Brooklyn arena on schedule for 2012

NEW YORK -- Officials broke ground Thursday on a much-delayed 22-acre development project that will bring the NBA's New Jersey Nets to Brooklyn.

As protesters chanted and staged a mock funeral for the "soul" of Brooklyn, supporters enjoyed a lavish spread catered by developer Bruce Ratner.

"Today is a great day for Brooklyn and for the soul of Brooklyn, which is very much alive," said Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, the biggest cheerleader of the Atlantic Yards project since it was announced in 2003.

Markowitz joined Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Gov. David Paterson and hundreds of others at a ceremonial groundbreaking for the $4.9 billion project, which has been delayed by lawsuits filed by residents fighting the use of eminent domain.

Supporters say Atlantic Yards will provide jobs and economic development.

"As the buildings rise on Atlantic Yards, the joblessness rate will fall right here in Brooklyn," Paterson said, claiming the project would create 16,000 construction jobs and 5,500 permanent jobs.

The 18,000-seat arena is to open in 2012, and construction will begin on the first of 16 residential and office buildings in 2011.

Last December, Ratner's Forest City Ratner Cos. finalized a deal to sell 80 percent of the Nets and 45 percent of the arena to Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov.

Prokhorov was not at the groundbreaking, but entertainer Jay-Z, an investor in the team, said, "We did it again, Brooklyn."

The officials spoke inside a tent at the groundbreaking site, while the protesters shouted and blew whistles outside.

"What they're going to build is a money-losing arena, maybe one or two towers and acres and acres of parking," said Daniel Goldstein, founder of the group Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn.

His wife, Shabnam Merchant, stood Thursday in front of their home, which has been seized by the state to make way for the project, although they have yet to leave. She held her 16-month-old daughter and a sign that said: "You're celebrating? We live here."

The Rev. Al Sharpton, speaking at the groundbreaking, acknowledged the displeasure of some community members but said he supported the project because it will provide jobs and contracts for minority business owners.

Forest City Ratner sold 20-year naming rights to British-based global financial services company Barclays PLC in 2007, and the arena will be called Barclays Center.

When Ratner proposed Atlantic Yards before the economic downturn, celebrity architect Frank Gehry was going to transform downtown Brooklyn with apartment buildings bearing his trademark undulating shapes.

But Gehry was fired because his designs were too expensive, and no new architect has been announced for the residential buildings. The latest renderings of the arena show a conventional dome, drawing criticism from opponents.

"They changed the plan so much," protester Tahna Runnig said. "Now, we don't know what they're doing."

But supporters say the project is a chance for Brooklyn to get a professional sports franchise for the first time since the Dodgers departed for Los Angeles after the 1957 season.

"Sadly, we lost our beloved bums, the Dodgers, 53 years ago," Markowitz said.

But at 7-57, the current Nets are on a pace to set an NBA record for fewest games won in an 82-game season, to which Bloomberg alluded.

"This really is such a huge win for the Nets," Bloomberg said. "It's a shame that it doesn't count in the standings."