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‘Field of Schemes:’ Pols say state should enforce $10M penalty against Atlantic Yards developer for broken promises

barclays center, part of atlantic yards redevelopment, at night
Local politicians are urging the state to fine the developer of the Atlantic Yards project for failing to construct an “urban room” public space outside the Barclays Center.
Photo by Ajay Suresh via Wikimedia Commons

Local pols and advocates are urging the state to collect on a $10 million debt they claim is owed by Greenland Forest City Partners, the developer of Atlantic Yards, over a missing “urban room” community space promised as part of the massive Brooklyn real estate development.

Elected officials repping the Brownstone Brooklyn area sent a letter last week to Empire State Development Commissioner Hope Knight, urging her agency, which has overseen the Atlantic Yards project for nearly two decades, to assess the $10 million fine against the prominent developer after it missed a contracted deadline — especially since the developer has more promises to fulfill in the coming years.

The letter, dated July 8, was signed by State Senator Jabari Brisport, Assemblymembers Jo Anne Simon, Robert Carroll, and Phara Souffrant Forrest, and New York City Councilmember Crystal Hudson. The pols were joined by Borough President Antonio Reynoso at a Thursday press conference across from the Barclays Center where they publicly issued the demand.

jo anne simon at podium outside barclays center at atlantic yards.
Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon speaks at a press conference near the Barclays Center in July 2022. Simon and her colleagues say the state should fine Greenland Forest City Partners, the developer of Atlantic Yards, for failing to deliver a promised community space. Photo by Ben Brachfeld

“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,” said Simon, who has repped the area in the Assembly since 2015 and is now running for Congress. “And the governmental agencies that are there to protect the public’s finances and their investment in this project have completely been ignored.”

The controversial 22-acre, $5 billion real estate development, which most notably yielded the construction of the Barclays Center, was originally slated to include a tower directly adjacent to the arena, featuring the “urban room” on the ground-level. The space would serve as a conduit to facilitate the flow of commuters into the busy Atlantic Ave-Barclays Center subway station and as a community hub, with seating and space to relax as well as areas for public programming and performances.

The urban room and the proposed tower were never built, and the space now houses the outdoor SeatGeek Plaza, which also often serves as a different kind of community open-space: the plaza has been the site of dozens of local protests and rallies over the years. The pols and advocates acknowledge that at this point, building the urban room on the original site is probably not feasible or even desired.

drawing of proposed "urban room" at barclays center/atlantic yards
A rendering of the proposed “urban room” at the Barclays Center. Courtesy of BrooklynSpeaks

But they say the state should still assess the $10 million penalty to Greenland Forest City failing to meet the 2010 contract stipulation by the agreed-upon deadline of May 12, 2022, lest the developer be incentivized to also fail to meet its commitment to build hundreds of units of affordable housing.

“Once one promise is broken, the confidence for all other promises in the future are broken. I cannot do my job as Brooklyn Borough President in ensuring communities that when deals are made, that they are followed through,” Reynoso said. “We are asking for the governor and the state to simply do what was asked of them and has been committed here.”

In a statement, a rep for ESD said the agency intends to make the developer honor its commitments, but did not specify how.

“While the existing plaza in front of the Barclays Center has become an indispensable public space and serves as an important public benefit, ESD acknowledges the importance of ensuring that this developer honors the commitments it promised to the community,” said agency spokesperson Emily Mijatovic. “ESD will work with the developer and the community to expand access to public space and advance the next phases of this critical project.”

The completed Atlantic Yards project is slated to hold 6,430 apartments in 16 buildings, with the developer on the hook to build 2,250 affordable units by a May 2025 deadline. With just three years left, the developer still has another 877 apartments to build if it intends on meeting the commitment for affordable units.

But attendees at the press conference say if ESD fails to enforce its contract regarding the $10 million fine, there’s nothing stopping Greenland Forest City from blowing its other deadlines.

SeatGeek Plaza, where the urban room was supposed to stand, is now often used as a staging ground for protests, like one against the overturn of Roe v. Wade in May. File Photo by Ben Brachfeld

“This is a bad actor who needs to be held accountable,” Simon said. “If we’re not building the urban room … and they have no intention to build it, I don’t think they have any intention of building the affordable housing. And that’s another thing we’re very, very worried about, because that was the other big sales pitch.”

The developer faces a $2,000-per-month fine per unconstructed unit if it blows the deadline. But Greenland Forest City only unveiled plans to construct a platform over the rail yard and the first of several skyscraper apartment buildings back in May.

Greenland Forest City, in a statement, said that the people have spoken and prefer the outdoor plaza to the urban room, and called Pacific Park’s provision of affordable housing “unmatched.”

“We have heard loud and clear from locals, visitors and public officials that Brooklyn’s public square is a far better civic space for Brooklyn residents, transit riders, and visitors to Barclays Center than the enclosed atrium originally planned for this site,” a spokesperson said. “Pacific Park Brooklyn is unmatched in its successful delivery of affordable housing, transit and infrastructure improvements, and a world-class arena, and while we continue with our next phases of the project over the railyard, we hope to work with the State and our neighbors to ensure the plaza is protected and that development planned for this site can be re-imagined elsewhere in Pacific Park.”

Local advocates and pols say that the government failing to enforce its contract would amount to a breach of the public trust, contributing to the breakdown in social cohesion seen across the country that has led to acts of violence and even insurrection.

“It’s easy for the public to become cynical when they see that the government isn’t doing what it’s supposed to do on behalf of the public,” said Michelle de la Uz, head of the Fifth Avenue Committee and a member of the City Planning Commission. “We want people to get involved. We don’t want to have happen what happened on January 6 with the insurrection.”

This story has been updated with comment from Greenland Forest City and Empire State Development

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