So said Mayor Michael Bloomberg at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Barclays Center, the arena developer Bruce Ratner is building for the New Jersey Nets at Atlantic Yards. The mayor could very well be right.
Years from now, when the arena is drawing large crowds for basketball games and concerts, will lifelong Brooklyn Nets fans remember the controversy surrounding the project - the lawsuits and protest rallies, the lost homeless shelter, etc? Probably not.
Likewise, few will remember the groundbreaking ceremony, except for maybe the hundreds of people who attended it. For them, for now, the lavish affair was an occasion to celebrate, as only a high-profile group of elected officials, developers, lawyers, and financiers can. (Groundbreakings happen often in New York, but how many feature the governor, Jay-Z, and an endless supply of Junior's cheesecake?)
The invitation-only event was staged inside a tent on the western portion of the 22-acre Atlantic Yards site bounded by Flatbush, Vanderbilt and Atlantic avenues, and Dean Street, where Forest City Ratner plans to build the Barclays Center and 16 mixed-use buildings with a total of 6,430 apartments. At a cost of just under $5 billion, the project is the largest development in Brooklyn's history.
Marty Markowitz, the Brooklyn borough president, took the podium to open the ceremony in a moment he has no doubt waited for since the Dodgers left the borough 53 years ago: the return of a professional sports team to Brooklyn.
“This is a great day for Brooklyn,” said Markowitz, to the sounds of cheers inside the tent and the angry whistling of protesters outside, who were barred from entering. The borough president apologized for the disturbance, and dismissed the protesters as “angry Knicks fans,” before introducing embattled Governor David Paterson.
“As Mark Twain once said, rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated,” Paterson joked, then launched into a lengthy speech in praise of the project, which he said would generate much-needed jobs and economic opportunities for minority and women-owned businesses.
“We recognize there was strong opposition [to Atlantic Yards] that was based in merit. It was real and we respect that,” he said. “But the economic benefits are undeniable.”
They include an estimated 17,000 union construction jobs and 8,000 permanent jobs once the entire project is finished. Notably missing from the groundbreaking was a timetable for the project, though the arena is scheduled to open in 2012.
On a personal note, the governor said, he grew up not far from Atlantic Yards in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and followed the early Nets until the team traded away its star forward Julius Erving. That “was one of the worst days of my life,” Paterson said, then paused, and added, “before I became governor.”
Next came Bloomberg, “the Lebron James of mayors in America,” in Markowitz's words, followed by the Reverend Al Sharpton, who said he showed up on the promise of a seat next to Beyonce, the superstar wife of Nets part-owner Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter. The reverend was followed in turn by Bruce Ratner.
“This is a great day for Brooklyn,” Ratner said.
He said he could not believe the moment had actually come, then took listeners on a detailed blow-by-blow account of the project, which was first announced in 2003. Ratner said the day represented a victory over detractors “who said it can't be done, it can't be financed, blah, blah, blah.”
For his part, Jay-Z remembered growing up in the Marcy Houses in Bed-Stuy, where he played basketball and dreamed of a career in the NBA. In brief remarks, the rap star said he was “very excited” to help bring a pro team back to Brooklyn. He ended with, “Shout out B.I.G.”
Then everyone filed outside, where a group of several dozen notables used specially engraved shovels to lift piles of dirt for a phalanx of photographers. Behind them, construction work that began earlier this year continued in the form of several rumbling back hoes. Beyond that were the protesters, who waved signs and chanted on the other side of a chain link fence, watched carefully by the police.
Earlier, in his invocation to start the ceremony, the Reverend Herbert Daughtry, of the House of the Lord Pentecostal Church, who was involved in negotiations with Ratner to secure promises of jobs and affordable housing for residents around the site, issued the following words of caution: “If some of the excluded are not included we will have failed unaccountably.” If that happens, Daughtry said, “Generations not yet born will rise up and curse this project.”
If, that is, they can remember the promises to begin with.