Friday, June 16, 2006

MAS says FCR's current plan "won't work;" panel, crowd pile on criticism

In a way, the message was clear, wrapped up in a brochure deftly mixing text and graphics. “Can it work for Brooklyn?” asked the influential Municipal Art Society (MAS), a longstanding advocate for good urban design and sensible development.

The brochure offered a startling analogy: the 17 buildings in the Atlantic Yards project would be the equivalent of more than 23 Williamsburgh Savings Banks. The bank may be the tallest building in Brooklyn, at 512 feet (the proposed Miss Brooklyn would be 620 feet), but it’s tapered, not bulky.

On the other side of the brochure, the answer:
Forest City Ratner’s current plan won’t work for Brooklyn.

The reasons: And while the Atlantic Yards site is right for development, the Forest City Ratner plan threatens Brooklyn’s special qualities. It would overwhelm surrounding neighborhoods with enormous towers. It would eliminate streets to create deadening superblocks that don’t work anywhere in New York City. It would create a private-feeling enclave of a park on what is now public land. And it would add 40,000 new vehicular trips every day with no plan to avoid gridlock.

But the brochure, and the elaboration by two MAS experts, wasn’t enough for many among the 400-plus people packing the room last night at the Hanson Place United Methodist Church in Fort Greene. During the meeting, which lasted nearly three hours, they expressed greater criticism of the project’s density, the role of an arena in demapping streets, and a planning process that excluded them.

And it wasn’t enough for the panel of four respondents. Ron Shiffman, co-founder and until recently head of the Clinton Hill-based Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development (PICCED; now the Pratt Center for Community Development), was first off the blocks. After praising the principles articulated by MAS, he added, “What concerns me is what they didn’t say. Good planning and good design… cannot be divorced from good public process.”

Though some questions from the public strayed into speeches, the session featured more detailed discourse than previous large public meetings, and not the anticipated “hornet’s nest” created by a confluence of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB) supporters and union carpenters. Despite some cheers and catcalls, the crowd was mostly low-key, and no large union contingent showed up.

[The Times covered the session, in an article today on B4 (sans graphics) headlined Group Calls for Major Changes in Atlantic Yards Plan. It included the MAS principles, Ratner's response, and some of the community skirmishing--but not the panel's forceful take. The New York Post, in an article I initially missed headlined Slap at Ratner, ran a three-paragraph story that said that the MAS said "the developer should reduce its size and figure out a way to control traffic in the neighborhood." Imagine: in a city the size of Brooklyn with its own newspaper, last night's meeting would have been on the front of the Metro section, at least.
The Brooklyn Papers' online coverage cited the audible gasp when the crowd was told that the project would be the "equivalent of “three Empire State Buildings, 23 Williamsburgh Savings Bank buildings, or 2,200 brownstones — which is roughly the entire population of Prospect Heights.” In the Village Voice's Power Plays blog, Neil de Mause offered a good summary.]

Ratner's response

Jim Stuckey, President of Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards Development Group, was on hand for the pre-meeting press conference, sitting with arms crossed and a serious expression. After the formal briefing, reporters gathered around Stuckey, and he appeared unruffled. He said that the developer was moving toward meeting some of the MAS’s concerns and declared others not worth the tradeoffs they would entail. He assured questioners that the project would avoid big box retail and thus create lively streets, promised a major effort to cope with traffic, and asserted that “keeping streets to nowhere” would stymie the developer’s plans to manage more wastewater than is currently dumped from the area to the Gowanus Canal.

As for the scale of the project—the elephant next door--he said, “I think [MAS president] Kent Barwick said it correctly: There is no magic number here.” He added, "We're sitting here doing this incredible analysis of a project that hasn't even started a public review process yet." Then again, the project was announced in December 2003.

"This report, admittedly by them, didn't look at the economics of the project," Stuckey continued. "It's a nice thing to say that 'we're going to come up with five design principles,' but ignore the fact that there's a billion of costs in infrastructure and land acquisition." Whether that justifies the scale remains a mystery, however, since the company hasn't released its fiscal projections.

