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Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park graphic: what's built/what's coming + FAQ (pinned post)

What's happened to Atlantic Yards since Battle for Brooklyn? A lot (plus screening next week)

This is an updated version of a post published 9/30/18. The film will be screened 4/15/19 (tickets: $5), and I'll be on a panel discussion afterward.

For those coming to Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park new, the 2011 documentary Battle for Brooklyn by Suki Hawley, Michael Galinsky, and David Beilinson (my review) is a worthy introduction.

Though limited in scope at the time (it's just 93 minutes) and now significantly overtaken by events, the film establishes for viewers an enduring taint on the project and its path to approval, with indelible scenes.

Indeed, that taint has been borne out since 2011, though not necessarily as anyone--including myself--expected. It's a "never say never project" (one of my five mantras).

What has been consistent has been the lack of accountability, part of what I call the "Culture of Cheating" (another mantra).

So much has changed since the film, which, after all, was released while the arena was under construction. (See this FAQ for current statistics on the project and this article for a retrospective on Forest City Ratner/Forest City New York, the company that launched the project.)

But since some use the film as a starting point, I decided to write this update.

The big picture

Notably, the landscape in and around Downtown Brooklyn has changed dramatically since 2011, with many new towers to the northwest of the Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park project site, making the scale of the proposed project less anomalous, at least from one angle, though less so from other angles.

Only four Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park towers have risen--with four more starting this year and next.

Meanwhile, gentrification has proceeded both in the immediate area of Prospect Heights and not far away. Part of that reflects general trends in New York City and Brooklyn.

But a major factor is that thousands of market-rate apartments, not anticipated to be built, have emerged from the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning, which was aimed to increase office space, and did not require affordability. (There are affordable units in buildings nearby on city-owned plots near the Brooklyn Academy of Music.)

That means that, despite the fact that much of the Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park "affordable housing" is not that affordable (and some units have come with rent concessions), it looks better in contrast with a large majority of the Downtown Brooklyn towers.

It's fair to say the "Battle for Brooklyn" title now seems a bit overblown. But it was Brooklyn's biggest battle in recent memory. There have been--and will be--other battles in Brooklyn, which is a changing organism. But this one has left something of a template for developers who propose ambitious plans and promise desperately needed benefits.

Revisiting the film's final framing

As I wrote in my review, two talking heads helped set a final framing:
Though absent for much of the film, a few talking heads appear toward the end. The New York Times’s Charles Bagli declares, “Here we are, so many years later and you start scratching your head and you say, ‘Well, I see the arena going up, the steel is rising, but I don’t see any housing, the famous architect’s gone,’ it fed the notion that this was a hollow accomplishment.” Bagli implicitly rebukes Mayor Bloomberg’s confident, placating assertion a year earlier at the arena groundbreaking: “Nobody’s going to remember how long it took, they’re only going to look and see that it was done.” The final talking head is my own: “If the government had done its job, if the media had done their job, we wouldn’t be here like this. It would’ve been a fair fight.”
Well, maybe people won't remember how long the arena took, but the sluggish pace of construction certainly serves as a reminder that Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park hasn't panned out as promised, especially since the project is now expected to take until 2035, even if the 2,250 affordable units might be finished by 2025.

That further undermines one of the purported rationales for the project: the removal of the "blight" of an open railyard, which requires a deck for development.

That said, a supporter like former Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff, surveying the overall changes in and around Downtown Brooklyn and (dubiously) crediting Forest City Ratner significantly, wrote that the developer's "vision, commitment, and tenacity made the transformative project possible."

And while famous architect Frank Gehry was gone, the arena, in many architecture critics' eyes, was indeed rescued by SHoP Architects' revamp of the Ellerbe Becket design derided as a "hangar."

Today there is housing, and 782 of 1,242 total apartments in those four towers are "affordable," but such below-market housing does not conform to the housing that was promised.

Is the arena today a "hollow accomplishment"? Now that it's been open, it's helped rebrand Brooklyn, for better and for worse, and provided a venue for sports and events previously unavailable, while also symbolizing unfulfilled promises and vexing its nearest neighbors. It's, at best, a very mixed accomplishment.

Was it a fair fight? No, and it's never been so. It's no small irony that, in the passage of time, one notably critical voice regarding the unfairness of that fight came from Arana Hankin, who was Atlantic Yards project manager for Empire State Development, the state authority charged with the contradictory responsibility of both shepherding and overseeing the project.

Changing community, little accountability

Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, the project's leading opposition group, is essentially defunct, and Daniel Goldstein, the film's main protagonist, has left public life; the project “opposition” today is more neighborhood residents who are understandably concerned about the impact of arena operations and project construction.

Council Member Letitia James rose to Public Advocate, showing distance from Atlantic Yards but, when running successfully for Attorney General, embracing her role in the fight, even too much.

Most of the Community Benefits Agreement signatories are defunct or inactive; the single clearly active one is the Rev. Herbert Daughtry’s Downtown Brooklyn Neighborhood Alliance, which distributes free tickets to arena events, to nonprofit groups. Daughtry also helps run a foundation partly funded by the project/Nets.

