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Times critic Kimmelman salutes Barclays Center (antithesis of MSG), raises doubts about overall Atlantic Yards plan, suggests "variety of architects... with different developers"

New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman finally weighs in with his review of the Barclays Center, saluting the arena for its design, fan experience, and operations--and calling it the antithesis of Madison Square Garden--yet raising significant doubts about the overall Atlantic Yards plan, both as urban design and urban planning.

He suggests that, by hiring SHoP to wrap the much-derided Ellerbe Becket design, the architects "have created something tougher, more textured and compelling, an anti-Manhattan monument, not clad in glass or titanium but muscular and progressive like its borough."

I think Kimmelman lets the Barclays Center off too easily on some fronts--if the Times had had better coverage of arena operations, that would have been avoided--but I'm glad he waited until after the arena opened 9/28/12 to write, since he does acknowledge some lingering issues. It's by far the most wide-ranging, and thoughtful of the reviews, as it recognizes this fundamental fact: Atlantic Yards is not just an arena.

And if  Kimmelman--who contrasts his starchitect-loving predecessors with a serious interest in larger issues of urbanism--only partly acknowledges episodes that are part of what I call the Culture of Cheating, he comes to a slyly subversive conclusion that surely infuriates developer Bruce Ratner :
Notwithstanding that [original architect] Mr. [Frank] Gehry’s involvement sold many skeptics on the development in the first place, the area doesn’t need a single architect for all 22 acres because a multiplicity of designers, or better, a variety of architects teamed up with different developers, would avoid the monotony of all such megaprojects and accelerate construction.
Take the project away from Ratner? Well, let's see if the long-delayed, court-ordered Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) addresses that possibility.

(Kimmelman, unfortunately, does not mention that SEIS nor the lawsuit that led to it, a response to the surprise news that the state would give the developer 25 years rather than the promised ten years to build the project. And there's no mention of the fact that the developer plans to build on the railyard--the blight removal that was a prime justification for the project--only after building on the southeast block of the project. Nor is there mention of the absurdity of declaring this oddly-shaped 22-acre site blighted.)

Leading off

Kimmelman writes, in An Arena as Tough as Brooklyn. Now How About Some Street Smarts?:
The arena opened around a month ago, a hunkered down, hunchbacked, brooding sight at the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues. At first blush it’s a shocker, which is one of its virtues....
The panels swoop and curl lengthwise around the building, ancient chains binding a giant Gulliver. They leave openings here and there for ribbons of windows that provide peekaboo views out from and into the interior. At night the center mostly dissolves in the darkness, save at street level, where a monotonous concourse of shiny shops flanks its glossy front door..
In operation

Kimelman, who attended both a Jay-Z concert and a Nets game, likes crowd circulation and sight lines, praises the "sophisticated chill" of design, "warmed by an eager, Disney-trained staff."

He found getting to and from the arena by mass transit easy, and points out that "dire predictions" of Carmageddon haven't panned out, thanks in part to increased policing. I'd add that those going directly to the subway like him miss the problem of honking livery cabs--ignored by the Times in its myopic article on yellow cabs--and the unplanned shutdown of Atlantic Avenue after some events.

He does acknowledge a doubt:
The sound system needs adjusting, and alarming reports have surfaced via the local watchdog-blogger Norman Oder from neighbors complaining about noise and vibrations.
It may be a design flaw, or something that will force arena operators to turn down the bass. And neither the arena operators nor state overseers seem willing to respond.

He also calls the building "technologically smart" because Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan swoons, believing that the truck elevators and underground turntable reduce truck backups. Maybe on paper, but the record is of extensive problems.

The issue of money

Like every other critic, Kimmelman misses the fact that the arena plaza was supposed to be the site of an office building, crucial to the cost-benefit analysis that supported the arena.

But he does argue wisely, as no other critic has, that "naming rights and other financial gains from the arena should be factored into the subsidized housing equation that remains one of the major obligations made by the developer, Bruce C. Ratner."

And he points to Ratner's repeated efforts to "ask for more money and concessions about the mix and layout of apartments."

The rest of the project

Kimmelman criticizes the "titanic complex" to be formed by three towers around it, wondering "who wants to live next to it." (I'd say people who get in cheap and others who don't mind booming bass.)

And he offers a larger urbanist criticism:
Sort of, because the Atlantic Yards project also exemplifies how the city, in this case hamstrung by the state, got planning backward, trying to eke public benefits from private interests awarded public subsidies and too much leeway.
The city wasn't so much hamstrung by the state as cooperating with the state.

Kimmelman suggests more attention to the linking neighborhoods, "more pedestrian-friendly avenues and finer-grained architecture, possibly taller than now proposed in places but less monolithic at street level."

And there's still time, he suggests, "to hold Mr. Ratner, the city and the state to their word about creating jobs and building the promised number and type of subsidized apartments." (Well, if there's political will.)

Kimmelman even takes a swipe at Ratner's "obviously profitable malls," suggesting an upgrade, concluding that "the arena might yet become the start of something good."

