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Fears of a Tight Fit for Brooklyn's Arena

Fears of a Tight Fit for Brooklyn's Arena
Flickr/Gunni Cool

As the Barclays Center arena in Brooklyn builds toward a September 28 opening, the buzz surrounds mostly the shows: a series of Jay-Z concerts, a return of Brooklyn-born singer Barbra Streisand, and home court gigs for the newly-renamed Brooklyn Nets of the NBA.

But the public controversy dating back to the 2003 launch of the larger Atlantic Yards project persists. One current concern: neighbors fear a flood of drivers seeking free, on-street parking and visitors boozing it up at both arena events and the mushrooming number of bars just east of downtown Brooklyn.


The site in February 2012, Courtesy: Barclays Center.

Developer Forest City Ratner and project proponents have long stressed that the arena will take advantage of Brooklyn's most diverse transit hub, with nine subway lines (plus two nearby) and the Long Island Rail Road within walking distance. Indeed, on two flanks the arena — which includes a new subway entrance and spaces remaining for four towers — is bordered by broad, busy avenues.

After all, as planners these days agree, arenas and stadiums work best as part of mixed-use density, as opposed to being mired in a sea of parking lots. The Barclays Center has avoided that fate, though not without fierce disputes over the state's use of eminent domain, significant subsidies and tax breaks. The approval process also bypassed local elected officials, as captured in the 2011 documentary Battle for Brooklyn.


Atlantic Yards project map by Tracy Collins

The arena's snug setting, thanks, in part, to New York State's willingness to override city zoning that prohibits sports facilities within 200 feet of residential districts, has compounded concerns.

Arena-goers' vehicles and exuberance could disturb the peace on some nearby blocks, notably those near the surface parking lot being built at the southeast end of the irregular, 22-acre site, flanked by the "fingers" of the Prospect Heights Historic District, known for its collection of late 19th-century row houses. (Despite the name, less than 40 percent of the Atlantic Yards site involves a rail yard.)

After all, continued impacts from construction, including late-night noise (from work accelerated to meet the opening deadline) and trucks on residential streets have prompted regular complaints from project neighbors, as detailed by the community initiative Atlantic Yards Watch.

This anxiety is reflected in a question at a recent press conference with Mayor Mike Bloomberg:

Many residents in the area say they're worried that ... the quiet brownstone, tree-lined streets will be swamped with people on game days and other event days and that the city and state have done very little to make sure the streets can handle both the car traffic and the pedestrian traffic.

Bloomberg responded confidently: "Well, most people here are going to be on the main streets. Most of the people are going to come by mass transit. This mass transit to this stadium is equivalent to the mass transit under Madison Square Garden."

Madison Square Garden, however, offers only a partial parallel. It lacks immediately adjacent low-rise residential streets, and is close to numerous parking garages that serve business customers by day.

The Barclays Center setting also evokes parallels with the Verizon Center site in downtown Washington, D.C., and Wrigley Field in Chicago. Indeed, the New York state agency overseeing the project, Empire State Development Corporation, offered, in the Atlantic Yards Final Environmental Impact Statement, comparisons to Verizon and Wrigley:

This example shows that well-placed baseball stadiums or basketball arenas in or immediately adjacent to a downtown area or a large residential area can have a major (beneficial) impact upon its surroundings when compared to a similar facility in a remote location surrounded by a sea of parking.

That's hard to dispute, but some neighborhood-friendly features adopted in Chicago are being ignored in Brooklyn, residents and local elected officials stress.

Consider the Transportation Demand Management plan commissioned by Forest City Ratner, prepared by the respected consultant Sam Schwartz Engineering. Schwartz is a former New York City Traffic Commissioner known as "Gridlock Sam," and has produced a potential solution to the contentious issue of congestion pricing in New York City.

Schwartz last month garnered approving coverage for summarizing the Brooklyn transportation plan as "Don’t even think of driving to the Barclays arena.”

