Waiting for Bruce: The Commercial Observer Tours Atlantic Yards Arena
Jotham Sederstrom Feb. 1, 2012, 8:30 a.m.
A chauffered Lexus LS sedan pulled up to the corner of Dean Street and Flatbush Avenue and out slid Bruce Ratner from the back seat. He was 15 minutes late.
In a navy suit with a merino v-neck sweater over a dress shirt with no tie and an open collar, he was also underdresed for the sunny but windy chill swirling across the $1 billion Barclays Center that his firm Forest City Ratner is well into building at the Atlantic Yards site in Brooklyn.
“I thought it was going to be 50 degrees,” Mr. Ratner said, immediately noticing the cold.
So much at the site hasn’t gone according to plan. Mr. Ratner has waded through years of lawsuits launched by landowners who were eventually booted from buildings on the yards via emminent domain, community groups and others that oppose the 22-acre development. If that wasn’t enough, the project, one of the largest developments in city, has had to weather a deep recession and its lingering aftereffects, which have put a damper on demand and pricing for the 16 residential buildings slated for the site.
Mr. Ratner managed to break ground on the basketball arena – which will be home to the Brooklyn Nets – in 2010, just before tax free bonds the state had permitted him to issue in order to finance the arena’s construction at below-market interest rates were due to expire. The timeline for other components of the project, including the construction of three residential towers that will hug the arena, is less clear.
“I think we’ll break ground sometime this year,” was all Mr. Ratner would say, referring to the first residential building that is slated to rise at the site, a tower on the corner of Dean and Flatbush whose base will cantilever over a rear entrance to the 14,000 seat Barlcays Center. The first building will be something of a barometer, Mr. Ratner suggested. The offerings in the other two buildings, he said, be they studios, one bedrooms, or larger apartments, will be based off the market’s reception of the spaces that Forest City Ratner will offer in the first tower.
Mr. Ratner bristled when asked to make further reaching projections of progress on the Atlantic Yards site. Standing inside the arena and gazing into its nearly finished bowl of seats, The Commercial Observer’s gaze couldn’t help but trail farther, through a large entryway being used by construction vehicles. Beyond was the rest of the site, a stretch of train tracks and dirt recessed below grade that runs east for several blocks between Atlantic Avenue and Pacific Street.
“We’re here to talk about the arena,” Mr. Ratner snapped when asked when those portions of the development would begin.
One could forgive Mr. Ratner’s edginess given the opposition he has faced. Sensing that he had perhaps recoiled a little too fiercely, his demeanor quickly loosened.
“You have to understand, my words have been twisted around in the past,” Mr. Ratner said.
“And then all of a sudden I’m getting sued,” he added, seeming to refer to a recent suit by a group of workers who claim they were promised union jobs by Forest City Ratner for enrolling in a training program, but subsequently weren’t offered employment.
Mr. Ratner said that the company had studied 16 arenas around the country, specifically Bankers Life Fieldhouse, formerly Conseco Fieldhouse, the home of the Indiana Pacers. The problem with most arenas, such as Madison Square Garden, according to Mr. Ratner is their elevation, which forces the flow of patrons all in one direction and creates congestion.
The court at the Barclays Center is below grade, so when fans enter from ground level, depending on where they sit, they will be split between heading either up or down to their seats.
“We broke up the flow of traffic,” Mr. Ratner said. “At a place like MSG, you have everybody heading up at the start of the game and then down at the end. It creates a jam and it’s confusing. You’re forced to kind of follow the crowd just to know where you’re going.”
Mr. Ratner also pointed out that games will be partially visible from the plaza in front of the arena.
“It’s going to be the only court in the league where you can literally watch the game from the street outside,” Mr. Ratner said, pointing out the arena’s embrace of the surrounding community.
Staff Writer Daniel Geiger can be reached at Dgeiger@Observer.com