Some comments from the Times web site

Nikil Saval, Philadelphia, PA
"SHoP has also spared Brooklyn another retro stadium," the author writes. But surely pre-rusted steel, though it ain't brick, is retro enough, recalling the fabled age when the borough supplied both industry and industrial workers. It also calls to mind the somewhat more recent "blight" that supposedly characterized the area, before a cynical use of eminent domain cleared the way for this disastrous project to be pounded into the neighborhood. I concede that Barclays Arena's brand of prefab blight enjoys more modern tax benefits than the original.
Binky, Brooklyn:
You don't really mention what the arena looks like from any side other than the front plaza approach. The view from the neighborhood, around the back, is of just a great big hulking void. Not a very welcoming presence from the back where we live. The biggest bait-and-switch around, and for we who have lived here, the beginning of 20+ years of actual blight.
Keefus, East Village
Now living 5 blocks from the arena, I was concerned about traffic (automobile and foot) when it opened, but to my pleasant surprise, it has not shown much effect on my street.
I do like the design, both inside and out (made it to a Nets preseason game), but find the fact they took factoring in NHL hockey off the table as a cost cutting factor absolutely unforgivable. They knew there was an NHL team an hour away with Arena problems and went ahead and built with hockey only as an afterthought. Now, with a new agreement with Barclays Center in hand, the Islanders will move into a new arena with the smallest capacity with no seating at one end. So short sighted, who actually made that decision?
Mike Richards, New Jersey
Ratner should live up to the promises made on housing and related development, which made the original Atlantic Yards package a good deal for the city (sorry, NIMBY local residents). But New York has a weak policy towards these so-called "Community Benefit Agreements," (CBAs) and the city pays the price. Bloomberg opposes them so they are negotiated deal by deal, without much real enforcement (see the debacle around Yankee Stadium where huge benefits were given in response for virtually nothing from the developers).
In contrast, Los Angeles has a strong CBA policy and has achieved both development and real community benefits in terms of good paying jobs around the Staples Center, the expansion of LAX airport, and the new LA ports expansion agreement. These linked development deals can be good for cities and low income communities but they need a strong, enforceable city legal framework to make sure that developers come through with their promises. Bloomberg's hostility to such a framework has ensured that we get this patchwork of deals that can't be effectively enforced.
(I'd say it wasn't Bloomberg's hostility to such a framework, it was Bloomberg's trust in Ratner.)

threecee, Brooklyn
"Ratner should live up to the promises made on housing and related development."
The problem, as pointed out by us so-called "NIMBY local residents" and many others, is that these promises weren't worth the paper the CBA was printed on. Ratner, himself, has almost literally admitted as much as he seeks more subsidies and more union concessions so that he makes the profit that he feels is necessary.
The Barclays signage is indeed a disaster.
Meanwhile, in the interests of public safety, street trees would be a non-starter. The sidewalks around the arena are already perilously narrow and struggle to accommodate the thousands leaving after events. The entire site will become more dangerous during and after the construction of the three high rise apartment buildings. Walk around the arena and ask yourself where they fit them in. It beggars belief.
enJ, NJ
I appreciate Mr. Kimmelman's vociferous stance here, calling Ratner and co. out for the outrageous fleecing of Brooklyn. We who opposed this greedy land grab from the start only wish the critics in seats of power were more vocal about their outrage along the way. The criticism is valuable. But I'm afraid it will be too little, and it's definitely too late. Thanks anyway.


  1. Anonymous3:50 PM

    I think you are perhaps too kind to the article. It is disingenious and uneven. The structure and balance of the article makes it seem like it was the stadium only and its design that angered activists. As if we all were so selfish that only traffic was our concern. And, as if all activists lived right next door, when there were people throughout the borough if not the entire city who were fighting this project. Kimmelman's own critiques in the last paragraphs seemed to me to be commmonly held critiques by many activists. All being given to one developer who already has had a poor track record in Brooklyn: Atlantic Terminal Mall, the Metotech. Poorly integrated into the neighborhood. Unaccountable public subsidies. Lack of plan for new schools and other services to serve the people in the new housing. He acts like he came up with these categories of criticism by himself and does not point to any other sources for them. The main criticism I took from my engagement with Develop Don't Destroy and other activist groups was the issue with the process. Democracy is not a result but a process. The Barclay's Center tried and succeeded in evading democracy at every turn. Worshipped for product before process. To me that can only lead to ugliness.

    1. As I said, he touches on the Culture of Cheating--the process issues--without fully addressing them. But there is an enormous contrast with the previous critics (Muschamp, Ouroussoff). Will ponder your points.

    2. A reader writes to me:

      "He does touch on the diversion of traffic to Third Avenue where a large concentration of public housing residents live and he calls for some of the commercial sponsorship income plus other subsidies to be used not for 'affordable housing' but for housing for 'low and moderate income' Brooklynites--a substantive difference. He also points out added public subsidies for Ratner means monies diverted from other areas of the city. "

      I'd note that the affordable housing includes low-, moderate-, and middle-income housing, and that the latter is where the larger subsidized apartments in the first building are concentrated. See:

    3. To the first commenter, I added mention of the SEIS and the potential 25-year buildout, unfortunately not addressed in this review.


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