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Preliminary FAQ on the planned Barclays Center green roof (and curious history of arena roof plans)

Not the current plan. This is the 2003 plan.
The news that Forest City Ratner, with the support of expected new partner the Greenland Group, is planning a green roof on the Barclays Center, sets up a bunch of questions for the memory-challenged.

There's still much we don't know--including potentially significant impacts during construction, which will be unexamined--but I'll try to fill in some gaps.

What are they planning?

Well, Forest City Ratner hasn't announced anything official, but the Executive Summary of the Draft Supplementary Impact Statement issued by Empire State Development revealed:
...the project sponsors are considering the construction and installation of a green roof on Barclays Center as a new sustainable feature of the Arena. If installed, it would consist of the construction of a secondary roof with a structural system to hold a green sedum tray system very similar to the sedum roof at the transit entrance in front of the Arena. It is expected to cover most of the roof and would consist of approximately 130,000 square feet of sedum, making it one of the largest green roofs in New York City. It is expected that installation of this Phase I component would commence in 2014.
Wouldn't a green roof be an improvement on what's there now, a big honking logo for the Barclays Center?

Sure. But we shouldn't let the news get framed simply as an esthetic, green upgrade.

We should recognize the previous, un-kept promises for the arena roof, the failure of the state to oversee Forest City's plans for the roof, and the likely multiple agendas behind this new roof, notably a fix to contain the escaping bass that periodically plagues the neighborhood.

What were the promises?

Well, here's the original December 2003 public relations statement regarding the roof:
The roof of the Arena offers an exciting opportunity to create new public space, with 52,000 square feet in four lushly landscaped areas for passive recreation and a promenade along the outside edge of the roof with outstanding panoramic vistas facing Manhattan. For active recreation, an outdoor ice-skating rink connects the four gardens; in warmer months the rink will become a running track. The open space not only provides a destination for community residents as well as for the workers in the office buildings--it also allows the commercial buildings surrounding the arena to be connected at the sky-lobby level.
That sounds impressive. That rendering upper right looks nice. What did the critics think?

Herbert Muschamp, the architecture critic of the New York Times, was giddy. He wrote 12/11/03:
Instead of sitting isolated in a parking lot, the stadium will be tucked into the urban fabric, just as buildings surround a Baroque square. The arena becomes a stage, with the towers around extending the bleachers to the sky. Here, the stage will be activated by a running track around the perimeter of the arena's roof. In winter, the track becomes a skating rink. Other areas of the roof will be set aside for passive recreation. Restaurants for the surrounding towers are planned at the arena's roof level.
What happened?

By September 2005, the Draft Scope of Analysis for an Environmental Impact Statement was issued by Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC, now ESD), the state agency overseeing/shepherding Atlantic Yards. It stated that the open space would no longer be open to the public:
This rooftop open space would be accessible to users of the buildings constructed as part of the proposed project.
A 2006 mock-up of green roof (top)
A 2008 rendering of a metal roof (bottom)
According to one report, Forest City Ratner spokesman Joe DePlasco explained the change from commercial towers to residential ones meant the developer had reserved the rooftop for residents "so they would have easy access to laundry rooms and other amenities," in the Daily News's paraphrase.

One version of the green roof, in a very rough model, appeared in the top photo at right, published 5/12/06 by the New York Times.

The roof was a selling point regarding environmental sustainability, right?

When the Draft EIS was released in July 2006, it cited "incorporation of a green roof on the arena."

The green roof was discussed extensively in the Final EIS, in both particular chapters and the Response to Comments chapter, describing a sustainable design feature. The green roof, with an area of 3.03 acres, would mainly have plants that wouldn't require irrigation, while "rainfall in excess of the infiltration capacity [would be] converted to overland runoff that reaches the roof drains."

From the chapter on Open Space:
In addition, approximately one acre of private open space intended for use by the project site tenants would be built on a portion of the roof of the proposed arena.... This green space would be designed with detention and retention basins to limit the amount of runoff that flows directly into the City’s water drainage system (see Chapter 11, “Infrastructure,” for discussion of green design features).
That meant more good publicity, right?

Exactly. From a July 2007 Pennsylvania Gazette article on landscape architect Laurie Olin:
Olin plans to crown the new basketball arena with a green roof and to capture almost all of the parcel’s storm water runoff—which currently exacerbates flooding on the nearby Gowanus Canal—for reuse in irrigation, cleaning, and gray-water plumbing.
What happened next?

