Monday, August 20, 2012

NY Mag on Barclays Center: battle is over, Ratner won (um, what about "Jobs, Housing, and Hoops"?)

The headline on the major New York magazine feature on the new Brooklyn arena is this: Game Time: The fighting is over; Bruce Ratner’s Barclays Center is here. Now that he’s built it, will they come?

Oh.

Now it's surely legitimate to ask how well the arena might sell tickets, which is the ultimate question in the subheading--though, curiously enough, one big variable is missing: the (cramped) potential for pro hockey.

But to mostly dismiss the history, the ongoing controversy, and the current challenge of operating the arena is just a little myopic. (Hint: even arena-goers might care that the Barclays Center lost its general manager and that operators will have mere weeks, rather than months, to test the building. Or that the parking doesn't quite work.)

Author Will Leitch writes:
This is no longer a public debate, or a public outrage, or a theoretical construct, or an example of private might overcoming public interest. That battle is over, and Bruce Ratner won it. It is now part of the new Brooklyn reality. It is the centerpiece of how the borough, and the city, will be seen for generations to come. It is undeniably here.
The lingering controversy

Well, yeah, it's here. As one commenter tried to remind the author, Atlantic Yards was supposed to be about "Jobs, Housing, and Hoops," not merely an arena. What about the people who bought into that?

And another pointed out, there's still public outrage, but the author didn't bother to talk to anyone outside arena backers and sports folks.

Unmentioned in this article is that the New York City Independent Budget Office in 2009 called the arena a net loss for the city, prompting developer Forest City Ratner and state backers to say the project as a whole was what should be evaluated.

Oh.

And, of course, there's no mention of LIBOR scandal, which taints Barclays and just may taint this arena.

Willful blinders

Now Leitch is an able writer about sports, but he's not quite the right guy to take on all the facets of the Barclays Center; in a debate with sports-as-politics columnist Dave Zirin, Leitch said, as I reported:
"There are so few things in the world that are black and white. If you win you're happy; if you lose you’re sad. Everything else is gray. Sports is the one thing that I have. I know that everything that goes into it is gray, but for three hours, if they win, I'm happy, if they lose I'm sad. That's something I want to protect."

"I know I am willfully putting on blinders," Leitch said. "I'm fully aware of that... but, sorry, life's hard enough, give me sports."
The problem is, as this article indicates, it's very hard to disentangle sports and life, and when faced with complexity, treating Bruce Ratner and Brett Yormark as your experts is indefensible.

Construction issues

"There have been complaints about Barclays Center construction," writes Leitch, only to suggest that traffic is a bigger issue. Ok, sure, but the fact is, building an arena in such a tight spot, and with a tight time frame, has prompted not merely complaints, documented on Atlantic Yards Watch, but patent outrages:
  • a truck idling on the sidewalk
  • deafening noise near residents
  • construction workers creating their own free parking
Ratner: no one will care

Leitch reports:
Ratner doesn’t worry about his personal legacy; once, during another meeting, he pointed to famous buildings nearby and noted that no one knows the names of the people who built them. The world is a “long, big place,” he said. One hundred years from now, “Brooklyn is going to be an epicenter of this country, and this place will be at the middle of that. No one will care what we had to do to make it happen.”
That's cold, and likely true at least in part: people 100 years from now won't care. Some will want to know, however. And 100 years from now, the arena likely won't be called the Barclays Center. It won't be the same arena. If there is one, it will probably be in its fourth generation.

What about the housing--would it last 100 years, especially if built modular? I wouldn't bet on it.

The Dodgers connection

Leitch gets this one right:
Every time [Borough President Marty] Markowitz is at a Nets event, he brings up the Dodgers and Ebbets Field and bringing sports “back to Brooklyn, where they belong!” The Ebbets Field connection is obviously vital for Markowitz, who was 12 years old when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, the absolute perfect age to develop a lifelong obsession with returning pro sports to one’s home borough.... But Markowitz is the only one involved with this deal who seems to have an emotional attachment to the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Arena success

Leitch writes:
That’s why Ratner and Yormark downplay the importance of the Nets to the bottom line; if the team ends up stinking, or the Brooklyn “brand” doesn’t take off the way they’re expecting, they insist they can do just fine bringing in shows the Garden can’t book
Sure, maybe, but... is that what justified the public subsidies, eminent domain, tax-exempt bonds, dodgy green-cards-for-investments deal, etc.--entertainment? What about jobs and housing?

Yormark on Brooklyn

Leitch writes:
They believe that the idea of Brooklyn itself—the Brooklyn brand, the actual word Brooklyn—has commercial power. As Yormark puts it: “I often tell people, ‘Shame on us if we do not leverage this. It comes for free. You do not have to pay for it, and to some degree we inherit it.’ From a marketer’s perspective, just the diversification of Brooklyn itself is a marketer’s dream.” 
This raises a question: why wasn't this gift, the power of marketing, factored at all into the analyses of the benefit to the public vs. the benefit to the team/arena?

The parking issue

Leitch, a Brooklynite, writes with incomplete insight:
Yes, they’ve certainly made plenty of public-transit options available—from a new LIRR and subway entrance to empty buses being available and waiting after games to extra Q and 4 trains running postgame to 400 bike-parking spaces—but still. People love cars, even in this town. The nightmare situation involves random Barclays Center patrons driving up, through, and around Park Slope and Cobble Hill all night looking for free parking.
Why do I say "incomplete"? Because there's a whole request for, and denial (so far) of residential permit parking that could dissuade drivers from looking for that free parking.

The balance

The piece moves toward an ending with a perspective from sports:
Because if you think there was public outcry when apartments were razed and homeowners were evicted for the building of this new arena … wait until you see the uproar if Barclays Center isn’t a success. If it doesn’t revitalize Brooklyn. (And by the way, isn’t a lot of Brooklyn being revitalized without it?) If it is just another half-full arena smack in the middle of a residential area. Ratner and Prokhorov & Co. can always bail out, but we’ll all still live here.

And yet, and yet … dammit, I can’t help but be excited, regardless. It is cool that there’s a new NBA team in town, one that’s a twenty-minute walk from Brooklyn Heights, a ten-minute walk from Park Slope, a fifteen-minute subway ride from Wall Street.
That's why he should've talked with someone closer in who will bear the brunt of it.

But yes, wasn't a lot of Brooklyn revitalized without this? And doesn't that give a lie to the claims of blight needed to pursue eminent domain?

The conclusion

The final paragraph:
Barclays Center didn’t come free. The way Ratner muscled his way into Brooklyn’s heart may never be forgotten, and we may all be a lot less excited about this in five years. Or maybe Ratner is right, and sooner or later nobody will remember how we got here. Eventually, everything new just becomes part of our daily life. All that’s certain now is that Barclays Center is real, and opening very soon now. What more can you do? Play ball.
Yes, it will become part of our daily life.

What more can you do? Ah, it's not just about sports, or entertainment. There's even a lawsuit the state has to resolve by studying the impact of a 25-year buildout on the community. That's daily life, too.

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