On Sept. 25, 2012, Brooklyn writer Andrew Blum tweeted the photo above left of the new Barclays Center arena, three days before its opening, with a series of concerts by Brooklyn native son Jay-Z. In her review a few weeks later, Philadelphia Inquirer critic Inga Saffron called Barclays a “glam, gritty architectural success,” quoting tweets from Blum about “the speed with which it has been absorbed into the neighborhood.”
Well, sort of. The arena didn’t cause the “carmageddon” some feared, in part because fans of the NBA’s New Jersey Nets, which moved to Brooklyn, stopped following their team, and new fans took the convenient subway or even walked.
But the 22-acre project dubbed Atlantic Yards when it was announced in 2003 and renamed Pacific Park in 2014, has grown haltingly and uneasily around the arena, signaling unfulfilled promises. No wonder the website HellGate recently called it the “Bad Vibes Barclays Center.”
Meanwhile, the scene around Barclays, visible from my re-creation of Blum’s photo (above right) has grown notably more commercialized, a reminder that sports teams are businesses, not public trusts.
Consider, in the foreground, the green-carpeted structure connects the below-ground subway hub with the arena plaza. In 2012, the entrance was clad in glass. Now those walls advertise the WNBA’s New York Liberty, a second anchor tenant in the arena. The team is owned by Alibaba billionaire Joe Tsai and his wife Clara Wu Tsai, who also own the Nets. (HellGate did praise the Liberty for finally bringing “good vibes basketball” to Barclays.)
On the other side, as shown in the photo below, the panel inside the subway entrance advertises the Nets’ tenth anniversary. (The escalators, maintained by the Tsais’ arena operating company, are frequently out of service.)
The transit entrance on the arena plaza, opposite the arena entrance doors. Photo: Norman Oder, August 17, 2023.
Looking toward the arena, partly visible in the photo top right, are neon letters, part of an installation that states “You Belong Here.” Looking away from the arena, as shown in the photo above, it states “We Belong Here.” Though the work from conceptual artist Tavares Strachan was billed as an homage to the Black Lives Matter protesters who filled the plaza after the 2020 police killing of George Floyd, I’ve argued it does double duty as advertising.
As to who really belongs, when planned protests conflict with an arena event, such protests move elsewhere or are relegated to a fractional space.
Indeed, the arena company, of which the Tsais are the third owners, has done its best to maximize revenue from the building’s exterior. In Blum’s photo, the digital signage inside Barclays’ signature oval oculus—the extension of the building’s “prow”—is barely visible. In the photo top right, it’s slightly visible. More notable is that the Tsais in 2020 overlaid an LED wall on the previously static glass windows over the entrance doors.
Though critics in 2012 praised the architects from SHoP—who adapted a design from Ellerbe Becket after developer Bruce Ratner dropped marquee architect Frank Gehry—for limiting signage to the oculus, that hasn’t held.
The oculus keeps the digital signage focused inward, but the LED wall blares it outward. Photo: Norman Oder, July 6, 2023.
As shown in the photo above, the rectangular LED wall complements and extends the oculus images. Below the rectangle is a sign for Ticketmaster Plaza, the fourth sponsor in 13 years. While arena fans have stressed the civic nature of the plaza, which does offer seating behind the transit hub, the arena operators are in control.
They regularly cordon off the main space plaza for crowd control hours before ticketholders gather for a concert or a game, or deploy the plaza for promotional events like season kickoffs or souvenir sales. In other words, it’s public until it’s private.
Even the bike coils in photo top right, seemingly a civic gesture, represent an attenuated promise; the arena was supposed to offer far more spaces, both indoor and attended.
Looking at the Barclays Center and arena block from the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic avenues. Photo: Norman Oder, August 17, 2023.
Three towers flank the arena today. At right above, the wedge-shaped 32-story tower, 461 Dean Street, was hyped as a revolution in construction: the world’s tallest tower built via offsite modular techniques. Ratner, hoping to build the entire 16-tower project via cheaper (and faster) modular techniques, claimed to have “cracked the code.” Instead, it was a debacle, taking four years to finish, stalled after Forest City and construction partner Skanska USA sued each other, and plagued by leaks. It not only was too tall for effective modular construction, experts concluded, but the irregular site, and multiple apartment layouts (as opposed to say, a standard hotel room), created more opportunities for imprecision. After that failure, Ratner and his firm sold the lion’s share of the project at a loss.
The blocky black-glass tower on the left, 18 Sixth Avenue, is the project’s largest so far, with 858 apartments: 600 market rate and 258 “affordable.” If 30% “affordable” sounds good—and the provision of Atlantic Yards “affordable housing” was a huge selling point—those below-market units are limited to middle-income households willing to pay $2,390 for a one-bedroom and $3,344 for a two-bedroom.
However advantageous it might be to get such new, amenitized housing at a discount, households earning six figures—or nearly that—were hardly those who marched for the project. The smallest of the three towers, 38 Sixth, is “100% affordable”—but two-thirds of the units go to middle-income households. To get the most expensive units rented, the developers had to market outside the city’s housing lottery, which is inundated with applicants for lower-cost units.
A fourth tower, which Gehry called “Miss Brooklyn,” was supposed to be the project’s flagship, looming over (and burying) the arena. Post-recession, developer Ratner decided to decouple the four towers from the arena rather than build them all simultaneously.
That left a “temporary” plaza that seems likely to be permanent. And nearly 20 years after the project was announced, the project’s current main developer, Greenland USA (the arm of Shanghai-based Greenland Holdings), aims to move most of the unbuilt bulk of “Miss Brooklyn” across the street to create a giant two-tower project, pending since 2016. The rest likely would go elsewhere in the project, where six other development sites remain over the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Vanderbilt Yard, used to store and service Long Island Rail Road trains and the source of the project’s original Atlantic Yards moniker.
That’s subject to an uncertain future public process. As described in my recent article for City Limits, a 2025 deadline for the project’s remaining affordable housing surely won’t be met, though state officials do not seem keen on enforcing it. The lack of a crucial tax break for housing is but one factor in delaying Greenland, which is part of a company facing China’s harsh real-estate economy. What is more certain, though, is that the arena, the product of a “public-private partnership,” will continue to be deployed to maximize promotional power and revenue.
Featured image: combination of photo tweeted by Andrew Blum, September 25, 2012, and photo by Norman Oder from the same perspective, August 16, 2023.