BUILD (Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development) was sued by those in a coveted pre-apprenticeship training program, who charged they were promised construction jobs; that case was eventually settled, murkily. But it's clear the promised jobs, like the promised housing and the promised MWBE (minority- and women's business enterprises) contracting, fell short.

The Community Benefits Agreement, claimed to guarantee such benefits, is essentially unenforceable, as no promised Independent Compliance Monitor has been hired, and the signatories, the only parties with standing to challenge it, have not pushed.

A 2014 agreement on the timetable (see below) also created a new advisory body, the Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation (AY CDC). This was not the oversight subsidiary that some had pushed for, though that was unlikely, given gubernatorial control.

The AY CDC, despite a few members' questions and some steps toward transparency, has been mostly toothless, with one 2018 meeting scheduled with minimal notice, seemingly to enable an endorsement of a contract renewal. At a March 2019 meeting, an effort to request an updated project timetable was actually voted down.

Arena impacts

The Barclays Center didn't cause the "carmageddon" many feared, producing "told you so" crowing from some prominent arena backers. But the fears were based on published warnings in the state environmental review.

The worst-case scenario didn't come true, for several reasons: the arena was decoupled from the four towers originally planned to open simultaneously, the smaller-than-planned building drew fewer attendees, Nets fans mostly use public transit (and walk), and New Jersey fans of the Nets dropped off rather than drive to Brooklyn, while a new fan base began to emerge.

Still, particularly vexing are concerts and children's shows that draw many drivers, and events that require numerous buses. The loading dock, with an elevator and turntable touted as magical by some, doesn't always work right, leading to backup traffic on Dean Street.

It's a very tight fit (one of my mantras), so there's little margin for error. Which means--another mantra--that "The devil’s in the details.”

And "Power defines reality" (the final mantra), which means that the developer and its governmental allies generally set the agenda, too infrequently getting pushback from citizens and journalists.

For the most part, people think the arena's green roof was installed as a visual amenity, rather than as a (effective, it seems) way to dampen bass that was somehow escaping from the arena's structure.

Retail and neighborhood

Interestingly enough, there's still empty retail space on the Flatbush Avenue flank of the arena, prompting the introduction of a "Featured on Flatbush"pop-up. Also, two years after the opening of 461 Dean adjacent to the arena, the retail space is still unfilled.

Meanwhile, the amount of arena-related retail on nearby commercial corridors is less than feared/expected, though several bars and eateries have emerged. Oddly, one of the most prominent spaces, the former Triangle Sports building directly across from the arena on Fifth Avenue, remains empty.

More generally, retail nearby has become upscale, catering to new residents.

Even before the film emerged, the Prospect Heights Historic District was approved in 2009, nudging up against the Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park site. See above right.

The promised eight acres of open space--the privately operated, publicly accessible "Pacific Park"--won't be finished until the full project is finished, perhaps not until 2035. Meanwhile, the fractional open space around two towers has opened, but basically serves building residents. It relies significantly on the completion of three towers over the railyard at the eastern end of the project.

Box: 535 Carlton open space
Financial and ownership: the arena

The Barclays Center has been busy, especially its first, star-studded year, but financially has fallen far short of profit projections. Without a 2016 refinancing of the arena bonds at a lower interest rate, the project would likely be in jeopardy.

The New York Islanders were a surprise tenant, announced in 2012 for a move three years later. They were said to have an "ironclad" 25- year lease, instead had an opt-out provision, and they're now planning to build a new arena at Belmont Park in Nassau County.

After three years struggling at Barclays, they began splitting their seasons in Brooklyn and at the revamped but downsized Nassau Coliseum, considered too small for the NHL as a permanent home (and without luxury suites).

Forest City Ratner, which had already sold 80% of the team (and 45% of the arena operating company) to Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov by the time the movie came out, has since divested fully to Prokhorov--at a fairly modest sum for the arena, a decent payday for that minority share of the Nets.

While neither company did well on the arena, it has caused a significant increase in the value of the Nets, bringing a big check for Prokhorov, who sold to another billionaire, Joe Tsai. Now Tsai is said to be preparing to buy the operating companies for both Barclays and the Coliseum, perhaps ending Prokhorov's plan to become a venue mogul.

Financial and ownership: the project beyond arena

Forest City, rather than making a big profit from all the government help it got, lost hundreds of millions of dollars; it not only sold to Prokhorov, in 2014 it sold--at a loss--70% of the remaining project to Greenland USA, the arm of a Shanghai-based (and government-owned) developer.

The new joint venture Greenland Forest City Partners then in 2014 changed the name to Pacific Park (distancing itself from controversy, I wrote in Next City).

Forest City built one tower
 by itself, the tallest building in the world using modular construction. Despite much hype, it took twice as long and cost far more than expected, so Forest City exited that business, and ultimately sold the tower (at a seeming loss) to Principal Global Investors, which is otherwise not involved in Pacific Park.