By May 2008, the green roof was gone. The new designs portrayed the arena as covered in shiny metal, as noted above right. Matthew Schuerman of WNYC followed up, in a piece headlined Atlantic Yards Loses Green Roof for Arena, 2016 Completion Date.

Graphic from DDDB, 2008
He explained that, while the roof, "one of the big signature elements... one of the selling points," was supposed to also retain rainwater, "they can't figure out how to do that technically.... They say still will be able to retain rainwater by moving those holding tanks below ground." Whether the impact would be the same, however, is unclear.

"They said, in a way, that the soil doesn't really absorb that much water in the first place," Schuerman suggested, "but I'm sure there will be some sort of minor environmental impacts, less clean air, for example, because there are not quite as many trees." 

Indeed, the green roof had appeared prominently in a May 2006 brochure, as noted above.

When the arena was re-designed, how was the roof portrayed?

It was blank.

In 2009, after new public hearings, Empire State Development approved a revised project, with the arena decoupled from the towers, a cost-saving move for Forest City.

A "conceptual design" of the arena produced by architect Ellerbe Becket, released to the public, stated that it "does not include signage, which will conform to Design Guidelines." There was, of course, no mention of rooftop signage, in those guidelines. So there was no reason for the public to expect to see signage on the roof.

Forest City soon brought on SHoP to produce a new facade for the arena (and later to design the arena plaza and the first residential building). At a September 2009 public information session, just before the project was officially approved, there was nothing on the roof, as indicated in the photo below.

Photo by Tracy Collins
This was after a public comment period, but the public was able to comment at the board meeting of the Empire State Development Corporation, which approved the project. The omission of the signage precluded that option.

How did Barclays get its logo on the roof?

I speculate, but when Barclays in 2007 bought naming rights to a green-roof arena, it was paying for a Frank Gehry model. It later renegotiated the price down; perhaps the rooftop signage came in exchange for the delay and the loss of Gehry. But it's unclear how long that commitment was supposed to last.

Was the state candid about that logo?

No. In March 2010, as the arena groundbreaking approached, the ESDC was asked about a rendering (below) in which the rooftop boasted a seemingly illuminated Barclays Center sign. Such a rendering was for promotional purposes a spokeswoman said, adding that signage "will meet the design guidelines, which we continue to review."

When did clues emerge?

The new and apparently final design of the rooftop signage (right) appeared in images of the arena plaza released in September 2010, as well a new Atlantic Yards website that debuted in February 2011.

Did Barclays get good value? Did the state?

Well, the arena became famous pretty quickly, and helicopter views certainly portray the logo. The state gets no revenue from the rooftop signage. (The arena is nominally owned by the state, for the purpose of issuing tax-exempt bonds. The state gave away arena naming rights, which were never counted as a subsidy, or in a cost-benefit analysis.)

Didn't the roof signage vanish at some point?

Yes, in renderings of the arena, part of the November 2011 release of images of modular construction, portrayed the roof as brown at night (below), with no obvious signage.

So, why are they putting a green roof on now?

Well, the green roof likely helps solve several problems. It makes the roof look more attractive to the residents of the towers being built next to the arena. 

And, likely, it will help protect against bass escaping from the arena.

Isn't that speculation?

Sure, but it's reasonable speculation. They wouldn't go to the trouble--in cost and logistics--to to this now if they didn't need to. (Heck, last night I wandered around the arena and, on the Sixth Avenue sidewalk, could hear/feel the bass from the Black Sabbath show.)

Who's paying for it?

It's part of the joint venture with expected new investor the Greenland Group, which is owned by the Chinese government.

Is the green roof part of the current environmental review?

No. The review was ordered regarding Phase 2 of the project, east of Sixth Avenue. The green roof is part of Phase 1. For the purpose of the review, Phase 1 is an "existing condition," even if it's not built yet.

A green roof should be good for the environment and esthetically pleasing--why would any review be necessary?

It might be rather complicated to construct, given that there's an operating arena and other construction/residents nearby, so there may be trucks and cranes and other equipment for a period of time. It surely would have been easier to install when the arena was being built.

So the green roof falls through the cracks in the environmental review, essentially facing no public oversight?

Exactly. Just like the logo.


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