A Team Grows in Brooklyn

What's the worst calamity ever to befall New York's borough of Brooklyn? Easy answer: losing the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team to Los Angeles in 1957. But now there's a serious effort to bring a big- time sports franchise to the borough.
February 2004
By Otis White  |  Contributor
President of Civic Strategies Inc.

What's the worst calamity ever to befall New York's borough of Brooklyn? Easy answer: losing the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team to Los Angeles in 1957. But now there's a serious effort to bring a big- time sports franchise to the borough. More important, it points to an interesting trend in professional sports stadiums: making the venue part of a much grander project. Baseball is not coming back, but a real estate magnate, Bruce Ratner, is trying to buy the New Jersey Nets basketball team. If successful, he wants to relocate the Nets to downtown Brooklyn, where he'll build a $435 million arena as part of a complex with four office towers, 300,000 square feet of retail space and 13 apartment buildings on the 21-acre site. To make the project more appealing, Ratner has hired architect Frank Gehry, famous for his design of the Guggenheim Museum in Spain, to design the arena and other buildings. Normally a development of this magnitude would be unthinkable in the hypersensitive neighborhood politics of New York. But the possibility of bringing a team in Brooklyn--and salving a civic wound--has opened a lot of doors, as has the Gehry link. Said Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, "Brooklyn is a world-class city, and it deserves a world-class team in a world-class arena designed by a world-class architect."


With the revival of downtown living in big cities, newcomers are setting off numerous conflicts with older residents. We're not talking about poor families displaced by gentrification but blue-collar industries. It's happening in Boston, Cleveland and Tampa, but it's most noticeable in Baltimore, where residential developers are vying for the same waterfront properties as port industries. "You have this encroachment of gentrification," said an executive of one port company. "We have to be very careful that we don't work ourselves into a corner, where we have a lot of townhouses right up to the water's edge, and we have a second-class port." Hey, that's the free market at work, say developers. "Baltimore's changed," said one banker and developer. "The industrial component is going to go away from here, from the waterfront. The land values are going up. The highest and best use is not for small marine terminals anymore. It's for offices and condos." These aren't easy conflicts to resolve. The 300-year-old Port of Baltimore is still thriving. It accounts for 15,700 jobs directly and maybe another 17,000 indirectly and generates more than $200 million a year in state and local taxes. But Baltimore's port and industrial areas are governed by state and local agencies, and there's no master plan for their development.


A number of cities (including Chicago and Albuquerque) have ordinances requiring that art be included in major government construction projects. But three San Francisco suburbs have gone further, requiring that commercial projects include public art as well. Take Menlo Park, where businesses must set aside at least 1 percent of any project of $250,000 or more for art that can be enjoyed by visitors and passers-by. "It's a win for the businesses, for the community, for the city coffers," says the city's arts commissioner. As she notes, this is a way of making the city distinctive and enjoyable and doing so at no cost to the taxpayers. Some business owners, however, think it's ridiculous. Take the owner who recently renovated a building with a 7-Eleven convenience store. He had to kick in an extra $5,200 for public art. (He settled on a bronze bench.) "I have no reason to buy silly things like this," he grumbled. The big complaint, other than cost, is that business owners know nothing about art--or how to commission pieces. To help, the city keeps binders with the names of artists and examples of their murals, sculptures and bronze benches. Give it time, the arts commissioner says. "It's something this community is going to absolutely love, once it gets going."


A police officer in St. Paul, Minnesota, was cruising recently near an ethanol plant when he came upon a startling sight: Six young men dressed in black, walking in single file. It was 1 a.m. on a Sunday morning. In the men's bags were walkie-talkies, night-vision goggles and flashlights. Terrorists, right? It turns out, the six were "urban explorers." These are folks who regard the urban landscape as climbers do mountains: something to be explored--and the more inaccessible the place, the better. Said another urban explorer, these are "people who wonder what's under that manhole, what's inside the abandoned building." But at 1 a.m.? Has to be that way, he went on. "You can't call up the public works department and say, 'I would like a tour of this drain.' It's the way for the average Joe to see these things." It took 48 hours for the explorers to convince the cops that their story was real--long enough for at least one of them to decide to hang up this hobby.