Put the Hate on Hold—The Barclays Center is Surprisingly Likeable

A longtime opponent of Atlantic Yards visits the new Barclays Center and comes away grudgingly impressed.

I would love to hate the new Barclays Center, the billion-dollar sports and entertainment complex that opened in September at the devilishly chaotic intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues in Brooklyn. After all, it is the first completed component of the almost-$5 billion boondoggle known as Atlantic Yards. In case you haven’t been following New York politics for the past decade, the project, announced in late 2003, is a private development involving 16 residential towers (still unbuilt) made possible by hundreds of millions of dollars in tax-free bonds, a sweetheart deal on the acquisition of air rights over the state-owned Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) yards, and a highly questionable use of eminent domain to take a bite out of neighboring Prospect Heights. The arena itself was underwritten in part by several hundred million dollars from Barclays bank (lately infamous for manipulating LIBOR rates), which bought naming rights and enough branded signage to make the arena look more like a giant bank branch than a sports venue.

There’s a lot to hate. But, surprisingly, I like the arena. It’s the rare example in New York City of a youngish architecture firm, SHoP, getting to design something consequential that is genuinely expressive and unconventional. If you can ignore the Barclays branding—the logo is a misbegotten update of a medieval coat of arms—the arena, clad in a basket weave of pre-rusted steel, is a decent piece of architecture. It is pointedly un-shiny. The color of the weathered steel can be read as a nod to the surrounding brownstone neighborhoods without being in any way historicist. Big windows will let passersby see what’s going on inside and the overall shape of the building is soft, rounded but not rigid; it’s not a Madison Square Garden–style hatbox. There’s a generous plaza out front, which, if properly furnished and activated, could turn a deeply unpleasant stretch of Flatbush Avenue into a tolerable place. The front of the arena is designated by a big canopy with an elongated hole in it that SHoP partner Gregg Pasquarelli refers to as an “oculus.” On the inside rim of this hoop, moving digital messages swoop around.

Now I wouldn’t go so far as developer Bruce Ratner, who, acting as emcee of the ribbon-cutting ceremony, anointed Barclays “the most architecturally beautiful arena in this country.” In fact, the event, a pageant of self-congratulatory bonhomie, made me want to rethink my assessment of the architecture. Powerful men in suits—developer Ratner, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Borough President Marty Markowitz, Russian oligarch and Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov—gave speeches boasting of this great achievement. Prokhorov compared it to the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge. Ratner gave a jubilant sermon in which each passage was punctuated by the phrase “We did it!”

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There were no basketball players on stage, and the only speaker who wasn’t a white male was a woman named Delia Hunley-Adossa, who represented the “Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement.” This agreement was signed with a number of groups widely viewed as being in the developer’s pocket, among them an organization called Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development (BUILD), which conveniently sprung up shortly after the announcement of the Atlantic Yards project and was allegedly bankrolled to the tune of $5 million by Ratner. The agreement calls for half the project’s rental units, up to 2,250 aparments, to be “affordable,” but that term turns out to be so vague that it’s unlikely there will ever be many units for genuinely impoverished families. The agreement, which also calls for jobs for area residents and free tickets to arena events, is a very narrow one, geared to buying the appearance of local support, rather than engaging the community about the design or impact of the project.

All the on-stage good cheer was intended to demonstrate that the Atlantic Yards project was now on track, that somehow the goodness of the completed arena, with its 2,000 mostly part-time positions staffed by kids (taught service-industry smiles by the Disney Institute), indicates that the American dream is alive (so says Ratner’s cousin Charles, who also spoke) and the rest of the project is just fine. Never mind that the new estimate for build-out is 25 years.

And then there’s the part that really gets me: the master plan. According to Joe DePlasco, a spokesman for the project, they’re working with a 2009 revision of the plan Frank Gehry drew up. Back in 2003, the renowned architect roughed out a glass-walled arena tightly ringed by three residential towers and a 60-story office tower that he named “Miss Brooklyn” and insisted would have a “stoop.” And then there were another 11 residential towers, seven of which are to be built on the long piece of property created by capping the LIRR’s train yards. At best, I found the arrangement puzzling. For one thing, Gehry’s reputation is largely based on the design of freestanding buildings, such as the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao or the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. But this composition—what the former New York Times critic Nicolai Ouroussoff liked to refer to as “Gesamtkunstwerk”—seemed to eliminate the possibility that anything as formally pleasing as Gehry’s most famous buildings could emerge. At the same time there was nothing recognizably urban about the place. For a while, there was a landscape design by OLIN, redolent of Battery Park City, a formal arrangement of seating, gardens, and meandering patways. But OLIN left the project in 2008. Gehry departed as architect (but not master planner) in 2009. And the publicly available site plan indicates nothing about the quality of the space between the buildings. It is little more than a napkin sketch.

Protesters at the Barclays Center opening —yes, there is still vociferous opposition after all these years—were demanding, among other things, that the Empire State Development Corporation (the public agency that oversees the project) boot out Ratner and bring in other developers. But nothing about the lovefest at the ribbon-cutting ceremony suggested that anything like that was likely to happen.

As far as I can tell, the only glimmer of hope is the involvement of SHoP. In December, the project’s next component, a 32-story residential tower, also designed by the firm, will break ground on the Dean Street side of the arena. Unlike Gehry, who took the Atlantic Yards job out of the mistaken belief that master planning was his true calling, and came to it with scant understanding of the neighborhood dynamics, SHoP is street-smart and nimble. The firm has done a good job so far on the neglected East River Waterfront, where its lovely Pier 15 opened late last year. The architects have a powerful sense of contemporary form and materials and a solid understanding of how New York City works. If SHoP could persuade Ratner to ditch the amorphous tower-in-park site plan and transform Atlantic Yards into a sophisticated urban scheme­—one that connects seamlessly to the surrounding neighborhoods, includes a variety of building sizes and types, encourages vibrant street life, and truly makes room for a full range of income levels­­—there could be a reason to stop hating. With the recent addition of high-powered planner Vishaan Chakrabarti as a partner, SHoP may have the political juice and urban design skill set to successfully stage such a coup. After the ribbon-cutting, I asked Pasquarelli whether there was any possibility that SHoP could get its hands on the site plan. All I got in reply was tight-lipped silence. He didn’t say yes. But he also didn’t say no.

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