The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2011

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APR 2011 Issue


Since its inception in 2003, the Atlantic Yards project has experienced many setbacks, but never a shortage of hype. Its initial monumental Frank Gehry design promised to make Downtown Brooklyn another Bilbao; the arena and series of 16 towers would rain manna, not just on the starting squad of the Nets, but on the local black community; and the mantra of “affordable housing” spoke for itself. Such grand plans enabled the developer to rake in more than $300 million in direct public subsidies, and much more in indirect ones, including some seriously sweet deals from the MTA. Now, going on eight years later, a standard fare arena is being built, and we’re facing the frightening prospect that it will be surrounded by modular housing towers.

Whether a prefab high-rise can withstand all of the elements is a question for wind engineers. My focus instead is on what this prepackaged model, microwave-ready and recyclable, suggests about the views of the city’s future held by our leading players. For clues into the present outlook, let’s turn to the not-so-distant past.

In the early 1970s, prior to the ascension of their recently departed figurehead, the Yankees were owned by CBS, and their president was a charismatic fellow named Michael Burke. At the time, the ballclub sought to renovate Yankee Stadium, and wanted the city to help pay the cost. The Giants had already decided to move to Jersey, and there stood a real chance that the Yanks could follow suit. But Burke helped convince Mayor Lindsay, with whom he shared a stylistic affinity, to ante in $24 million in order to keep the Bombers in the Bronx.

It was the first in a series of shakedowns, but it was done with high-minded intent. As Burke told New York magazine in 1972, “What sets a baseball team apart from, say, a dry cleaning business is that because of the peculiar nature of the ball club, you’re a citizen of the city with civic responsibilities. If you have any sense of the city, you have a commitment.” By commitment, Burke was referring to the rejuvenation of the area surrounding the stadium. That same article reported that a Lindsay administration official named Paul Levine had circulated blueprints for how the neighborhood would look by the time renovations were completed in 1976. Presumably those forecasts did not include arson and the other forms of mischief that set the Bronx on fire.

Things didn’t quite go according to plan, of course. As Jack Newfield and Paul Du Brul later noted in The Permanent Government, Lindsay’s initial outlay of $24 million had indeed included $2 million to help rehabilitate the local area, which the authors described as “a working-class residential neighborhood fighting not to become a slum.” But as the city sank into bankruptcy, the price tag of the renovations kept rising, exceeding the costs of entirely new stadiums built in other cities. By the time the new (now old) Yankee Stadium reopened in April of 1976, the cost was $101 million (or more than $500 million in today’s dollars). According to Newfield and Du Brul, the money for the locals had been eliminated from the budget, and a city official acknowledged that the original $24 million projection had been “picked out of the air” by Lindsay’s people.

Despite all the sordid details, Burke’s invocation of “civic responsibilities” stands out. At the very least, those involved in the entertainment industries used to know the importance of putting on a good show. Burke certainly did. A C.I.A. operative in post-World War II Europe, he married into the Ringling Brothers family, then scored big as a CBS exec when he recommended that the network purchase rights to the Broadway hit My Fair Lady. He presided over the Damn Yankees from 1966 to early 1973, when CBS sold the team to a Cleveland shipping magnate who, unlike Burke, saw the club’s role as more like a dry cleaning business. Burke then went over to the Knicks, overseeing over their not exactly glory years.

Thirty some years later, many of these same patterns seem intact. The Yanks got a billion or so to build their new stadium, and the promised benefits to the surrounding neighborhood remain deferred. The Mets got their bundle, and are mired in the Madoff mess. The Knicks just spent a large sum on a one-dimensional player—which will raise ticket prices (and quite possibly your cable bill). And then there are the Nets.

One needs to look no further than MetroTech or the Atlantic Center to witness Bruce Ratner’s civic vision. But what do we know of Mikhail Prokhorov, the Russian minerals magnate who now owns 80 percent of the club? As someone who grew up in the ’80s, I immediately thought of Ronald Reagan’s famously spurious comment, “I’ve been told that in the Russian language there isn’t even a word for freedom.” Out of curiosity, I wanted to make sure there is indeed also a word in Russian for civics. And I’m happy to report that there is. According to Google Translate, it’s основы гражданственности.

After reading a few of Prokhorov’s comments about the relationship between Brooklyn and the Nets, I remain a bit concerned about his view regarding what constitutes the public good. Asked by a CNBC interviewer in February about how the move to Brooklyn will help the team, Prokhorov replied, “On one hand, I’m sure the sponsorship is way up in Brooklyn compared with New Jersey. We will have a state-of-the-art arena with nine subways and one train [that] go directly to our arena. It will be really great for our sponsorship to have the best arena in the NBA.” The answer ends there, and it does show only “one hand” at work—that helping the franchise. As Prokhorov told USA Today last summer, “I hope that this asset, which I bought for $200 million, will be worth at least $1 billion in five years. We got in at the right time.”

It’s tempting to say that eliminating civic responsibility from the discussion of the growth of sports franchises is a good thing, because it casts a clearer light on all the sweetheart deals. But the fact remains that these projects require significant investment of public money. At Marty Markowitz’s State of the Borough address in February, Mayor Bloomberg nevertheless presented the Atlantic Yards as a shining example of “private investment.” Absent any reference to public subsidies, such a view is beyond disingenuous. The lingering question is how, exactly, Brooklyn residents and all other local taxpayers will benefit from the Atlantic Yards project.

When I first heard about the possibility of modular towers going up at the site, I remembered Frank Gehry’s observation that there are “lots of ugly buildings” in Downtown Brooklyn. Ratner now may build several more, real fast. And sorry to say, it appears that the hype—“World’s tallest modulars!” “A new growth industry!”—must go on.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2011

All Issues