahoma City from Seattle in one of the most controversial sports management conspiracies (The venerable sportswriter Bill Simmons still refuses to use the new team’s moniker {“Thunder”} choosing instead to hilariously dub them the “Zombie Sonics”.) since the midnight move of the NFL’s Baltimore Cotls to Indianapolis by then-owner Robert Irsay. Fans in those cities did not have a team to root for, attaching themselves to their new hardwood representatives was as much a practice in convenience as it was active dedication, there were no old ghosts to shake loose or strained relationships between fathers and daughters and brothers based on what jersey you happened to be wearing or paralyzing apprehension about switched allegiances. My neighborhood is a Knicks neighborhood like most of Brooklyn—you may not see as many jerseys as you did during the Starks-Ewing-Houston decade and a half but every bartender and bodega owner has an opinion on the team’s moves, signings, and, ultimately, their level of existential disappointment. People here talk about the Nets’ offseason moves in the same detached tenor they might reserve for the Timberwolves or Jazz, even though neither of those teams is playing down the street.

The Nets, while not in the same circle of fandom hell as the Bobcats or the bottom bowl of the American Airlines Arena, are still a relatively subdued franchise that’s been wandering somewhere between adequacy and irrelevance for the last decade. There’s been the odd bag of dwarf stars—Devin Harris, the disaffected shell of Vince Carter, Jason Kidd’s totally non-alcohol related denouement—but outside of the team that made it to two NBA Finals during an almost unprecedented run of mediocrity in the eastern conference in the early oughts the Nets lack any sort of cultural magnetism. The move to Brooklyn along with the acquisition of real and marginal heroes (Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, respectively) is supposed to solve that problem and provide instant legitimization in the same way that Hov owning a small slice of the team was supposed to make the Nets culturally relevant (“The Nets could go 0 for 82…” etc.).

The question remains: Did anyone ask for all this?

Sports complexes aren’t typically built in downtowns. The land is expensive, resistance to development can as powerful as it is loud, and finding a for-sale footprint big enough to erect a 675,000 square foot playground hasn’t been easy since all these people decided to show up all over the city. The community also doesn’t get much back when they’re done: positive economic impacts of new stadiums on their surrounding neighborhoods are marginal at best. As I mentioned above, surrounding businesses especially in food service and transportation may see a boost in revenues but they represent a subset of the entire service sector within neighborhoods and the tide isn’t strong enough to lift all storefronts. You also have a sort of hilarious heuristic NIMBY-ism among people who actually live in the community year round in that they don’t want drunk fans and concert goers puking and peeing on their stoops and front doors, something I can tell you as a former resident of the Allston and Fenway neighborhoods in Boston happens regularly after sports games or concerts. Or on Fridays. Or on Dollar Draft Thursdays.

 The Stadium on the Corner: Atlantic Yards, the Barclays Center, and Unsolicited Urbanism

There are the well-known and loved exceptions to the Downtown rule, of course, especially Wrigley and Fenway, both nearly cottage industries in themselves. Madison Square Garden is synonymous with New York sports. There’s also the relatively new AT&T Park in San Francisco, Target Field in Minneapolis, Camden Yards in Baltimore, and, sweet irony, the Prudential Center in Newark which served as the Nets home court. (I’m leaving both Staples Center in Los Angeles and Angels Stadium in Anaheim because the concept of “Downtown” in Southern California merits a full length academic study. Here are a few dozen of them.) In the case of the older stadiums, the city slithered outward like ivy and eventually the complexes went from being in the sleepy, residential outskirts to being central landmarks without moving their foundations an inch. The newer constructions (and this is especially true of baseball stadiums—the open roofs don’t suggest the same brand of separateness that vast football stadiums or domed basketball courts do) are acts of architectural integration, attempting to assimilate into the neighborhoods instead of casting their long shadows over their proximal neighborhoods. (Perhaps the best counterexample to this brand of sport architecture is my beloved Dodger Stadium, built on a bulldozed immigrant community at the behest of former owner Walter O’Malley and a despicable eminent domain abuse by the City of Los Angeles; the author Mike Davis tells the story the best in his history of influence in Los Angeles, City of Quartz.)

