‘We need accountability and affordability’: 20 years later, coalition denounces lack of results on Atlantic Yards ahead of rights auction

barclays center atlantic yards
Two decades after the Atlantic Yards project was approved, locals say developers need to be held accountable for the project’s lack of progression.
File photo courtesy of Ajay Suresh/Wikimedia Commons

Twenty years later, it’s about to be someone else’s problem.

Two decades since the ambitious Atlantic Yards project was first announced, the rights to the remaining parcels of the $6 billion plan to redevelop 22 acres in and around Prospect Heights, Boerum Hill, Park Slope, Fort Greene and Clinton Hill will be auctioned off in less than a month — with plenty of promises left unkept to the community.

And with the 20th anniversary of the project now in the rearview mirror, a coalition of advocates are putting the past developers of Atlantic Yards on blast, calling on whoever ends up in charge to finish the project and do the right thing for Brownstone Brooklyn.

A checkered history at Atlantic Yards

Brooklyn Speaks — a group of stakeholders from 11 associations and corporations — are calling on the New York State development agency, Empire State Development, to finish what they started nearly two decades ago, and help see the lofty Atlantic Yards project across the finish line.

The project, first announced on Dec. 10, 2013, promised to bring an arena — now the Barclays Center — open space and commercial and residential development to Brooklyn, including 2,250 affordable apartments along Pacific Street, from Sixth Avenue to Vanderbilt. Developers said the project would help bring down crime rates, prevent negative environmental impacts and provide affordable housing in Crown Heights.

overview of construction of barclays center at atlantic yards
Barclays Center, initially slated to be the last part of the project, ended up being constructed early, and opened in 2012. File photo by Tom Callan

Since then, the Barclays Center has gone up, as have eight residential buildings. But, after 20 years, the area’s rail-yard remains underdeveloped, abandoning one of the project’s main purposes — its proposed environmental benefit — and leaving more than 800 affordable apartment units unbuilt.

Unlike some of its other large projects, such as the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation, ESD did not form a local development corporation to oversee Atlantic Yards and engage the needed developers. Instead, it awarded the entire project to developer Forest City Ratner companies without a competitive bid.

The Brooklyn Speaks Coalition was formed in 2006 to increase public engagement and improve accountability at Atlantic Yards.

Brooklyn Speaks maintains that ESD did not asses whether the development would be viable and relied on Forest City’s capacity to complete the project. When the affordable housing and the greenspaces proved to be impracticable, ESD allowed Forest City to jump to the final phase: the construction of Barclays.

Once the arena was completed in 2014, and with one building under construction, ESD allowed Forest City to sell a 70% interest in the remainder of the project to Greenland USA, a developer controlled by the government of Shanghai. In 2018, Greenland acquired 20% more, bringing its share to 90%. Later that year, Forest City was acquired by Brookfield Asset Management and the lines got even blurrier. 

“The developer that got the single source contract for Atlantic Yards in 2006 has now disappeared,” said Gib Veconi, chair of the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council.

Last year, locals urged the state to collect on a $10 million debt they said Greenland owed because it failed to built a promised “urban room” at Barclays Center. In November of this year, Greenland USA defaulted on its loans to complete the Atlantic Yards project.

Now, the rights to Atlantic Yards are slated to be auctioned on Jan. 11, 2024. According to the coalition, future development of the unbuilt areas will likely be controlled by separate entities and the promises that were once made to the community could dissolve.

Locals say developers must fulfill promises

When it comes to the progress made and the fulfillment of the promised benefits, the coalition is far from satisfied. 

jo anne simon at barclays center
Assembly Member Jo Anne Simon speaks at a 2022 press conference about developers breaking promises at Atlantic Yards. File photo by Ben Brachfeld

“Many of the 1,373 built affordable units have been offered to tenants earning significantly more than what was promised in a 2005 affordable housing memorandum of understanding,” said Michelle de la Uz, executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee.

“Atlantic Yards, instead of providing additional housing and bringing people together, has actually furthered displacement in this area,” said Assembly Member Jo Anne Simon, who has represented the area since 2015. “We need accountability and affordability at this project. We need that open space that was so much promised.”

In July of last year, Simon was one of a number of local pols and advocates to call on the state to collect on a $10 million debt they said was owed by Greenland Forest City Partners, over missing community space.

“What we have found throughout the lengthy history of this project is that indeed, it was not a Field of Dreams, it was a Field of Schemes,” Simon said last summer. “And the governmental agencies that are there to protect the public’s finances and their investment in this project have completely been ignored.”

In a statement to Brooklyn Paper, a rep for ESD said the agency is “focused” on finishing the project.

“Governor Hochul’s highest priority is expanding New York’s housing supply and promoting housing growth, and Empire State Development is focused on the successful buildout and completion of this project,” the rep said. “We are currently reviewing the situation and are working to determine the best path forward.”

Greenland USA did not respond to requests for comment.

Update 12/20/2023, 12:09 p.m.: This story has been updated with comment from ESD. 

Correction 12/20/2023, 3:05 p.m.: This story originally misstated the size of the Atlantic Yards project as 26 acres, rather than 22, and misspelled Gib Veconi’s last name.