Bruce Ratner and a deep bench of supporters of his Atlantic Yards mega-project broke ground on a basketball arena for his Brooklyn-bound New Jersey Nets on Thursday afternoon, drawing to a symbolic close to more than seven years of delays for the developer.
Gov. Paterson, Mayor Bloomberg, Borough President Markowitz, and rap mogul, Jay-Z, an owner of a very small portion of the Nets, were the luminaries on the dais. Meanwhile one hundred or so protesters rallied within earshot, calling the project a boondoggle.
But the day belonged to Ratner and his partners in the Barclays Center arena, the first piece of his proposed 16-tower mini-city containing more than 6,600 units of housing, a portion of them set aside at below-market rates.
The builder got a standing ovation from the 1,000 invited guests — a strange bedfellows of supporters from organized labor, the community group ACORN, sports fans, black community leaders, and elected officials — gathered in a tent on the sprawling project site, which covers a 22-acre area between Flatbush and Vanderbilt avenues, from Dean Street to Atlantic Avenue.
The arena will accommodate 19,000 fans. It is slated to open during the 2011-2012 NBA season.
Forest City Ratner executives say that the first residential building — whose design has not been announced — will begin construction next spring.
“This is the type of job creation that we need,” said Paterson, who strongly supports the project, though he is an opponent of the use of eminent domain, which is being used by the state to remove a handful of remaining residents and businesses within the Atlantic Yards footprint. “As buildings rise, the jobless rate will drop.”
Paterson specifically praised Ratner for his commitment to funneling contracts to minority- and women-owned businesses.
“This is a big project that will even the score,” he said.
Markowitz was in his usual role of emcee-in-chief, employing his inimitable style to cheer Ratner for steering the project through dozens of lawsuits, a challenging economy and soaring costs.
Ratner singled out Markowitz for praise — indeed, the Beep was the person who persuaded the builder to buy the Nets and build their new home.
“Marty, you pestered me every day,” Ratner said. “It took seven years, but we got there together.”
Later, Ratner praised his lawyers — all 150 of them — whom he jokingly called “New York’s Finest.”
“Thank you, all you brilliant litigators,” he said, referring to the cases that they won. “You’re amazing.”
As it was in Ratner’s remarks, a hint of opposition was never far from the surface. So even as all of the speakers focused on the future of the Atlantic Yards site, which will change the heart of Brooklyn, most also addressed the protesters, who hooted within earshot.
“We have recognized that there was strong opposition that was based on merit and that was real for this project. We respect that,” said Paterson. “But the economic opportunities here are undeniable.”
Markowitz merely derided the protesters as “disgruntled Knicks fans.”
The Rev. Herbert Daughtry of the House of the Lord Pentecostal Church, another strong supporter, offered some words of caution in his invocation.
“God will be angry if we misuse the people’s resources,” he said, referring to the promised affordable housing, open space and economic opportunity for the thousands of jobless in the vicinity of the arena. “Generations of the yet unborn will rise up and curse this project.”
Ratner’s official groundbreaking is the symbolic delivery for a $5-billion project that has had a difficult birth — a metaphor, in fact, that the Rev. Al Sharpton employed in his remarks.
“You can’t have a baby without labor pains,” said Sharpton, who added that he had set aside some of his initial reservations about the project. “But let the baby be born!
“I support this project despite the issues that gave some discomfort,” he added. “I sat at the table and watched Bruce Ratner wrestle to bring about something that would have long-term change for the borough that I came from. I believe that the jobs and the contracts and inclusion that this project represents is something that we should bring around this country.”
He also evoked Jackie Robinson, the last great professional athlete to grace the Brooklyn stage, as a spirit that lingers over the project, which would bring a sports team back to the largely African-American center of Brooklyn.
The event — complete with lobster rolls and other fancy canapes — had a “to the victor belong the spoils” atmosphere, but a block away from the festivities, the roughly 100 protesters blew whistles and chanted, “Shame on you!” from Atlantic Avenue.
The protesters decried the project as an unneeded, traffic-choking eyesore that could not have been built without massive public subsidies.
“It’s horrifying,” said Sarah Edkins. “Buildings made just for profit to create a few temporary jobs erode local community.”
At the Prohibition-era Freddy’s Bar, some were solemn as they acknowledged that the final months are at hand for the watering hole that will be torn down. Other activists mocked the “villains” of the Atlantic Yards — Markowitz, Ratner and Bloomberg among them — by wearing huge masks and delivering satirical speeches.
“Who ever though that a former tenant activist — me! — could preside over eminent domain to kick tenants out of their homes?” said a man dressed as Markowitz. “What a country! What a borough!”
But back at the groundbreaking, Jay-Z, who grew up in the Marcy Houses in nearby Bedford-Stuyvesant, said pretty much the same thing — without the sarcasm.
“I stand here representing hope for Brooklyn,” he said.