The recession, the credit crunch and the inherent difficulty of building in the most densely settled city in America: These are just a few of the challenges that have dogged the Atlantic Yards project since its announcement, in December 2003. Add to these general obstacles a small group of litigious opponents who vowed to sue early and often to stop the project, and the six-year project inception period makes more sense.
But the wait is over. We are building Atlantic Yards. And the project is more important than ever.
From the beginning, Atlantic Yards has been about much more than building a basketball arena. It has been about jobs and housing and an historic community-benefits agreement that ensures that the project’s economic and social benefits help the folks who live here and need it most. Even during booming economic times, Brooklyn as a borough has seen unequal resources and opportunities; it is a place where good jobs and affordable housing could make a genuine difference. Now, as the economy stumbles out of the worst recession in decades, they are more necessary than ever.
The Harsh Reality
Unemployment in the borough is over 10 percent, compared to 5.7 percent just two years earlier. Each week, more than 100 people show up at the office of BUILD, a downtown Brooklyn-based job training organization, looking for jobs. Since 2004, nearly 7,000 have completed registry forms at this one organization alone. Last year, BUILD provided more than 1,200 local residents with job training or some type of employment support.
Affordable housing in the city remains scarce. Over a quarter of a million families are on waiting lists for Section 8 vouchers or public housing, a number that does not include the many cops, nurses, firemen, medical technicians and teachers who need moderate- and middle-income housing to afford to live in the city where they work.
For decades, the area surrounding and encompassing Atlantic Yards has remained a blighted part of the city. It has failed to attract the investment seen in other parts of the city and the borough. While opponents have depicted the 22-acre site as an oasis of brownstones and quaint streets, those who live or work in the area, or who have traveled to the site, know that while a few commercial businesses and residents have made the site their home, in 2006, more than 70 percent of the project area was occupied by empty lots, gas stations, underutilized or vacant manufacturing buildings and an 8-acre, below-grade LIRR rail yard, which since the early 1900s has divided the communities to the north and south of the site.
Looking to the Future
To those who wonder if the project will happen, we encourage a closer look. It is happening. Our commitment to the entire project remains as strong and fervent as the day we started. Work on Atlantic Yards has been ongoing since last summer. Nearly $90 million worth of work has already been awarded to contractors on the site thus far.
Still, it is the jobs and the housing that matter most, all the more now with double-digit unemployment and a painful affordable housing crunch. Atlantic Yards will create 17,000 construction jobs and up to 8,000 permanent jobs when completed. The first phase of the project, which starts with the Barclays Center Arena, will also provide approximately 1,500 residential units on the arena block, at least 30 percent of them affordable. Once completed, half of the 4,500 rental units will be available for low-income and working families.
Opponents’ charges that we will end up building only an arena are false. No developer would sustain and ultimately agree to undertake a project like this with significant pre-development expenses, costly delays and well-defined future penalties and then build only an arena. Forest City Ratner Companies and its partners have invested upward of $500 million in the entire Atlantic Yards program since we announced the project. And millions more will be invested going forward.
While Atlantic Yards is a public-private partnership, the arena’s share of public funds is a fraction of that received by other sports facilities. Direct public investments in the Atlantic Yards project, inclusive of the arena, add up to just over 5 percent of the anticipated cost.
Development requires agility, the willingness and ability to respond to a changing environment. On Atlantic Yards, we’ve done that. We’ve been appropriately nimble, making necessary adjustments in light of changing markets and demands. But we’ve done so without abandoning our principles or our commitment to the public good we and others expect from the project.
MaryAnne Gilmartin is executive vice president of Forest City Ratner Companies and an active member of the Real Estate Board of New York.