"It's a very nice thing to say that we're looking at design principles but also not take into consideration that we're trying desperately to address the affordable housing crisis in New York City right now, which I think is admirable about our plan," he said. However pious the statement--Forest City Ratner has used the affordable housing component to justify a density far greater than other major projects in the city--it was delivered in a church next to the Williamsburgh Savings Bank (right), currently under conversion into luxury condominiums exclusively.

Pre-meeting tension

Some tension over the session surfaced days before, as DDDB emailed volunteers urging them to bring signs and questions (and "be respectful") to MAS’s presentation of a “plan” calling for a development only 20 percent smaller than Forest City Ratner's current outline, and even suggesting that a donation from the developer, and the presence of board member who's invested in the Nets, might have tainted the analysis. (The MAS's Vanessa Gruen told the Observer the support had no effect.) MAS, however, had not planned to raise the issue of density last night, without more input from the community and a better analysis of the project's economics.

“We do not have a plan,” said Barwick emphatically at the press briefing. The distinction was partly semantic; MAS had done a “zoning analysis” that produced a figure over 6.5 million square feet, a good deal less of a scaleback than the one-third cut proposed by Assembly Member Jim Brennan.

Barwick yesterday wouldn't be pinned down on the appropriate number of apartments or square footage. “The arithmetic matters less than the impact,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any scientific way to get to a number.” As for the Brennan bill, “We don’t know the real-life fiscal implications faced by the developer,” he said.

“In our view, if Brooklyn wants an arena, this is a good place to have an arena,” he said, citing the nearby transportation hub. But how assess what Brooklyn wants? “That’s the trouble with having no public process,” he allowed.

At the press briefing, Barwick said, “Forest City Ratner has been terrific in sharing their plans, models, and professional assistance.” At the same time, he criticized the process. “Whether Atlantic Yards turns out to be great project or a flawed project, no local official will ever get a vote. That’s just wrong,” he said, calling for a system that “involves rather than alienates citizens.”

He suggested that it was the fault of neither the community nor the developer, though it's certainly in Forest City Ratner's interest for the project to be managed by the state Empire State Development Corporation--a process to which the mayor agreed.

Elaborating the principles

Stuart Pertz, an architect who serves on the MAS Planning Committee and was formerly on the city Planning Commission, elaborated on the principles:
1) Respect the existing neighborhoods
2) Don’t eliminate streets
3) Create a real public park
4) Promote lively streets
5) Don’t choke the streets
(At right, a view of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank from Flatbush Avenue in Park Slope.)

He cited the scale of Brooklyn’s neighborhoods, the importance of public parks that face streets, and the problem if a development presents “an extreme difference in scale” with neighboring streets.

While the Atlantic Yards plan would eliminate streets, he noted that both the Rockefeller Center and Tudor City plans in Manhattan added streets to ensure the flow of pedestrians, and Stuyvesant Town, which demapped streets, created park space pleasant for residents but cut off from the city.

As for Forest City Ratner’s MetroTech, “I know it well because I was part of the process,” said Pertz with a tinge of regret. When the project was conceived in the late 1980s, firms from Manhattan considered Brooklyn a dangerous and foreign land, and both the developer and partner Polytechnic University exerted great pressure to close the streets—against the recommendation of Pertz, an architect on the project.

Applying the principles

The community-developed Unity Plan, as well as the Pacific Plan by local architect Doug Hamilton both provided guidance for MAS. Urban planner John West proceeded to apply the MAS principles to Forest City Ratner’s current plan. One suggestion: don’t block the clock of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank, which could be achieved if buildings were further set back from the street, the arena moved east of Fifth Avenue, and one of the towers eliminated. (At right, a rendering by Gehry partners shows Miss Brooklyn blocking the clock, in a view from Flatbush Avenue and Prospect Place--not St. Marks Avenue.)