The joint venture built three towers--two with affordable rentals, one condo--then, at the end of 2016, Forest City unilaterally announced it would stall construction.

Forest City, after reportedly being at odds with Greenland for more than a year, in early 2018 agreed to sell all but 5% of the project to Greenland. Several top Forest City executives, including CEO MaryAnne Gilmartin, departed
, leaving Forest City--renamed Forest City New York--as more of a real estate operator than a ground-up developer.

The Atlantic Yards stumbles were perhaps the most prominent among those targeted by hedge fund investors who successfully pushed the parent company, Forest City Realty Trust, to collapse a two-class share structure that left the extended Ratner family in control, and to end a board dominated by family members.

That, in turn, ultimately led to the complete demise of Forest City Realty Trust, which, after a close board vote in 2018, agreed to be absorbed by Brookfield Asset Management after shareholders ratified it.

In late 2018, Greenland--part of a pattern of retreating from ambitious plans in New York and in Los Angeles--announced that it would lease three development sites to other companies: B15 to The Brodsky Organization, and B12 and B13 to TF Cornerstone. Chinese companies face increasing governmental restraint on debt and outbound capital flows.

Forest City, and later the joint venture, were early adopters of a new way to raise cheap capital: the EB-5 program for immigrant investors, who offer to park $500,000 in a purportedly job-creating investment so they and family members can get green cards.

Now, after three rounds of fundraising for the project, there's widespread skepticism toward the program, which--given the questionable marketing already evident in 2010, when I first wrote about EB-5--is long overdue. Now there are even charges of fraud, though it's unlikely they'll be evaluated in a New York court, given a plan for arbitration.

Program and timetable questions

The joint venture, facing pressure from a potential fair-housing lawsuit, agreed to a new 2025 deadline, with financial penalties, for the 2,250 units of affordable housing, which was ten years earlier than the previous "outside date," but well beyond previously announced completion goals of 2016 and 2019.

That agreement, however, did not specify the level of affordability. The two "100% affordable" towers skew toward middle-income units, which does not represent where the need was greatest.

With half the units in each of two 300-unit towers geared toward those middle-income households, with rents close to market rate in the general area (though rent-stabilized and certainly a better deal than other new construction near), they've been hard to fill via the lottery.

In fact, the developers are offering an incentive common with market-rate rentals: two free months. That scorn has made it to mainstream coverage, as with this Ginia Bellafante "Big City" column in the New York Times.

No Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park building started between mid-2015 and February 2019, which meant the promised school--in that finally-starting tower, B15--has been delayed at least four years, until 2022. (Also, the B4 tower should start very soon.) The open space--the eight-acre "park"--won't be finished until the entire project is finished.

That was once projected as 2025: they'd finish the affordable units in the final buildings. That was finally acknowledged as 2035, as of May 2018 (and disclosed by me in August 2018). Greenland has played its cards close to the vest; the plan to finish affordable units by 2025 apparently relies on building another "100% affordable" building, I discovered, thanks to an appraisal document circulated to EB-5 investors.

(Ironically enough, neither Bagli nor the Times, which have covered the project inconsistently and intermittently, have written about, for example, Forest City's second sale to Greenland, much less the timetable delays. Bagli's since retired.)

The developer never built the B1 tower, which Gehry dubbed "Miss Brooklyn"; by now, such construction would interfere with the arena plaza, which is integral to Barclays Center operations.

Instead, the joint venture wants to move the bulk of B1--no one throws away buildable square footage--across the street catercorner to Site 5, home today to the big-box stores P.C. Richard and Modell's, and already slated for a large tower. A far larger two-tower complex might be built, though the governmental process hasn't started, in part because P.C. Richard in court sought--and won--a ruling to ensure space in a replacement building.

The bottom line

Stay tuned--more changes, and surprises, are inevitable, especially regarding the timetable, affordability, and ownership. As I recently explained, up to six years are needed just to build the infrastructure--the foundations, deck, and more--to support six towers over the Vanderbilt Yard, with costs exceeding $200 million. That's a heavy lift, with many unknowns.

Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park may not be a "Battle for Brooklyn" any more, but it is an unending saga, with the question marks emerging in new ways. Unsurprisingly, the basic dynamic regarding the projects remains consistent; neither the city nor the state do much to challenge the developer.

The Brooklyn Nets, after some lean years, have regrouped and this year made the playoffs. The Barclays Center remains major venue and place to hold charitable events; public officials like Borough President Eric Adams and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries honored hip-hop artist Biggie Smalls in promos for  expensive Nets jerseys. Developer Bruce Ratner is now better known for his role leading the Museum of Jewish Heritage.

The taint persists. Amazon, in its search for #HQ2, passed on Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park sites. Post columnist Steve Cuozzo recently wrote that the glitzy Hudson Yards "mocks" the Brooklyn project. New York Magazine's Justin Davidson, writing on potential development at Sunnyside Yard, suggested that the "perpetually troubled" Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park "offers another case study in what to avoid."

Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park may be vexed, but no one's really responsible.