Why the Atlantic Yards Is Currently a Loser for Everyone, Even Ratner

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Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Sitting in traffic on Atlantic Avenue, watching as cars spill back through the intersection with Fourth Avenue to complete a perfect triangle of honking, cursing, pedestrian-endangering gridlock with the intersection of Flatbush Avenue, somehow the realization came to more than one influential person: What we need here is an 18,000-seat basketball arena!

And finally Bruce Ratner is going to give it to us. On Thursday afternoon the developer officially breaks ground on his Atlantic Yards project. Much has changed in the more than six years since Ratner first proposed a stunning 22-acre home for the NBA’s Nets and for sixteen commercial and residential skyscrapers. Long gone is architect Frank Gehry, whose industrial-whimsical designs brought an upscale veneer to the massive heap of steel and concrete. ACORN, whose kiss of approval for the project’s “affordable” housing units gave Atlantic Yards a tinge of progressive enlightenment, collapsed even though Ratner returned the favor with a grant and loan of $1.5 million. Last year Ratner was forced to unload the money-hemorrhaging Nets to Russia’s richest oligarch. The economy has gone from boom to bust, the state and city budgets from billions in surplus to many more billions in deficit.

Yet in all that time one thing hasn’t changed: The Atlantic Yards deal is still a loser for New York. Well, that’s not exactly true, either. The fact is, the deal has gotten worse. And not — caveat lector — simply for those of us who will be living next to a huge construction zone for the next four years.

The most tangible quasi-public benefits that Ratner promised — housing and parks — have been pushed off into the unforeseeable future. Lately he’s said he’ll start work on the residential and commercial buildings in 2011, but renegotiations have extended his deadline for finishing the non-arena construction into 2035. Even that date is subject to change, however, as is the number of apartments ultimately built.

The big payoff, both for the developer and for New York as a whole, was always supposed to be generated by everything other than the arena. The projections of jobs created and tax revenues generated were always dubious, as documented on Norman Oder’s invaluable Atlantic Yards Report website. But when — or if — the fiscal benefits ever start coming in, they’ll have to be even more spectacular because the public subsidies have swollen, most recently with an MTA deal deferring Ratner’s payments for the land. The Independent Budget Office says the public tab will be approximately $675 million — and that’s merely for the arena, which the IBO estimates will lose $219 million for the city and state over 30 years.

Ratner blames the delays on those pesky eminent domain lawsuits. It’s true that the legal challenges have slowed Atlantic Yards, but Ratner guaranteed the court fights by doing a politically savvy end run around the public approval process. And the most important issues were never speed or dollars: The fight over Atlantic Yards was about community and democracy. If the legacy of Develop Don’t Destroy is that whatever is finally built on the rest of the site is more in proportion with the brownstone neighborhoods surrounding Ratnerville, the group will have done the city a service. But until then, everyone's going to continue losing: Bruce Ratner is getting an arena he wanted only as a crowd-pleasing tool to divert attention from his lucrative condo towers, and New York gets a soulless billion-dollar basketball court next to a hole where there should be human-scale housing. Happy groundbreaking day to all.