Also, in the principle about promoting lively streets, the prime example in the brochure was the blank wall of the P.C. Richard store at Site 5, the corner of Flatbush, Fourth, and Atlantic Avenues, part of Forest City Ratner's Shops at Atlantic Center.

Another suggestion: reuse existing buildings like the Ward Bakery (right), which has been suggested as a historic resource. (The unstated implication: if no tower or a smaller tower were built there, the project density could decline.)

He also suggested a graduated hierarchy for the size of buildings, in some contrast to the current plan: taller along wide Atlantic Avenue; intermediate heights along Pacific Street; and lower on Dean Street, opposite low-rise blocks.

Even though MAS recommends against demapping streets, even if the arena were moved east of Fifth Avenue, it would require the demapping of Pacific Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues. Perhaps, West said, it could be countered by adding streets, pointing to extensions of the street grid from Fort Greene.

Moving the arena would also require the elimination of one planned tower. “The developer has looked at this,” West said. “They say it doesn’t work, but we hope they can try a bit harder.”

West had harsh words for the planned open space, saying much of it came from demapped streets and other portions would be directly adjacent to Atlantic Yards buildings and approached as privatized space. “An alternative way of thinking,” he said, would to have parks delineated by streets and distinctly mapped. Pertz pointed out that, given that open space would not be due for a decade, were parks distinct pieces of real estate, they could be built separately.

West said that, regarding plans for retail around the arena, “the developer is trying hard to make this work.” He was less optimistic about placing stores in the base of residential buildings that are situated off the street grid. “It’s a little difficult to understand how they would be successful stores.”

Principles--or arena?

In the Q&A session, Daniel Goldstein, spokesman for DDDB, challenged the analysis. “You have very nice principles, but you violate all of them with the arena,” he asserted. “Are your principles more important than the arena?… If you say the arena is more important, then you're saying, 'Yes, it’s Ratner’s framework we’re working with,' not the community's and not the Municipal Art Society's.” His question drew sharp applause.

“It’s a very difficult question to answer,” allowed Pertz, who said alternatives could involve an arena on the site of the Atlantic Center Mall or in Coney Island, or no arena at all. He acknowledged that the arena did close streets and otherwise ran afoul of the principles, but said that there had been "enormous" sentiment in favor of having an arena. Pertz allowed that his personal opinion might be more critical than his presentation, but said, “I am representing MAS. We have certainly heard you. There will be a lot of conversations.”

Beyond the principles

Larger issues were raised in the panel discussion. If the issue of eminent domain isn’t discussed, declared Shiffman, a former member of the Planning Commission, “you lose the insight of what those buildings [in the footprint] could and would become,” citing the conversion of manufacturing buildings to housing. “They were step by step regenerating this neighborhood.”

“I like the idea of bringing back a major league franchise,” allowed Shiffman, who’s old enough to remember the Dodgers. “I also believe that maybe downtown Brooklyn was a good place to locate an arena.”

However, he took aim at the argument that Atlantic Avenue transit hub could support an arena. The facility is already crowded, he said, adding, “I’m not sure we have the capacity” for arena crowds; he contrasted it to the more spacious underground layout of Penn Station around Madison Square Garden. Shiffman said density is important, as was affordable housing--a principle that should be kept under all plans--but expressed doubt that “probably one of the densest developments in the world can really be done properly.”

“We have some great architects,” he said, in a nod to architect Frank Gehry and landscape architect Laurie Olin, “but they are some lousy planners.” Shiffman, who has a long association with grassroots groups, including ACORN—one of the prime community proponents of Forest City Ratner’s plan—has recently joined the advisory board of DDDB.

Shiffman pointed out that the use of eminent domain would serve as a signal for the process in Manhattanville, where Columbia University seeks to expand its campus. “Eminent domain is an important tool when it meets a public purpose,” he said, but not when it does not address a public purpose and is used to transfer property from one private owner to another private owner. "Now we need to stand up and speak out against it.”

Framing the discussion

Marshall Brown, architect of the UNITY plan and now an architecture professor at the University of Cincinnati's College of Design, Architecture, Art, & Planning, criticized MAS’s approach, saying “the major part of the discussion has been framed by the developer.”

