Friday, January 12, 2007

An arena for "community events" and college hoops? Not really

Developer Forest City Ratner and the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) have emphasized that the planned Brooklyn Arena (naming rights pending) would host "community events," "community-related functions," and college athletics.

However, a newly-obtained document from the developer projects that such arena usages would be low priorities. There might be only eight college sports events and two high school events annually, and fewer than 20 graduations. (Also, no Hasidic weddings--see below.)

Rather, the emphasis would be on more lucrative professional sports and entertainment events. That's understandable for an arena, just contrary to some of the promotional language.

Developer's promises

A full-page advertisement placed by Forest City Ratner in the 12/29/06 issue of the Courier-Life newspaper, a chain widely distributed throughout Brooklyn (and supportive of Atlantic Yards), thanked elected officials for helping push the project toward approval by the Public Authorities Control Board.

Besides the housing, jobs, open space, and projected new tax revenue, the advertisement promised:
A new arena for community events--including school sports and high school and college graduations--and family events such as concerts and circuses; and
Our very own NBA franchise--The Brooklyn Nets!!
(Click to enlarge; emphasis is added, here and in passages below.)

Now, putting aside who the "our" refers to--the community doesn't own the team--the advertisement positions the arena, a commercial facility, as predominantly offering "community events."

Similarly, the Atlantic Yards web site proclaims:
The arena will be a community centerpiece for the borough. FCRC has worked with local organizations to ensure the arena is an integral part of the community, where local college and high school athletes will have a new stage to showcase their skills. The arena will also host thousands of proud families and friends for college and high school graduations.

Developer's memo

In legal papers filed in the eminent domain lawsuit, Forest City Ratner again emphasizes "community," describing the arena as the home of Brooklyn’s first major league sports franchise since 1957, and that also will be available for numerous other community-related functions such as amateur athletic events, job fairs, civic events, graduation ceremonies, concerts, circuses, and the like.

Note how concerts and circuses--which, according to the developer, would occur far more often than amateur athletic events and job fairs--are all considered "community-related functions," a fairly meaningless phrase.

ESDC description

The ESDC's Modified General Project Plan for Atlantic Yards emphasizes the role of serving college and high school sports. One goal of the project is a publicly-owned state-of-the-art Arena to accommodate the return of a major-league sports franchise to Brooklyn while also providing a first-class athletic facility for the City’s colleges and local academic institutions, which currently lack adequate athletic facilities, and a new venue for a variety of musical, entertainment, educational, social, and civic events.

Later in the Modified General Project Plan (p. 15), in discussion of the Land Use Improvement Findings, the ESDC prioritizes private events:
In addition, while payments-in-lieu-of-taxes will be used to repay the bonds used to finance construction of the the Arena, the Arena will be operated by the Project Sponsors and will primarily be utilized for private sports events and shows, while also serving as a possible venue for local college athletics and hosting community events.

Sports and entertainment

The emphases on a community facility contrast with the pitch made to the New York City Council on 5/26/05.

According to a slideshow that Forest City Ratner presented, the arena would be "Brooklyn's Sports and Entertainment Center," first a venue for the Nets, secondly a "year-round entertainment venue" that would include family events, and thirdly a "community facility" for graduations and amateur sports, among other things.

FCR's expectations

How many such community and non-commercial family events does the developer expect to host? Not very many, according to a document Forest City shared 12/7/05 with the Department of City Planning (which I acquired via a Freedom of Information Law request).

Out of 226 annual events (plus ten community events) projected in a document, the developer apparently anticipates hosting 19 graduations, among 26 events under the category General Fixed Fee Rentals/Graduations.

How many college sports events? Eight basketball games.

How many high school sports events? The summary page lists two, though the monthly projections (in part of the document not reproduced) include five such events. Note that the advertisement in the Courier-Life cites "school sports" but not "high school sports."

Community events

In addition, as promised in the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), there would be ten community events, their subject unspecified.

The CBA states that the Coalition and the Arena Developer will seek to make the Arena an integral part of the Community by providing Community related activities and facilities.

It also states that The Arena will be available to Community groups for at least ten (10) events per year, at a reasonable rate, with net proceeds from such events to be used to support non-profit community organizations.

However, as might be anticipated by a commercial facility, the arena must raise sufficient revenue to pay the bills, and the bulk of the events would be professional sports, concerts, and "family events" such as children's productions and the circus.

Despite the words of the advertisement, the focus would certainly not be "community events."

Expensive graduations

Moreover, the promise of an arena for graduations raises a question. The developer anticipates nearly 10,000 people for graduations and similar events. Brooklyn College's Whitman Center, capacity 2450, currently hosts most Brooklyn high schools. How many schools must go elsewhere? How many of the graduations currently at Whitman and elsewhere include students who'd want to bring three or four times as many guests and thus bring the crowd to 10,000? We don't know.

Also, it's not clear how many schools could pay the freight. An audit conducted by KPMG for the Empire State Development Corporation reported that the developer was considering fees of $100,000 for a graduation and warned that the sum would be too high. Public high schools don't have anything close to that budget, likely even a tenth of it, for graduations.

In the document sent to the Department of City Planning, the graduations are considered separately from the community events. The developer might have to reclassify some graduations into that CBA category to make them viable for Brooklyn.

Traffic issues

The arena event list was drawn up to help estimate traffic counts. Would the 18,000-seat basketball arena ever sell out or would it just accommodate 15,000 people, as the list suggests?

Actually, in the cover memo to city and state officials, Forest City executive Jane Marshall explained that, while the developer is assuming 15,000 seats for basketball, "that does not include 'give aways' which get us closer to the traffic assumptions."

Does the developer expect to sell only 14,000 seats at concerts? Perhaps that would be an average. But surely any promoter with a venue that could accommodate 20,500 people for a concert would try to fill the house, and give tickets away if necessary.

Hasidic weddings?

The Forest City Ratner document makes no mention of Hasidic weddings, the support for which was perhaps the most unusual justification for the arena.

Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz said, at the 5/4/04 City Council hearing on Atlantic Yards (p. 193 of PDF), that the arena could have a particular role serving Brooklyn's diverse communities:
But it is not just about sports, with this arena we can then host national events, concerts and ice capades, graduations that sadly have to go into Manhattan to be held, trade shows, and my hope even some day a National Democratic Party Convention in Brooklyn, and even, believe it or not, Hasidic weddings.

Would any of the Hasidic sects of Brooklyn shell out $100,000 just to rent the arena, before catering costs? It doesn't seem likely. Could a Hasidic wedding could be considered one of the ten "community events" promised at "a reasonable rate" as part of the CBA? Well, no Hasidic groups negotiated the CBA.

Then again, several Hasids from Williamsburg gathered for the 8/23/06 to vocally support the Atlantic Yards project, implausibly claiming "Yes in my backyard." Could a wedding qualify as payback?

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