Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The "urban room" evolves toward civic (?) space, and another look at "significant cuts"

From the project announcement in December 2003, Forest City Ratner planned a grand, Frank Gehry-designed "urban room" under a raised tower at the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic avenues. But the function of the exterior space has changed. Once promoted as a space for visitors to the arena and to an office tower, as well as travellers, now it's being billed as a "grand civic" space--even though one of its main functions would be to sell Nets tickets.

That's according to the Final Scope of Analysis released last week by the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC). The agency now will consider the "urban room" in its analysis of open space at the project, even though the Draft Scope of Analysis issued last September didn't mention the "urban room."

Why the change? Forest City Ratner didn't comment in its press release about changes to the Atlantic Yards project. I speculate that, given the criticism (even from Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz) about the conversion of the arena roof from public park to private space, not to mention the insufficient open space for the project as a whole, the developer felt pressure to add something that at least appears to be open space.

Original announcement

An initial fact sheet about the project offered this description:
The northernmost building on the site, an office building, will be set back slightly from the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues, to maintain the view corridor to the Williamsburg Bank building. The point of this triangle will become part of an “urban room,” a new exterior space formed by raising the office building on pilotis (a term coined by famed architect Le Corbusier, pilotis are columnar structures designed to raise the mass of a building off the ground).
Travelers will enter or exit the transportation hub as well as the Arena and the northernmost office building through the urban room, which will also contain retail shops. A glassed-in restaurant will be positioned at the top of the urban room, giving additional life to the intersection.


In his 12/11/03 appraisal, headlined Courtside Seats to an Urban Garden, New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp didn't mention civic space (and confused an arena with a stadium):
There is also an "urban room," a soaring Piranesian space, which provides access to the stadium and a grand lobby for the tallest of the office towers.

In FCR's Brooklyn Standard, issued last June, emphasized access to the arena:
Visible from both Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues, the arena will be accessed through an “urban room” set off from the street by the columnar supports which will raise the surrounding buildings off the ground.

And the "urban room" wasn't mentioned in the Draft Scope issued last September.

Going civic

Now the ESDC, in the Final Scope of Analysis, offers a different description, one that includes meeting spaces rather than simply a lobby with shops:
Addition of a publicly accessible covered pedestrian space. This “Urban Room,” located at the Flatbush Avenue and Atlantic Avenue intersection, would be a highly transparent, grand civic room containing meeting space and caf├ęs as well as ticket windows for the arena, access to the arena and other uses on the arena block, and connection to the Atlantic Terminal mass transit complex.

As noted, this will be part of the agency's analysis of the open space associated with the project. While the "urban room" would be open to the public, it sounds like it would be serving the developer as well.

The dictionary defines "civic" as "Of, relating to, or belonging to a city, a citizen, or citizenship; municipal or civil." If some people wanted to exercise their citizenship by handing out political literature (or even literature critical of the Atlantic Yards project) inside this "grand civic room," would they be allowed to do so?

FCR's redesign: not til May

Forest City Ratner's press release announced a change in building heights, for a net reduction of 23 stories, or 231 feet, from the previous iteration of the plan. It didn't mention that the total of the heights remains 228 feet greater than the plan announced in 2003. The Final Scope shows some slightly different configurations in the placement of buildings.

However, according to the press release, we won't get a look at new images of Frank Gehry's redesign plan until early May, just a brief time before the late May/early June time when ESDC is expected to release a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). The Final Scope is a prelude to the DEIS.

Prediction: by early May, Forest City Ratner will finally revive its web site, down since last November, and the company will produce another issue of the Brooklyn Standard.

More FCR disingenuousness on cuts

The FCR press release proclaimed, in one of the two decks below the headline, "Affordable Housing Remains the Same; Significant Cuts to Market-Rate Units."

But the cuts came only after Forest City Ratner more than doubled the number of market-rate units. Until the City Council hearing 5/26/05, the developer had announced only 4500 rental apartments, half of which (2250) would be market-rate. At the hearing, the developer revealed plans for either 6000 or 7300 residential units, which meant an addition of either 1500 or 2800 market-rate condos. In mid-September, the Draft Scope of Analysis confirmed plans for 7300 units, which meant 2800 condos.

Now Forest City Ratner has reduced the planned number of market-rate condos by 440, from 2800 to 2360.

Significant cuts? That's a 16% cut from the total of 2800 market-rate condos but only an 9% cut from the total of 5050 market-rate units.

And it's only a cut if you imagine that the Atlantic Yards plan began last year.

If you look at the original plan, it's the opposite of a cut. Those 2360 market-rate condos represent a 105% jump in market-rate units, as only 2250 market-rate rentals had been planned for some 17 months, from the project announcement on 12/10/03 until the City Council hearing last May.

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