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Neon artwork at arena plaza will be lit 6 am-midnight, for 3+ years. No DOB permit needed. Will "You belong" apply to (oft-faulty) elevator, Hong Kong protests?

So, we've learned a little more about the illluminated artwork planned to be mounted over the Barclays Center subway entrance sometime next week, which I wrote about yesterday. 

I noted that it's hard to dissociate anything the arena does from a search for commercial/reputational benefit--and that the privately controlled public space, the sponsored SeatGeek Plaza, doesn't accommodate protesters if they interfere with an event crowd.

Note advertising. Photo: N.O.
The neon messages, "We belong here" and "You belong here," will be illuminated from 6 am to midnight, just as with the arena's oculus. They could last at least three years. And no city permit was required.

"We do not expect that the installation process will have any effect on traffic flow or pedestrian access to the subway station," said a message the arena circulated yesterday from Gregg Bishop, Executive Director of the Joe & Clara Wu Tsai Foundation's Social Justice Fund. 

Via CityLab

He was eager to share a friendly article from CityLab that buffed the art propect and discounted the unmet promises of the arena and larger Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park project.

(Note: CityLab still hasn't corrected the erroneous statement that Joe Tsai owns the Barclays Center. Rather, as shown in the excerpt at right, his company operates the arena. The distinction is important, because the fig leaf of public ownership enables tax-exempt bonds, saving Tsai tens of millions of dollars.)

Keep your eye on the ball

Bishop reminded us that the plaza hosted "powerful protests for racial justice," though of course the letter didn't point out, for example, that the promised "affordable housing" is vastly behind scehedule and skewed to the better-off. Those are connected, because one justification some had for the arena was that it would unlock other public benefits.

From his Bishop's message:
The arena’s plaza has in so many ways been Brooklyn’s home base for powerful protests for racial justice, especially in the past year. In honor of this history, and of the brave Brooklynites– and all New Yorkers– who fight to make life better for their communities, we are so excited that at this moment, award-winning Bahamian artist Tavares Strachan is installing his powerful work "You Belong Here/We Belong Here” (2021), on top of the grass subway canopy outside of Barclays Center.
The message also invited people to the unveiling celebration Saturday, October 23 from 4-7pm, with "free food tastings from BIPOC- and MWBE-owned businesses, musical performances, and resource tables from city agencies and local organizations."

March 11, 2021
Who belongs--elevator users?

One test, or potential irony, will be whether the arena maintains the elevator from the plaza to the mezzanine level, which has been frequently out of service, as well as the escalators, also periodically out of service.

Barclays Center Has Subway’s Worst Privately Owned Elevator, The City reported 2/10/20, functioning just 74.2% of the time in 2019, according to MTA statistics, "falling far beneath the 96.5% reliability standard aimed for by New York City Transit."

That elevator has been repaired, so presumably its performance has improved recently, but it is notoriously among the worst in the system, leading to criticism of the MTA's monitoring of such privately maintained elevators.

The most recently available MTA dashboard page, ranging from September 2020 through July 2021, shows that the elevator, designated 700X, was in service only 41.2% of the time. See screenshot below. (In June 2020, the arena claimed 92% service.)

The MTA's elevator/escalator status page states that the 700X elevator is estimated to be out of service until 3 pm this afternoon.

Who belongs--Hong Kong protesters?

Another test will be whether the arena plaza without incident hosts protesters whose position run afoul of Tsai, who notoriously backed the Chinese regime in 2019 after the Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted "Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” just before the Brooklyn Nets left for China for some lucrative exhibition games.

In his book Can't Knock the Hustle, a chronicle of the Nets' 2019-20 season, author Matt Sullivan describes how activists attending the team's first preseason home game after the China trip wore t-shirts reading STAND WITH HONG KONG and at one point, assembled multiple components to create a larger banner stating MOREY OR MONEY. He writes:

Then multiple security guards began snatching at a sign that read, of all the nonviolent things, FREE TIBET. Too big, the Barclays staffers concluded, but only after snatching hard enough that one of the activists in the front row almost fell into a railing.
Sullivan also writes:
An official involved in security preparations for the game said that Joe Tsai was frustrated that his arena had a limitation only on the size, not on the content, of a protest sign.

Presumably Tsai knows better now.

An eased process

It turns out that no city Department of Buildings (DOB) permits were required for the new metal structure and art piece.

The DOB told me it was the property of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), but the MTA told me it was the property of Empire State Development (ESD), which leases the property to the Barclays Center operator.

So that state ownership--whichever agency you choose--apparently exempts it from standard city oversight.

The MTA told me that, while it's not MTA property, the project's backers did have to get permission via the External Partner Program, which guides public and private-sector designers and contractors through technical implementation of projects within 200 feet of an MTA property. That permission concerned the structure, not content.

The MTA says the agreement-- involving ESD, MTA, and those instituting the art project--allows the installation for up to three years, and does not allow advertising above the entrance, nor would MTA approve advertising use if pursued.

From the arena

Though Bishop's message didn't say anything about the duration, arena spokeswoman Mandy Gutmann stated in response to my query the artwork "is scheduled to be on display for at least three years," which implies a possible renewal or extension of the three-year term.

"We received permission to install this specific piece of artwork from the required parties, which include ESD and the MTA," she wrote. "DOB approval and permitting was not required because the artwork qualified as signage under the Atlantic Yards Land Use Improvement and Civic Project (“MGPP”), which overrode local regulation. Instead, the work, which was fully engineered in compliance with the technical requirements of NYC Code, was approved by the MTA following a thorough review."

Falling through the cracks

Yes, the ESD's Modified General Project Plan (MGPP) overrides local regulations, including:
(v) Override of signage regulations to allow arena signage to exceed the applicable height, surface area, and illumination controls on the arena block.
But there's a complication here.

Like the original Barclays Center sign on the arena roof, and the subsequent green roof, this falls through the cracks. 

The transit entrance was never contemplated during public review--remember, the plaza was a "temporary" placeholder until the flagship office tower was built. (It won't be built.)

So the transit entrance was never assessed. 

And the ESD's Atlantic Yards Design Guidelines, which are supposed to govern signage on the arena block, don't address this structure either.

I didn't hear back from ESD. Updated: I got a response from ESD at 6:09 pm:
“ESD consented to the “You Belong Here” art exhibition and there have been no requests for other art installations or advertising campaigns. The Modified General Project Plan for the Atlantic Yards Project has previously overridden the New York City signage regulations, including those set forth in the City’s Zoning Resolution, which are therefore not applicable to the art exhibition. The “You Belong Here” art exhibition is expected to be on display for at least 3 years and will be illuminated from 6 AM to midnight, the same hours as the oculus.”