Barclays Center Mysteries: Three Big Unknowns About Arena Transportation

In less than six months, toward the end of September, the Barclays Center will open and throngs of visitors will descend on the streets of Prospect Heights and nearby Brooklyn neighborhoods. While numerous concerts and sports events have already been booked, the transportation picture remains fuzzy even this close to opening day. Three big unknowns:

  • The plan to encourage arenagoers to use transit, originally due last December, is now expected in May.
  • Developer Forest City Ratner hasn’t revealed the size of the surface parking lot next to the arena, even though construction begins next month.
  • The long-closed Carlton Avenue Bridge (below), a key conduit between Prospect Heights and Fort Greene and a critical link in the Brooklyn bike network, is now due to reopen just before the arena debuts, and state officials don’t acknowledge that the bridge is behind schedule.

The Carlton Avenue Bridge has been closed since January 2008 and it's still not clear whether it will re-open in time for the first events at the Barclays Center. Photo: Tracy Collins

The arena location — next to Brooklyn’s biggest transit hub, with nine subways and the Brooklyn terminus of Long Island Rail Road — means, as Streetsblog suggested last June, that “the fundamentals for a smart solution are there.” Indeed, the arena website proclaims, “Public transit is the fastest, most convenient way to travel here.” A new subway entrance, leading to the plaza outside the arena, is under construction.

It’s not clear, however, how persuasive the inducements to ride transit will be. The promised Transportation Demand Management (TDM) plan for the arena — which would define transit incentives, catalog nearby parking facilities accessible via shuttle buses, and present a cross-marketing program with local businesses — is behind schedule. At first, Empire State Development (ESD), the state agency overseeing Atlantic Yards, “anticipated” that the plan would be available by December 2011. That goal was nudged back to February 2012, and then to May – limiting the opportunity for public input promised by ESD.

At public meetings in January, representatives of Sam Schwartz Engineering (SSE), Forest City Ratner’s contractor, frustrated some observers by describing their work to date on a transportation plan without getting into specifics. Also unclear is whether transit incentives would be used at events other than Nets games, which could bring 19,000 concert-goers to the arena on some nights.

Similarly, major question marks remain about the enormous surface parking lot planned for the southeast block of the 22-acre Atlantic Yards site. When Atlantic Yards was initially approved, the lot was supposed to hold 944 cars, but the size has since been increased to a potential 1,100 spaces – aimed mainly at luxury suite holders.

An 1,100-space lot almost certainly would require parking stackers. And with so many cars, it could not contain the landscaping the Department of City Planning requires, such as one tree for every eight vehicles, as pointed out by Atlantic Yards Watch. But the developer need not conform to city standards, because ESD has overridden local zoning.

The Carlton Avenue Bridge is outlined in the red oval; streets in red have been closed.

Forest City Ratner has resisted the idea of meeting those standards — executive Jane Marshall said in March that “I understand the desire for people to have something fancy inside the lot” — but does aim to reduce the number of spaces. The developer’s requests for proposals from potential parking lot operators state there could be a range of spaces, up to 1,100, and the latter would require stackers. “We’re trying everything we can to avoid that,” Marshall said.

Construction on the lot is set to begin May 1, the state announced last week, but no further information has been released and may not be until after construction starts. Project-related issues get aired in public at the Atlantic Yards District Service Cabinet, which meets about every two months, but the next scheduled meeting is May 3, when the transportation plan should be unveiled.

Then there’s the Carlton Avenue Bridge, which was closed in January 2008 to accommodate reconstruction of the Vanderbilt Yard, used to store and service LIRR trains. The project was originally supposed to take two years, but the contract allowed five years.

If the bridge does not reopen before the arena does, fans driving to the opening day Jay-Z concert on September 28 may turn that section of Prospect Heights into a giant traffic jam, with no outlet to Atlantic Avenue. Every day the bridge is delayed is also a day without a key link for cyclists traveling toward Fort Greene and the Manhattan Bridge.

Forest City Ratner and ESD understandably want to see the bridge finished, but have been papering over the delay. In late January, Forest City construction chief Bob Sanna declared that the bridge was on schedule, and due for completion in early September 2012. That directly contradicted the reports ESD had been getting from its own consultant, STV, which deemed the bridge one month behind schedule.

On March 15, Arana Hankin, ESD’s Atlantic Yards project director, said that the bridge was due by the end of September, and was indeed on schedule. When I asked if STV had “most recently told you that it is on schedule,” Hankin’s answer was yes. However, STV, in the most recent weekly report available to Hankin, dated March 9, stated that the bridge was “officially one month behind schedule.”

Asked if she misspoke, Hankin said, “I did not misspeak. As I mentioned the schedule continues to be updated based on progress in the yard. The bridge will only be considered late if it is not open at the time of the arena opening.”

Excerpt from the March 2 STV report to Empire State Development on the Carlton Avenue Bridge.

For months, the STV weekly reports, as noted in the excerpt above, cited potential time savings from a temporary pier. Only as of March 2 did STV reveal another potential time-saving tactic: opening the bridge before the asphalt is paved, a tactic that suggests bridge work will go down to the wire. The city Department of Transportation, which is monitoring the bridge, did not respond to queries.

If the bridge is not completed on time, the state has minimal penalties to impose. While the bridge reconstruction is part of an “Arena Opening Condition” required by the Atlantic Yards Development Agreement, failure to meet that condition would only result in the freezing of Forest City Ratner’s rights to move forward on any new residential development. If the bridge can be reopened shortly, that wouldn’t impede Forest City much.

Of course, it won’t be until after the arena opens that its traffic impacts can be judged. SSE and the city are currently conducting a study of pre-opening traffic conditions. Once the transportation plan is implemented, Forest City next year will review its effectiveness.

Meanwhile, local electeds and community groups from the neighborhoods affected by the Barclays Center will keep pushing for policy responses. On March 31, Council Member Letitia James, who represents the Atlantic Yards site, along with fellow City Council members Steve Levin and Brad Lander, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, several neighborhood groups, and Brooklyn Community Board 2, sponsored a workshop on area transportation issues. The event drew about 60 people.

The upshot: The arena is linked to a broad range of issues, from road pricing and curb parking to pedestrian and cyclist safety. Expect a variety of proposals to be forthcoming, after the full impact of the Barclays Center becomes apparent.

Brooklyn journalist Norman Oder writes the Atlantic Yards Report blog.