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The Great Brooklyn Bait-and-Switch

Roberta Brandes Gratz / Oct 05 2012

For Release Friday, October 5, 2012

Roberta Brandes GratzIn the city that created the expression, “If you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you,” no one should be surprised that at Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards site, nothing is, or ever will be, as promised.

The Barclays Center piece of the project opened Sept. 28 with a celebrity-studded gala and extensive publicity. But the larger Atlantic Yards project has not only failed to deliver on its over-the-top promises, it exemplifies the worst in city-building.

The developer dangled some tasty bait to get public officials salivating: What was promised were 16 Frank Gehry-designed, mostly residential towers surrounding an arena and parks; 10,000 jobs; and 2,250 units of affordable housing in 10 years. With their eyes on that bait, public officials could be expected to ignore any reasonable alternative plans and stay committed, even when the switch emerged.

Developer Bruce Ratner, CEO of developer Forest City Ratner, and his supporters now say it was protracted lawsuits and the collapsed economy that have delayed the delayed promises. That’s disingenuous. Neither the lawsuits nor the economic climate can account for knowingly exaggerated job and housing promises – which were key to winning support from low-income groups.

Those 10,000 promised jobs? A job fair for the arena last spring drew 35,000 people for 19,000 part-time jobs and 1,000 permanent jobs, the New York Times reported. For an unpaid internship program, 36 were signed up to work for free, with a promise of construction jobs and union cards. Only two received a union card.

No urban renewal project of this over-the-top scale has EVER delivered on its promises.

With at least $305 million in public subsidies already (yet no Tea Party complaints have been heard here), Ratner promises to break ground in December and meet a legal deadline on the first residential tower, with additional public subsidies which might provide 181 affordable units. Note, however, that 171 affordable units were bulldozed to make way for the project. Public funding here, in the form of tax-exempt bonds, means less of that limited funding will be available elsewhere in the city, where it could buy more units. No Ratner money will go into fulfilling what is a fraction of that original commitment for 2,250 units.

But the real point in all of this – if you can look past the broken promises, excessive use of public funds and a process in which this huge development was never approved by an elected government body – is that it uses a failed and destructive approach to urban change. Much more is lost than is gained, including the opportunity to do it right with minimum damage.

From the start, a wrongful definition of blight was applied. The 22-acre site contained 8 acres of rail yards and 14 acres of a neighborhood that was already organically regenerating. The whole area years before had evolved from a bar-filled, desolate state to a maturing diverse community. Those 22 acres held 33 taxpaying businesses, 235 jobs, 169 homes on the tax rolls, 431 taxpaying residents (one survey had 864 in six blocks) and a number of unoccupied, architecturally appealing and functional buildings.

Adjacent to the site, condos in upgraded industrial buildings were selling for $1.5 million, and within the project footprint for $1 million. Nearby, a four-story, double-duplex private house sold for $2 million. Scattered around the full 22-acre development site were a number of vacant lots owned by the city or the developer and kept empty (or made empty through demolition), which created a blighted effect.

The use and threat of eminent domain took private property from taxpayers, not for a public purpose, but to give to a private developer. In the face of other great needs, excessive public financing was wasted. A state authority chose to override the local planning and zoning review process, avoiding a democratic process with any semblance of public input.

The entire plan lacks the qualities that could evolve into a fluid urban place and that might connect well and strengthen the surrounding neighborhoods, including some historic districts.

Instead, everything about this project reflects a destructive approach to city building. Amid all the hype for the center’s opening, with Barbra Streisand and rapper Jay-Z showering it with celebrity glitter, how does one truly evaluate this project? Clearly, this is the definition of Big Government muscling in on stable neighborhoods and spending huge public resources in an autocratic way. Apparently, however, that is politically acceptable, even by Tea Party-ers.

By the definition of “blight” allowed here, most of Brooklyn and many areas of New York City could be declared blighted. Not much seems to stand in the way of this kind of bad project beyond occasionally successful civic resistance, rare court victories or the possibility of financial implosion.

Roberta Brandes Gratz is an urban critic and author of The Battle For Gotham: New York In the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, 2010, Nation Books. Roberta Gratz is currently out of the country until October 15th, 2012. She will not be able to respond to emails until then. columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to


  1. Curt Johnson
    Posted October 6, 2012 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    As usual, Roberta, terrific reporting and fine writing. Someone should be embarrassed (but likely not).

  2. Posted October 9, 2012 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    Here in Toronto we have Frank Gehry sugar coating three 80 storey fancy residential towers, buildings which will be taller than almost anything else here, with the promise of several cultural facilities. Price: destruction of several handsome 19th century warehouse buildings which are fully tenanted and one very lovely nearly brand new theatre building. Dazzling architecture should not override sane city building. We seem to have forgotten much we learned in the 60’s and 70’s about the value of incrementalism.