The Beat Goes On: Q&A With Atlantic Yards Watchdog Journalist Norman Oder

The Barclays Center at Atlantic Yards, seen here over Labor Day weekend, is set to open Sept. 28. MetroFocus/ C. Knight.

The Barclays Center opens on Sept. 28 with eight sold-out Jay-Z concerts followed by the first Brooklyn Nets basketball season, on Nov. 1 against the New York Knicks. But not everyone is cheering. The building of the arena is just one piece of the much larger Atlantic Yards development, which has been mired in controversy. There have been lawsuits, countless community meetings and protests. One man has been there to chronicle it all: the journalist Norman Oder, author of the watchdog blog Atlantic Yards Report.

MetroFocus spoke with Oder about the ongoing Atlantic Yards story, press coverage of the development and the “culture of cheating.”

Q: The Barclays Center is built. Will those who have been fighting the development for so long continue to do so?

A: There’s been a shift in that some of the activists and organizations most involved with fighting Atlantic Yards have receded. They’re not gone and as I understand it there’s something going on with a broad range of groups for the weekend the arena opens.

The fact that the arena is opening is neither here nor there when it comes to accountability. The broad story [of Atlantic Yards] is about accountability.

The journalist Norman Oder has been chronicling the story of the Atlantic Yards development on his watchdog blog Atlantic Yards Report for more than five years. Photo by Jonathan Barkey.

Q: Do you feel the entire Atlantic Yards development has been shrouded in deceit?

A: This is not my off-the-cuff personal opinion, it’s a considered judgment based on immersion in the subject. There are numerous examples of what might be called the culture of cheating.

The Community Benefits Agreement promised an independent compliance monitor [to monitor the project] but they’ve never hired one and instead Forest City Ratner [the developer] self reports. In 2010, Bruce Ratner was interviewed by Matthew Schuerman on WNYC and he said 10 years had never been the timeframe for completing Atlantic Yards. Schuerman said that was the time they [Forest City Ratner] had consistently projected. That looks like cheating to me. It’s not criminal, but it’s misleading.

With the liquor license, a couple of months back in a letter to community boards, the developers said they would cut off alcohol sales at the end of the third quarter [the guideline for all NBA arenas]. But in June, it was announced that 1,800 VIP patrons would be allowed to drink for an hour after an event. Maybe it was a mistake, but it was a deceptive mistake.

They keep saying there are 2,000 arena jobs, but they are not full-time jobs. They’re not the careers expected. It was deceptive. [The number of people that applied (32,000)] shows the deep need for jobs in Brooklyn. But if you’re a single mom, or even a single person, 24 hours a week isn’t enough. It’s certainly something, but this project was sold to the people as transformational.

Q: What are the biggest issues for the surrounding community now?

The unfinished Barclays Center as seen from Atlantic Avenue on Labor Day weekend. The center opens on Sept. 28 with a Jay-Z concert. MetroFocus/C. Knight.

A: First you have to unfold the word ‘local.’ There are a bunch of things people who are direct neighbors are concerned about, and maybe people from farther away have hopes of jobs. My observation is the people most concerned are activists and others concerned by virtue of living on Dean Street, on Pacific Street, on Bergen Street. They want to know what exactly is going to happen. They want the Neighborhood Protection Plan. It’s traffic, sanitation, pedestrians. It’s people being on residential streets that weren’t initially considered a pathway [to anything]. It’s a set of unknowns where the unknowns share a spillover effect.

People need to get used to it: people in the neighborhoods, the cops, the elected officials and the arena goers. Nets season ticket-holders need to get trained [on public transportation], as they realize parking will be hard.

Q: You’ve written on your blog about poor press coverage of Atlantic Yards.

It’s hard to cover things that are complicated when you have shrinking news holes. The New York Times has a reporter assigned to cover the Nets, and one or two to cover the borough of Brooklyn. That’s a structural imbalance. There’s also the complexity of the story that has a lot of moving parts and a long history. And there are the journalistic conventions of he said/ she said. The developer says one thing and the community says another. Reporters are thinking they can’t come to a considered conclusion about which is more credible.

News outlets also could make Atlantic Yards a priority. They have not. The New York Times has come in for a lot of criticism, from me and others, for its generally poor performance. (It’s not uniformly bad, just too often bad.) Some argue that the newspaper’s business relationship with developer Forest City Ratner–the New York Times Company and Forest City Ratner built the Times Tower together–has driven the coverage. I don’t say that–though I do think that business relationship has had an impact on the editorial page. I do argue that the business relationship should prompt The Times to be exacting in its news coverage of Forest City Ratner and Atlantic Yards, and that hasn’t happened.

Q: What’s next for Atlantic Yards?

A:  The first [residential] building is on the way, or it seems to be on the way, but we don’t know. I can’t predict when it will get built. People are concerned about the scale of the project.

In terms of holding Forest City Ratner to its promises, that’s the question. Who is going to hold Forest City to its promises? The project was sold to the public as providing X amount of benefits.

A promotional video for the Barclays Center touts what the developers and owners hope the arena will mean for Brooklyn. Video courtesy of Nets Basketball TV.

Q: In a recent interview with New York magazine, Will Leitch reported that Ratner said that one hundred years from now, “Brooklyn is going to be an epicenter of this country, and this place [the Barclays Center] will be at the middle of that. No one will care what we had to do to make it happen.” What do you think?

A: That was a bogus thing to say. Arenas only have maybe a 30-year life span. It’s [the Barclays Center] been controversial and so documented that I think it will be pretty hard to ignore. The issues of cheating will be hard to ignore. Those who want to remember will have the evidence.

Q: Will Brooklynites embrace the Nets?

A: I have no way to estimate how many people will become fans. Some people will be. Bloggers on Patch say they will be. But the more interesting question is will the Nets knit Brooklyn together the way the Dodgers did, as Marty Markowitz hopes? I highly doubt it. Will Nets fans care about how this project came to be? Probably not. It’ll be more about fandom. Everybody loves a winner.


Multimedia Web Editor Georgia Kral conducted this interview. It has been edited and condensed.

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