Perimeter logo

A New Heart for Brooklyn

Bruce Ratner Buys the New Jersey Jets Basketball Team

And Plans to Build New Arena for It in Brooklyn

As Centerpiece of Major Mixed-Use Project


By Carter B. Horsley

When the fabled Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 1957, New York City's heart skipped a beat and Brooklyn went into cardiac arrest.

Brooklyn, the nation's fourth largest city until it was incorporated into New York City in 1898, never fully recovered from its abandonment by the Dodgers even though its downtown business district revived somewhat in recent years at the same time that the Brooklyn Academy of Music became a very important performing arts center for the city. (The Brooklyn Museum of Art has announced major expansion plans that have yet to be implemented.)

The Brooklyn Dodgers were one of the greatest teams in baseball history in the early and mid-1950s. Jackie Robinson was the most exciting player in the game and Duke Snider, Roy Campanella and Gil Hodges were 40-home-run hitters.

With the Dodgers in Ebbetts Field, now demolished, in Brooklyn, the New York Giants up at the Polo Grounds, now demolished in Upper Manhattan, and the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium in The Bronx, New York City had it all: three Major League baseball times a subway ride away from one another. The Dodgers' rivalry with the New York Giants reached its apotheosis in 1951 with Bobby Thompson's 9th inning home-run against Ralph Branca to win the pennant in the last game of the season. The Dodgers, affectionately known as the "Bums," finally won the World Series against the New York Yankees in 1955.

The news, therefore, that Bruce Ratner, a real estate developer, has bought, in January, 2004, the New Jersey Nets basketball team and plans to relocate them to a huge, mixed-use complex he wants to erect in downtown Brooklyn, is most welcome.

Basketball, of course, is not baseball, but Jason Kidd of the Nets is a very, very scrapy and exciting player in the best traditions of Jackie Robinson, one who is sure to pump life back into Brooklyn.

The Nets were never a New York City team. They started as a Long Island team and then were scooped up by New Jersey, who also happened to scoop up the New York Giants football team and deposit them in the Meadowlands.

New Jersey's success over the last generation in luring professional sports teams and office workers across the Hudson River from New York City has been enormous.

After incredible non-chalance on the part of New York City officials, the tide may be turning although now Jersey City has an impressive skyline of office and residential towers that is not going to vanish.

The Bloomberg Administration is seeking the 2012 Olympics and as part of that bid is pushing a major rezoning of the far west area of midtown Manhattan. Combined with the redevelopment of the former World Trade Center site at Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan, the midtown west plan and the new Brooklyn project would create millions of square feet of commercial space that could flood the market if developed simultaneously.

The long-term view should also take precedence over the short-term as far as urban planning is concerned, but the realities of the office market in terms of lead-time for development and absorption rates cannot be minimized or ignored.

The office market has been weak for the past few years, but most experts believe it has recently "bottomed out" and is now firming up a bit.

Not only will the giant new projects compete for office tenants. They will also compete for public funds. Forest City Ratner, for example, the developer of the proposed new Brooklyn project, is the co-developer of a new headquarters towers for The New York Times on Eighth Avenue at 41st Street (see The City Review article). Both projects are seeking public funding and Forest City Ratner has recently indicated it will not proceed with The Times's tower if that funding is not available. While The Times project would certainly boost the ambience of Eighth Avenue as it is directly across from the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey's bus terminal, it is no longer of vital importance to the redevelopment of Times Square and West 42nd Street, whose redevelopment has dramatically occurred in rapid fashion to a large extent already.

While the city has paid verbal homage to the need to encourage development and new business districts in the outer boroughs, not much has happened apart from Forest City Ratner's 14-building MetroTech Center project in downtown Brooklyn that began in 1988 and is continuing. That organization's new proposal is for a site deeper in Brooklyn, one that is very close to the Brooklyn Academy of Music and not too far from Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Moreover, it is located at a very major transportation hub. One could argue quite convincingly that the new project makes more sense as a major office center than downtown Brooklyn, whose greatest virtue is its adjacency to Brooklyn Heights, perhaps the city's nicest residential enclave.

The new Brooklyn project has been designed, albeit in preliminary fashion so far, by Frank Gehry, the architect of the sensational and widely acclaimed Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and of the recently opened
Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Gehry designed an equally sensational new project for the Guggenheim Museum that would have been built on platforms on the East River just to the south of the South Street Seaport, but the museum has encountered financial problems and backed off that very ambitious plan that would have single-handedly revitalized Lower Manhattan and still should be built.