Yes, the Barclays Center will stress the public transportation options and discourage driving, and Schwartz's report shows that public education helps increase use of transit. But the Atlantic Yards site will offer 541 surface parking spaces one block east of the arena, as well as the option to pre-purchase spaces at other area lots (including two discount "remote" lots linked by shuttle bus).

Arena developers were initially supposed to provide 1,100 on-site parking spaces, in multiple locations. Schwartz's decision to cut that total in half was portrayed by the New York Times as a masterstroke. But as local activist Gib Veconi pointed out, the 1,100 spaces could be accommodated only with delay-causing stackers. (Less than a block away from that onsite lot, by the way, is that new artisanal mayonnaise shop.)

Also, Schwartz's plan, released six months late, omitted some concrete measures once discussed. For example, the plan drops a free MetroCard linked to event tickets. Schwartz called such a measure impractical, which seems plausible, but its omission saves his client a few million dollars a year, with no sign such sums will be re-deployed to discourage driving.

Schwartz's report explains how good marketing upped transit use at CitiField in New York, Prudential Center in Newark, and CenturyLink Field in Seattle, but said nothing about Chicago. There, Wrigley Frield-area neighbors can get residential parking permits, thus reserving on-street spaces from stadium-bound drivers.

Brooklyn elected officials and neighborhood activists have proposed a Neighborhood Protection Plan that draws on the existing Wrigley Neighborhood Protection Plan, including a residential parking permit program, as well as new spending by arena operators on sanitation, parks, and traffic enforcement agents.

Even if New York State authorizes such a residential permit parking program--which is currently opposed by a key Brooklyn legislator who also supports the arena--and the city implements it, that would take at least nine months to implement. That suggests that as with other aspects of the Barclays Center, the first season of operations will be an experiment.

Another experiment involves spillover effects from the growing number of bars, as well as the arena's own alcohol service. At a public meeting in April, Atlantic Yards Watch activist Peter Krashes asked officials from Levy Restaurants and AEG, veteran companies responsible for food and beverage service and arena security, for examples in other cities where they've worked smoothly with neighbors.

"You can say you're going to sell two drinks per ID, but," Krashes observed, "if people walk down the street, yelling and shouting on Dean Street, how do we hold you two accountable?"

AEG's David Anderson cited experience running United Center in Chicago.

But that facility is in a sea of parking lots. Veconi suggested that Wrigley Field, where alcohol sales end at 9:30 PM, is a better example.

Veconi has helped lead a call for a 10 PM cut-off at the Barclays Center, but it's unlikely that the State Liquor Authority will agree. Then again, community critics, backed by local elected officials, have a new argument for some curbs on the pending liquor license: while arena operators told local Community Boards that liquor sales would end one hour before events end, they later revealed that thousands of those with premium seats could have access to arena clubs for one hour after events.

Brooklyn Community Board 6, which has an advisory role on liquor licenses, did oppose the application for a nearby bottle-service club that would have a back exit on a quiet residential street. "It comes down to whether we want to live on bar row," one board member said. "At some point, there has to become a point where there's too many bars."

The wariness felt by arena neighbors can't be dismissed as entirely knee-jerk. In April, in a unanimous decision, a state appellate court agreed that the Empire State Development Corporation, the state agency that approved the project, had misled the public.

The agency, which in 2006 had studied the environmental impacts of a project that was expected to take ten years to build, had in 2009 re-approved the project, signing belatedly released contracts that give Forest City Ratner 25 years before penalties kick in.

Several community groups, along with local elected officials, had sued, saying the state should have studied the impact of decades of construction. Two courts have agreed.

The state agency and the developer issued statements pointing out that the ruling didn't affect the arena; they've also asked New York's highest court to consider an appeal. Whatever the result, a good number of Brooklynites will still believe that the spanking new arena can't emerge without taint.

Top image: Flickr user Gunni Cool

Brooklyn journalist Norman Oder writes the daily Atlantic Yards Report watchdog blog and has contributed to the New York Times, Salon, Streetsblog, Columbia Journalism Review, and other publications. All posts »

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