Brooklyn Nets a Mega Mall: Forest City Mulls What’s Next for Atlantic Terminal and Atlantic Center

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Changes afoot. (Paul Lowry/Flickr)

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The malls of Brooklyn. Atlantic Terminal, left, opened in 2004, Atlantic Center, 1996. (Bing Maps)

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Notice the two towers just the left of the arena in Frank Gehry’s original design for Atlantic Yards. Not officially part of the project, but on the horizon? (FCR)

It could be the biggest thing to come to Atlantic Yards since Barbara Streisand and Justin Beiber announced they would be playing concerts at the Barclays Center this fall. While everyone (but the neighbors and former neighbors) is looking forward to the opening of the new arena, Forest City Ratner now has its eyes trained across the street, to the two malls it owns there.

Once work on the arena is complete, the difficult task of moving forward with the adjoining apartment buildings lies ahead. But as interest in the area’s retail has boomed in anticipation of the new 18,000-seat venue, Forest City Ratner has also accelerated plans to redevelop the Atlantic Center and Atlantic Terminal malls.

“It’s an obvious opportunity,” MaryAnne Gilmartin, Forest City’s executive vice president, told The Observer. “One of the many things we think about is the impact the arena will have, and how we can help create a holistic neighborhood at Atlantic Yards from there.”

Ms. Gilmartin said the options were myriad. The most obvious is replacing existing tenants when their leases come due. Currently a mix of low- and middle-brow retailers, among them Burlington Coat Factory, Guitar Center, Victoria Secret and Buffalo Wild Wings, occupy the space. The offerings may go more upscale to try and attract the area’s increasingly affluent residents. The space could also be repositioned to include a different range of retailers, including food stores and the like.

Ms. Gilmartin even raised the possibility of reskinning the building, replacing its imposing brick façade with something more modern and inviting. The appearance of the mall has long been decried by some in the community for turning its back on the neighborhood, particularly the housing projects behind the building in Fort Greene. Almost two decades after the Atlantic Center was built, this has become a very different neighborhood, one retailers are hopefully less afraid of.

As Forest City looks to improve the space and attract a new clientele, it must also be careful not to alienate the shoppers, many of whom are long-time, working-class Brooklynites apart from the more affluent brownstone dwellers of New Brooklyn. “That will be Forest City’s challenge, to attract retailers from across a wide demographic spectrum while getting them to all work together within the same shopping center,” Peter Ripka, principal of Ripco real estate said.

One piece in the possible architectural transformation of the two malls is more than a million square feet of development rights Forest City still holds on the property. Together, the two malls equal a little less than 800,000 square feet, meaning an expansion could more than double the space.

This does not necessarily have to be retail development, as the Atlantic Terminal building already has an office tower on top, known as 2 Hanson Place. As Norman Oder pointed out back in 2006, preliminary designs for the Atlantic Yards project revealed three towers atop the mall, tucked away in the background and unmentioned in discussions of the project.

Ms. Gilmartin said time would determine the best use of that extra square footage. “It’s a rubix cube of the grandest proportions,” she added.

It is not simply the opening of the Barclays Center that has Forest City wondering what to do with the project. “Everybody has suddenly discovered Brooklyn,” Ms. Gilmartin said. She said a particular turning point came at this year’s ICSC retailers conference held last month in Las Vegas. The Super Bowl for malls and shopping centers, ICSC drew a number of operators that asked Forest City what its plans were for the mall. “That really got us thinking harder about what we could do in the near term,” Ms. Gilmartin said.

Nor is it simply Forest City that stands to benefit. A number of properties around the arena have begun trading hands for record prices, and new bars and restaurants, many catering to a sports-going clientele, have opened or been announced. This has not pleased residents of neighboring brownstones and apartment buildings, who seem to fear a curbside bacchanal, but for landlords, it could be a gold rush.

“On Flatbush Avenue, we have yet to see the retail front begin to change,” Ms. Gilmartin said. “It’s happening, here and there, but nowhere near what it is going to be. Big things are coming.”

Mr. Ripka, who helped lease up the original mall, agreed. “Brooklyn is huge, and this will be spectacular,” he said. “The mall’s always been a success, and it’s just going to get better and better.”

But Forest City is also striving not to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. “This is a thriving center, with some of the most profitable stores in the country for these retailers, and we do not want to threaten that,” Ms. Gilmartin said. “But short of razing the building, which is not realistic, everything is on the table.”

mchaban [at] observer.com | @MC_NYC