The 21-acre project would be located over the Long Island Rail Road yards at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues. The tracks for the train storage yard would be moved east to permit Forest City Ratner to erect the $435 million arena for basketball, topped by a park with a running track that could be converted to an ice rink in the winter. The arena will be able to have 19,000 seats for Brooklyn Nets basketball games and 20,000 for concerts and other events.

The arena, which will be linked to the Atlantic Terminal subway and train lines, would be embraced by four tall office towers totaling 2.1 million square feet, with up to 4,500 affordable, middle- and market-rate apartments for rent and for purchase in buildings to the east. The facade of the arena would be sheathed in glass and the surrounding office towers are expected to have restaurants at the level of the arena's roof. The project, which would probably take ten years or so to complete, would also have 300,000 square feet of retail space, parking for 3,000 cars and six acres of "publicly accessible open space."


The plans for the new Brooklyn project are not yet very detailed and now only show rough block models of four office towers with 2.1 million square feet of office space, surrounding the new Jets arena. One of the towers would be 630-feet high, considerably taller than the nearby Williamsburg Savings Bank tower near that is now the borough's tallest landmark. The northernmost tower, raised on stilts, will be set back slightly at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues to preserve view corridors to the Williamsburg Bank tower. At a press conference announced the plan in December, 2003, Frank Gehry, the architect, said
"Don't worry about these funny shapes at this point; these are just blocks, and we'll make something out of it."

The Brooklyn project would require the demolition of many residences, whose residents and representatives have already indicated opposition to the project.

The relocation of on-site residents needs to be addressed sensitively and equitably. The new project calls for the creation of about 4.5 million square feet of new office space and about 5,000 apartments in addition to the new arena and retail facilities. Clearly, current residents on the site should be given priority to get the new apartments on the site at costs not out-of-line with their current housing costs and, furthermore, should be relocated commensurately during the construction process.

The block model for the $2.5 billion project indicated that the towers would jut in different, asymmetrical directions from their vertical axes, and that some would have curved facades, but the blocks were not detailed enough to review properly. The large, elliptical arena would be located mid-block and surrounded by tall, adjoining towers. The block model indicated that the form of the towers would be off-kilter and given Gehry's prowess they would be undoubtedly interesting and dramatic and a new focal point for the borough.

The six-block site is adjacent to Atlantic Terminal, where nine subway lines and the the Long Island Rail Road converge. The western end of the site at Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues is a triangular corner that points to Manhattan. The surrounding Fort Greene, Prospect Heights, Park Slope and Boerum Hill neighborhoods are low-rise with the exception of the wonderful Williamsburg Savings Bank tower.

The Olin Partnership is the project's landscape architect. The new project will have to undergo extensive environmental review and land-use review.

Herbert Muschamp, the architectural critic of The New York Times, has endorsed the project: "Those who have been wondering whether it will ever be possible to create another Rockefeller Center can stop waiting for the answer. Here it is," he wrote. That answer remains to be seen. Rockefeller Center was not only a hallmark of sophisticated urban design, but also the touchstone to redevelopment of central midtown Manhattan. Some Brooklyn community activists have already expressed concern about the "Manhattanization" of Brooklyn. Such concerns are probably extreme. Atlantic Terminal is now pretty much of a mess and the area cries out for significant improvement especially given its importance as a transportation hub.

Brooklyn is enormous and full of many diverse communities. It deserves and needs a landmark center and Gehry is the architect best equipped to provide it and Bruce C. Ratner, the president and CEO of Forest City Ratner, an affiliate of Forest City Enterprises, has fine Brooklyn credentials. In addition to Metro Tech Center, his company also built One Pierrepont Plaza, a handsome office tower in downtown Brooklyn in 1988 and the Atlantic Center retail project in downtown Brooklyn in 1996. In Manhattan, it built New York Mercantile Exchange in the World Financial Center at Battery Park City in 1997, the Hilton Times Square entertainment and retail project in 2000 and the Harlem Center retail and office building on Malcolm X Boulevard at 125th Street in 2003.

The entire project will be known as Brooklyn Atlantic Yards.


For renderings of the project and site plans go to http://www.bball.net


 

Home Page of The City Review