They say New York is the place where your greatest dreams can come true. Of course, it’s also a place where those dreams can die on the vine. Take Atlantic Yards. Lending new meaning to the term noncontextual, Bruce Ratner’s $4.2 billion, 22-acre combination of residential towers and office buildings, anchored by a basketball arena for the Nets, was supposed to completely transform downtown Brooklyn—with seemingly little thought given to what it might do to the already paralyzed intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues. (Did I mention I live two blocks away?)
Ratner promised a Frank Gehry design for the arena and 15,000 union construction jobs. In return, he seemed to get $100 million in cash from both the city and the state, plus tax breaks running up to $1.5 billion. Some neighbors resisted right away, at first with little apparent effect. Ratner dialed down the size of his plan slightly, but more than a half-dozen lawsuits never seemed to get real traction.
In the end, though, all the project’s opponents may have had to do was delay the game until the market changed. Bigger New York dreams than Ratner’s have failed to make it off the drawing board—remember Trump’s Television City, or Rudy’s West Side Yankee Stadium, or Mike’s Olympics? Sure enough, this past January, Ratner’s lawyers hinted in court papers about “a serious question as to whether, given the current state of the debt market, the underwriters will be able to proceed with the financing for the arena while the appeal is pending.” This month, Ratner stopped work at the main site entirely. His spokesman insists this just means “preliminary work” is on hold—but opponents are all but declaring victory. “He is delaying his own project because of a serious lack of financing,” said Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn spokesman Daniel Goldstein.
Ratner still has some momentum: The courts say he’s entitled to tax-exempt bonds for the arena (though getting buyers during the credit crunch seems iffy); Barclays still wants arena-naming rights; Bloomberg’s a friend. Ratner’s also still highly motivated: The Nets are clearly worth more if he moves the team to Brooklyn. But Ratner has reportedly laid off workers, and he’s admitted he won’t build anything other than the arena without an anchor tenant for the tallest building. Five years ago, Gehry said what he really wanted was the chance “to build a neighborhood from scratch in an urban setting.” At the moment, the old neighborhood is winning. Score two points for entropy.