Hold Developer Accountable for Failed Promises at Brooklyn Mega-Project: Advocates

What was supposed to be the "urban room" as part of the massive Pacific Park development. Source: BrooklynSpeaks
What was supposed to be the "urban room" as part of the massive Pacific Park development. Source: BrooklynSpeaks

The state must force the developers behind the massive real-estate project dubbed Pacific Park to make good on a promise it made more than a decade ago to bring much-needed affordable housing and public space to the community — or cough up $10 million and counting in fines, a coalition of advocates demanded on Thursday morning.

Local pols, advocates, and community leaders called on the Empire State Development to sanction the developers, Greenland Forest City Partners, for failing to build what it called the “Urban Room” — a glass-enclosed public space that would also help accommodate the massive amount of foot traffic to and from the street and the Atlantic Avenue–Barclays Center subway station.

The “significant public amenity” that was supposed to be constructed on the site of the controversial Barclays Center — what’s now become a de facto plaza for rallies — was supposed to be completed this May, but that deadline came and went and the developer no longer even owns the site. The building that was supposed to tower above it — originally dubbed “Miss Brooklyn” — was never built.

“Imagine that we’re all standing here looking at a soaring glass atrium … a place that was known as the urban room,” said Gib Veconi, head of the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council and BrooklynSpeaks, a coalition that formed in 2006 to hold the state and developers accountable for the unfinished mega-project. “As you can see behind me, there is no urban room. The developers have taken no action to make that promise a reality. They have a real practical problem, the developer no longer owns the arena. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The project commitment has always been less important to the ESD than what’s good for the developer.”

State officials’ failure to force the developer to make good on its promise will breed even more cynicism about our the functioning of our government and, indeed, our democracy, said one activist.

“It’s easy for the public to become cynical when they see government isn’t doing what it’s supposed to do on behalf of the public,” said Michelle de la Uz of the Fifth Avenue Committee. “We don’t want to have happened what happened on Jan. 6 with the insurrection. And how do you build trust in government? It’s when you put the public good in front.”

The nearly $5-billion, 16-building project sprawled across 22 acres between Fort Greene and Prospect Heights dates back to 2003 when the developer at the time, Forest City Ratner, proposed Atlantic Yards, including the 18,000-seat sports area. The development has since been renamed to Pacific Park and changed hands to Chinese-government-owned developer Greenland Forest City Partners.

And so far, only four buildings have been completed, providing a total of 1,242 apartments, of which 782 are below market rate; four other towers, containing 1,969 apartments, of which 591 are “affordable,” are under construction; and work on another six buildings, which are slated to be erected over the Long Island Rail Road train yard along Atlantic Avenue between Vanderbilt and Sixth avenues, and include 3,219 units, of which 877 are affordable, has not started — they must be completed by May, 2025, or the developers will be subject to yet another fine.

The centerpiece of the project was supposed to be a seven-acre park, but that doesn’t exist either.

“This is a bad actor that needs to be held accountable,” said Assembly Member Jo Anne Simon, whose district includes the development site. “I don’t think they have any intention of building affordable housing.”

Assembly Member Jo Anne Simon demands the state hold the developers for Pacific Park accountable. Photo: Julianne Cuba
Assembly Member Jo Anne Simon demands the state hold the developers for Pacific Park accountable. Photo: Julianne Cuba

Simon says she and her colleagues, as well as the BrooklynSpeaks coalition, now want a commitment from the developer and the state to go back to the table and renegotiate the terms of the project.

“This is an opportunity to renegotiate, they’re not paying the money? We want ESD at the table with us, negotiating something else for this development,” said Simon, who was joined by Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso and state Sen. Jabari Brisport.

And that “something else” Simon is referring to includes improvements to the public realm and the area’s streetscape, like the notoriously dangerous Atlantic and Flatbush avenues, where just months ago, a 62-year-old man was killed by the driver of a private waste truck.

“We believe this project is at an inflection point,” said Veconi. “What’s on the table now hasn’t been delivered. We have an opportunity to change this together as a community … also in terms of our streets, and in terms of open space. What can be done to make these streets, one of the most dangerous areas to be a pedestrian and cyclist, safer and more livable for everyone?”

Like de la Uz, Veconi said that the Empire State Development’s failure to comply with its own terms of agreement for the languishing Pacific Park mega-development makes it harder for the public to trust any future project run by the state, like the public improvements promised in tandem with the Buffalo Bills stadium and the Penn Station redevelopment, where promises were recently revealed to be built on sand.

“If we can’t trust ESD to collect the damages owed for failure to make this important project commitment, how can we trust them for any other project commitment? They’re proposing a new project now at Penn Station, how can we expect those commitments? How can the people of Buffalo expect to rely on the state ESD?” said Veconi.

A spokesperson for the ESD said it will work with the developer to ensure that the commitments made in the past to provide more public space are met.

“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. ESD will work with the developer and the community to expand access to public space and advance the next phases of this critical project,” said Emily Mijatovic.

After initial publication of this story, a spokesperson for the developer said in a statement to Streetsblog that it has no plans to build the urban room at the original location.

“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. 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,” said a spokesperson for Greenland Forest City Partners.

Journalist Norman Oder, who has been the project’s main watchdog for nearly 20 years, said the failure of the developer to build the Urban Room is a symbol of larger accountability issues.

The complaints over the absence of the room, Oder wrote on Wednesday, “seems a proxy for a larger issue: the developer’s looming inability to meet the May 2025 deadline to deliver 876 more units of affordable housing, facing $2,000/month fines for each missing unit.”

He also pointed out that Empire State Development has a right to refrain from collecting fines — a right it would likely exercise over the Urban Room.