Monday, May 29, 2006

New York Magazine offers a scaleback plan to reduce "shocking size"

New York Magazine, in a feature headlined Building the (New) New York: The Bob and Jane way, takes a look at the city in 2016, and pronounces the projected result a mix of Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses. A segment on the Atlantic Yards project is odd; on the one hand, it assumes that the project would be completed on time as currently scheduled (despite past delays and likely litigation) and would be located in Downtown Brooklyn; on the other, it muses about a scaleback plan (uncredited) that could be far more dramatic than than anything proposed so far.

The intro to the article offers a caveat about starchitects:
One can’t help but get a little giddy with all the big names, but there is a dark side to hiring all these out-of-towners. Too often they serve as ambassadors to the upper-middle class for owners with an agenda, cloaking the same old towers in a park.

While the author doesn't spell it out, that could well be a description of the Atlantic Yards project: an owner with an agenda; a need to win over the upper-middle class (both as tenants and as influentials); and a gussied-up superblock. Indeed, the scaleback version of Atlantic Yards offered later in the article (see below) would involve "[n]o more 300- and 400-foot slabs surrounding a park."

Jacobs and the gadflies

The article hearkens back to Jacobs:
The planning phrase on everyone’s lips is “eyes on the street,” the reductio ad absurdum of the argument of the late Jane Jacobs’s 1961 Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs argued that the lifeblood of her then-threatened neighborhood, the Village, was the shopkeepers and homeowners and stoop-sitters who watched the sidewalks and parks for free. Under City Planning commissioner Amanda Burden, neighborhoods are being contextually zoned to preserve their “special character.”
Jacobs’s vision was lovely but limited, with little room for new buildings, new neighborhoods. Rereading her arguments, one develops a sneaking admiration for the size of Moses’s thoughts. For the city to grow, it needed major change. Under Bloomberg, big thinking is happening again. What we have is a—some would say unholy—alliance of Bob and Jane. Exaltation of the neighborhood, coupled with the idea of building new ones from scratch. The Bloomberg administration still lags in taste at times. Why does every economic-development initiative have to be as big as possible? (Note to gadflies: Many of these projects are not yet set in stone. If you hate it, you can still change it. Start your blog now. But also start imagining an alternative—preferably in PowerPoint.)


The article's snarky generalization about gadflies ignores that critics and opponents of the Atlantic Yards project long ago convened a community charrette and devised the UNITY plan, a mid-rise effort at developing the railyards.

Atlantic Yards

One segment of the article is headlined Downtown Brooklyn in 2016: Brooklyn (like it or not) will get a shimmering Frank Gehry Crown. It begins:
What’s in a name? In projecting the future of the intersection of Atlantic, Flatbush, and Fourth Avenues, what you call the area means a lot. Call it Atlantic Yards, as developer Forest City Ratner does, and you see a march—or perhaps a fashion show—of sixteen towers in glass, metal, and brick marching down Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues, supplanting Grand Army Plaza’s arch as the gateway to the 21st-century borough. This name pulls Downtown Brooklyn to the heart of the brownstone belt, attracting tenants who want to look at, but not necessarily touch, the old Brooklyn at their feet.
“We don’t want to build tall for the sake of tall,” says Forest City Ratner spokesman Jim Stuckey. “Frank’s view—and this is shared by many architects and planners—is that this intersection should be more dense because of its proximity to the rail yards and public transportation. Frank Gehry can frame the Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower”—the current tallest, at 512 feet, compared with the 620 feet of Gehry’s main tower, Miss Brooklyn—“and make it a postcard with other buildings around it.”


Well, at least the article acknowledges that Forest City Ratner wants to extend the boundaries of Downtown Brooklyn, rather than build within what is currently considered Downtown Brooklyn. Also, Stuckey shouldn't be allowed to utter his mantra about the need for density near public transportation without an actual assessment of how dense the project would be.