It’s safe to say that the Barclays Center doesn’t fall into either of those categories. It’s silhouette while not as imposing as, say, the correctional-facility-as-basketball-stadium American Airlines Arena in Miami, is still significant. SHoP did take some graceful cues from surrounding architecture (no, not Atlantic Terminal) in order not to overstate its presence; the Center’s height and girth are not as oppressive as they could have been. The stress put on city infrastructure will be unprecedented: Brooklyn has more than 3 million residents and the Barclays Center’s location on Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues—two clogged but integral Brooklyn arteries—means that both stretches could be effectively blocked off given the predictive traffic reports done by the esteemed Sam Schwartz Engineering. (Sam’s advice: Don’t drive. (That strategy has literally never worked.)The extra 20-or-so thousand people heading to this fulcrum of Brooklyn during evening rush hours will make evening commutes an even bigger nightmare. But the reasoning behind the Barclays Center’s location is opaque at best; especially considering the billions of dollars the City of New York is on the hook for after building those two stadiums in the North.

The Barclays Center is not a standalone project, of course. Forest City Ratner, the development company in charge of the project and personal money printing factory of Bruce Ratner the billionaire real estate developer, plans on building more than a dozen other skyscrapers in Prospect Heights starting with prefabricated apartment dwellings rising up from the rear of the basketball stadium. The backlash against those buildings has been even more significant and Ratner’s decision to build the apartments completely off-site using non-unionized labor in order to save hundreds of millions of dollars in construction costs (the skeleton of the building will be still be built onsite, and yes the fact that I had to explicitly state that makes me sad) has reinforced the prevailing conception of Forest City as greedy hucksters, a description they haven’t done much to disband. (Personal aside: I had lunch with a Forest City Ratner employee who also writes for an extremely popular urbanism blog less than a year ago; when I mentioned my interest in working on the community side of development he scoffed and said something to the effect of “Why would you want to work with those people? They’re the ones throwing up all the barriers.”)

There’s also the yawning gulf between the dreams and realities of the whole Atlantic Yards project. In 2005 Forest City predicted a windfall of temporary but lucrative construction work and an influx of 10,000 new permanent jobs for local residents. In recent years that number has been shaved to 8,000 permanent jobs with only 2,100 at the Barclays Center itself where 90% will be on a part-time basis (think concessions); less than 900 construction jobs have been created. That’s right: $1 billion for an arena and a total of 105 new permanent jobs. Or 101, since Wallace, Williams, and Johnson will presumably be working maintenance in the offseason and Kris Humphries is going to be hosting Keeping Up With Kris co-starring Mikhail Prokhorov and Lamar Odom. (For a complete and painstakingly detailed timeline of the Atlantic Yards project as a whole including the residential buildings debacle jump over to Norman Oder’s Atlantic Yards Report.)

Still, the localized vitriol aimed at the current development takes its shape from Ray Kinsella’s Iowan hallucination: there would be no criticism if there weren’t a project to criticize. The elliptical logic is, well, stupid in a general sense—if A never happened then B would never happen—but in urbanism the concept of unsolicited development has been behind disasters like Corbusian housing projects and Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Center, among dozens of others. The Barclays Center wasn’t built because the affected communities in Brooklyn thought that a $1 billion domed stadium was the one thing missing from their lives, but because Mikhail Prokhorov’s purchase of the Nets from then-owner Bruce Ratner was contingent on the team moving across the Hudson to the ample hills of Brooklyn.

I’m a few years late to the party when it comes to disparaging the development down the street: Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn fought Ratner for years before a gag order muzzled their founder (the development company shrewdly included gag clauses in all of their settlement documents; as the last Atlantic Yards holdout Goldstein sold his condo for $3 million in 2010), Councilwoman Letitia James is especially prickly about the lack of permanent jobs surrounding the new construction, and Atlantic Yards Report follows (literally) every story and soundbite doggedly.

In truth, I don’t have a problem with the Barclays Center being a less than stellar job creator: it’s a basketball court not a factory. That so many people were convinced the development was a harbinger of a Shinier Brooklyn is disillusioning but predictable. From an urbanism perspective, the stress on current infrastructure surrounding this fulcrum of Brooklyn is the most immediate problem and based on the dire fiscal straights that the MTA finds itself in I don’t think there’s much hope for short term relief. If we’re going to look at this from a distinctly urban point of view then the real problem is that the complex has been thrust upon a community without any desire or need for a sprawling development. More often than not, ambitious urbanism can be as dangerous as apathy, unsolicited architecture as discouraging as empty lots.

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