4:10 pm Sep. 20, 2012
The builders of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn will have much to celebrate at tomorrow's ribbon cutting, having made it through legal battles, financing troubles and architectural disputes to get to the opening of the giant arena.
The mood will be different outside, where some vocal Brooklynites who opposed the arena will gather. They're the ones who protested first the seizure of property to cobble the site together and then the effect the arena would have on the sensitive intersection of residential neighborhoods like Prospect Heights, Fort Greene, Park Slope and Boerum Hill, at the crossroads of which Barclays sits.
As it turns out, the arena itself is a beautiful structure, in stark contrast to developer Bruce Ratner's previous building forays in the neighborhood. Both 1996's Atlantic Center mall and 2004's Atlantic Terminal Mall are blights, and did much to make the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic avenues feel like some windswept highway off-ramp halfway through Connecticut, in some exurban nowhere.
I'm not totally shocked that this Ratner project came out so differently because Ratner went, in the end, with SHOP, a local architectural firm that's big on both ambition and humanness. Partner Gregg Pasquarelli has the kind of genuine excitement for this project that you just don't see with rabid capitalist-architects who want to build houses for banksters.
Jay-Z will be there at the opening I'm sure, and Michael Bloomberg, and of course Ratner himself, who had so much to answer for and who by several accounts knew that what he was really battling Brownstone Brooklyn for was a last chance to make amends for what he'd done to the borough already.
Now, almost bizarrely, Ratner has a chance to go down in history as one of the great builders of Brooklyn.
I should say here that I was against the project from the start. I don't believe stadiums ever bring what builders say they will, and I don't understand putting them in locations like this. Recall Ebbetts Field as fondly as you like, but these stadiums aren't built the same way anymore, they don't create the kind of traffic patterns or local business they used to. In my mind, the word "stadium" is more likely to conjure the image of a mediocre-looking pillbox across an empty parking lot studded with broken glass and blowing discarded fast-food paper products.
But that's not what Barclays looks like right now. And I think as far as phase one of Ratner's Brooklyn rehabilitation is concerned, he's been successful. Phase two is longer, and harder, and not entirely in his control.
Having built this thing, having paid lots of money, having extracted lots of suffering and sown lots of discord in Brooklyn, what remains is to see what the arena does to Brooklyn when it's a living, breathing urban organism, sucking people in and spitting them out like some kind of artificial heart.
Will it bring higher real estate values to local owners or will it lower them? If it brings higher ones, will Ratner's promise to put a cap on the dislocation of its longtime residents by building middle-income housing ever come to fruition?
To ask is not to doubt Ratner's motive, but to have the right level of incredulity about any of these kinds of deals, as the economy cycles up and down and the city's government prepares for a new regime. Will local store owners get more business or get pushed out? Will all the little restaurants be replaced with bank branches, nail salons, Heartland Breweries and Hooters and Applebees, or will the distinct charms of Brooklyn actually appeal to the thousands of suburbanites who travel in to watch the Brooklyn Nets, or Jay-Z, or Lady Gaga at the arena?
Tomorrow will probably be the kindest day for Ratner. Whether that all falls away is largely up to forces beyond his, or our, control. But the arena is now a fact. The Brooklynites who picketed the project should allow themselves to start supporting a home team, and a stadium, that can shape the future of the borough. And they should also not let Ratner, or the city, off the hook when it comes to the concessions they offered, and the benefits they promised.