Good and bad

The article offers a summary:
The good things about the Atlantic Yards are the Nets and the promise of 15,000 union construction jobs, contracts for minority and women-owned businesses, 2,250 affordable rentals, and a day-care and senior center. The bad thing is the shocking size. “The challenge will be traffic management,” says Alper. “There’s already not great traffic in downtown Brooklyn.” Possible solutions focus on incentivizing use of the area’s abundant public transportation to get to games: congestion pricing on streets and in parking garages, ticket prices linked to transport mode, and residential-parking permits for adjacent areas.

All those good things should be assessed in context: do the public expenditures and public costs justify them? And if Andrew Alper, the outgoing head of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, is acknowledging that traffic is a problem, then that really must be the consensus.

Costs and benefits

The article continues:
Opponents have been dissed, by Gehry himself, as both Luddites afraid of progress and as middle-class gentrifiers unsympathetic to the need for local jobs.

Again, both those statements deserve rebuttal. It's a battle between different versions of development, not stasis versus progress. And the number of local jobs is quite low compared to the size of the project and the public investment.

New York mag's alternative

The article offers an intriguing alternative:
But there could be a kinder, gentler, Brooklynized version of the titanium town, one which contains all the positive elements of Atlantic Yards but one with a little more of the local and cultural flavor of the BAM Cultural District next door. “We’re an important amenity for these other projects,” says BAM LDC president Jeanne Lutfy.
The tallest building in this scheme would remain the bank tower, now rebranded One Hanson Place, with a Borders bookstore in the landmarked lobby. Three Gehry towers, including a shorter Miss Brooklyn (and one with a better tiara), step down from that height on both sides of Flatbush, for that postcard view with plenty of room for offices and a hotel. Another tower, residential above arts spaces, is built on the BAM LDC’s north site. Beyond this, everything gets lower. No more 300- and 400-foot slabs surrounding a park, but an actual streetfront park, faced by blocks of new townhouses, shorter apartment buildings, and maybe even a school. To make sure Ratner makes his money back, apartment buildings of fifteen to twenty stories could be built opposite the taller structures on Atlantic.
The Nets will still play, but the new neighborhood is not built around a carpetbagger mix of sports bars, back-office white-collar jobs, and condo owners priced out of Manhattan. It is not Gehryville, but more of what people bought in Brooklyn for.


Very interesting, but how exactly could it preserve all the "positive elements"? (And what's the justification for eminent domain?) A smaller project would necessarily include fewer residential units, and likely fewer affordable units, and obviously would involve fewer construction jobs. As for making "sure Ratner makes his money back," well, that would require a discussion of the pro forma projections the developer has refused to make public. Could it be that the developer--any developer--could in fact make a good profit on a significantly-reduced project?

The conversation about the appropriate scale for this development--and any development at the railyards--should continue.

Gehry incidental?

A summary description of several buildings, including a projected theater by Gehry and library by Enrique Norten, ends with this description of Atlantic Yards:
When Bruce Ratner announced in 2004 that he had bought the New Jersey Nets, and hired Frank Gehry to build them a new stadium in Brooklyn, it caused some cognitive dissonance. Ratner’s previous Brooklyn developments had been the deserted-feeling MetroTech downtown, and the actively unpleasant Atlantic Center Mall. But this time, he said, he was going to do it right, give Brooklyn a team, give the borough a skyline, bring in the stars. As soon as the neighbors saw the plan—8.2 million square feet, then 9.2, now 8.7 again—with sixteen towers from 180 to 620 feet, the fighting began. Gehry seems almost incidental in this battle about what makes Brooklyn Brooklyn.

Well, it's an arena, not a stadium. But Gehry is hardly incidental. Without a marquee architect, Ratner would have more trouble winning public support for the project. And Gehry has been a selling point in the developer's p.r.

Transportation wizardry?

Finally, a segment in the article headlined Air and Sea: How you'll be traveling in a decade or so, describes new roles for river taxis and for trams. The segment is short; no new solution is presented for the intersection at Atlantic and Flatbush.

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