Monday, May 08, 2006

DDDB's new advisory board, Jane Jacobs, & "angry blogs"

Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn has assembled a new advisory board filled with activists, cultural figures, and celebrities, most of them from Brooklyn. It's a high-profile mix, and the board should help DDDB--which also relaunched its web site--raise money for the potential legal fights over the legitimacy of Environmental Impact Statement process and the use of eminent domain, among other initiatives.

Some two-and-a-half years after the Atlantic Yards project was announced, this should help amplify the voices of project opponents, who don't have the money to send slick brochures like the one Forest City Ratner recently produced. In the recent battle over the proposed West Side Stadium, community opponents of the plan were bolstered by the deep pockets of Cablevision, owner of Madison Square Garden, which had its own business reason to oppose the project. In the Atlantic Yards, fight, there have been few high-profile allies; as Daily News sports columnist Mike Lupica observed yesterday:
The people who have fought Ratner and one of the truly inspired land grabs in the history of this city continue to fight, even as Ratner's shills, in the media and in politics, continue to act as if the whole thing is a done deal.

The 33-member board includes actress Rosie Perez, musician Dan Zanes, cultural critic Nelson George, academic Mindy Fullilove, sports critic Dave Zirin, local Congressional representative Major Owens, two activist ministers (the Rev. David Dyson and the Rev. Dennis Dillon), eminent domain plaintiff Susette Kelo, and several writers and actors, among others.

Celeb fever

New York Magazine, in an Intelligencer item headlined Can Heath Ledger Save Bklyn? Or can Buscemi?, focused on the celebrity angle:
Since angry blogs haven’t managed to derail Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards complex, maybe celebrities will. Last week, Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn created an advisory board of boldfacers. New recruit Steve Buscemi got right on the phone and was right on message, declaring, “The lack of transparency, the absence of genuine community input, and the bypassing of political oversight is very troubling.”

Paging Jane Jacobs

The article continued:
DDDB activist Francis Morrone hopes celebs like Rosie Perez and Jonathan Safran Foer can affect the “significant segment of elite cultural opinion which thinks that this development is perfectly all right and that the people who are opposing it are a bunch of cranks who are stuck in the Jane Jacobs era.” Interestingly, the celebs sound positively Jacobean in their concerns. “The Atlantic Center Mall [right], which Ratner built, is such an aesthetic and functional horror,” declares David Salle. The new project is “out of scale and out of step with the neighborhood it’s going to overwhelm,” says Jonathan Lethem. Michelle Williams says she and husband Heath Ledger “moved here for light, space, and air. If Mr. Ratner lived here, he would understand what we love about it and why we want to preserve our open skies.”

First, pretty much everyone has absorbed the Jacobsean lesson that the Atlantic Center mall, or its Site 5 annex at the southeast corner of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues (right), should not turn blank walls to functioning city streets. Those are big box structures built at one of Brooklyn's busiest intersections, and at the borough's transit hub.

I asked Morrone, who has written the essential guidebook to Brooklyn architecture and is much more a public intellectual than a DDDB activist, to amplify his comments. He told me:
I am obviously not saying we're not Jacobsean--I, who am Jane Jacobs's biggest fan, would not say that. What I meant, and I'm sorry it came off the wrong way in the context of the piece, is that the elite culture to which I refer equates "Jacobsean" with "cranky." I know lots of people involved in this fight who are Jacobsean; I know none who are cranky.
(At right, Forest City Ratner's MetroTech, an inward-facing corporate office park but no retail along Brooklyn's busy Flatbush Avenue and near some low-income projects.)

To what extent can Forest City Ratner be tagged with the architectural mistakes of its past? Well, they shouldn't be forgotten. The developer likely has learned some lessons from the savage criticism it has received and the plans for the Atlantic Yards project will contain much more street-level retail.

The scale, however, is driven by the need to include enough market-rate housing to generate revenues and enough affordable housing to maintain political support. (Essentially, the affordable housing represents a zoning bonus privately negotiated between Ratner and ACORN, unlike, say, in the Greenpoint-Williamsburg rezoning, where the rules were set by City Council.)

It's hardly Jacobsean to wonder if a parade of towers 30, 40, and even 60 stories indicates too much density for a mostly low-rise area. Note that the towers would extend not just along the railyards and the triangle next to it (which are close to the anomalous, tapered 512-foot Williamsburgh Savings Bank) but along the block behind it--and, of course, for blocks to the east (left) in the photo above. The photo was taken yesterday from about 300 feet up at the Williamsburgh bank. Several towers likely would rise out of the frame of the photo.

About those blogs

Angry blogs? It sounds like a quote from the Joe DePlasco handbook; remember, the paid FCR flack disparaged us volunteer bloggers by saying that "a sense of self-importance and anger that often pops out."

But the appropriate word for the blogs, especially my blog and NoLandGrab, is watchdog. After all, my blog has driven news coverage of several issues, among them the privatization of formerly public parklike space, the number of jobs and amount of housing at the project, and the call by three Community Boards for Forest City Ratner to stop citing their role in "crafting" the Community Benefits Agreement.

Other coverage

The Daily News, in an article today headlined Celebs join Ratner foes, also focused on the celebrity angle, with this quote from an anonymous Ratner spokesman:
"We look forward to discussing the project in detail with these and other individuals. We're hopeful that once they learn more about the project, including Frank Gehry's design work, that they will have a better sense of what is going on at Atlantic Yards."

Hint: a new Gehry plan is expected soon.

In the commuter tabloid Metro, an article headlined Stars team up to stop Nets arena in Brooklyn, like the Daily News article, suggested some kind of celebrity battle, given that rapper Jay-Z is a part-owner of the Nets basketball team and a supporter of the Atlantic Yards project.

The article referred to DDDB advisory board member Jonathan Lethem:
Letham’s novel “Fortress of Solitude” prominently features the Underberg Building — one of the Ratner-owned properties in the footprint recently demolished by the developer to make way for the project.

The UNITY plan

One member of the DDDB advisory board is Marshall Brown, lead architect of the UNITY plan aimed at developing the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Vanderbilt Yard at a significant density, but much less than the level proposed by Forest City Ratner. The UNITY plan would not require the taking of adjacent streets, provide more street-level retail, and offer public park space, not privately-owned public space. (As planned, it would offer 75% affordable housing, though Extell Development Corporation's bid for the railyards, based on UNITY plan principles, proposed 30% affordable housing.)

And for those looking at the racial angle, Brown is black, like several of the new board members--not a majority, but a significant fraction (about one-quarter of the total). Will that help tamp down some of the rhetoric claiming that project opponents are white yuppies or, as Errol Louis put it, "well-off newcomers who... claim a sacred right to speak for the entire neighborhood"?

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