Rather, he said, the discussion should be shifted, and elevated. “It’s not really about an arena,” he declared. “It’s about one developer getting a foothold on the best site in the cultural core of Downtown Brooklyn.” (Actually, it’s Prospect Heights.)

As for the goal of “respecting the existing neighborhoods,” Brown declared, “it’s setting the bar a little low. We’re sitting on a gold mine… It should not just respect the surrounding community but enhance the community.”

Andy Wiley-Schwartz, a VP at the Project for Public Spaces and a Brooklyn resident, praised MAS, saying “It’s very easy for us to be marginalized because we live around the site.” He noted that good design could make people choose not to drive. “I think we need to plan this whole area to create a great destination.”

Lance Brown, a professor of architecture at CUNY, suggested that the Atlantic Yards plan is part of a national phenomenon. “All across the country, every city is rebuilding its railyards,” though in most cases the yards are next to industrial areas rather than thriving neighborhoods. “There’s a need to sit down and rethink what the community wants to happen,” he said.

Neighborhood response

The meeting was sponsored by New York State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, State Assembly Members Joan Millman and Brennan, and City Council Member Letitia James, and the Atlantic Avenue Betterment Association, the Boerum Hill Association, the Brooklyn Heights Association, the Fort Greene Association (FGA), the Society for Clinton Hill, the Park Slope Civic Council and the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council (PHNDC). Both James and Montgomery addressed the crowd. The sponsors took pains to point out that they were not endorsing the MAS presentation.

Before the session, DDDB handed out a press release criticizing MAS for not using “the community’s guidelines for development over the rail yards,” endorsed by 22 community groups and three of the four elected officials representing the area including the project footprint.

The FGA issued a press release pointing out that “design alone cannot present a comprehensive solution to the fundamental problems of the proposed development,” citing the use of eminent domain, excess density, and issues of traffic, shadows, and community facilities.

By contrast, the PHNDC handed out a more moderate statement, acknowledging that design issues are just one element in assessing the project, but suggesting—in a bit of a stretch—that the MAS’s advice was presented “while maintaining the economics and site programming sought by the developer, thus demonstrating that community-friendly design is not incompatible with their stated objectives.”

More from the audience

Martin Goldstein, a Fort Greene resident, even offered criticism from the perspective of his neighborhood, saying that concerns raised about blocking were “Park Slope-centric.” He cited the Atlantic Center mall, with its blank walls on Hanson Place and South Elliott Place; “everyone believes it’s a terrible mistake.” Pertz said that “next time” such concerns would get more of a hearing.

While the moderator, Leonard Lopate of WNYC radio, urged the audience to stay on the topic of design and keep the questions short, some among the long line of people waiting at the microphone didn’t comply. Alan Rosner brought up the issues of global warming and terrorism, saying that the planned towers would block access to solar technology. “We understand they are significant issues,” responded Pertz, “but answers we don’t have.”

A member of the group REBUILD, which is involved in transitioning ex-prisoners to the community, lamented that "Mexicans" were working on local construction projects and said that any project in the community should hire people from the community.

While the comment was off-topic, Brown answered that any project should indeed do so. The commenter was one of relatively few black attendees at the forum; at previous public meetings, the community groups ACORN and BUILD, both signatories of the controversial Community Benefits Agreement, had brought large contingents of people of color.

Also in the audience were about two dozen people in hardhats and orange reflector vests; they were members of People for Political and Economic Empowerment, a Fort Greene group that has been a supporter of BUILD.

Rallying the troops

At times, the meeting had the flavor of a rally. “Forest City Enterprises [parent company of Forest City Ratner] cannot build this without my home and the home of my neighbors, and I’m not giving it to them,” declared DDDB‘s Goldstein, the last remaining resident of a condo building that would be near the arena's center court. “Even better than that, Jim Stuckey called my lawyer and begged me not to be an eminent domain plaintiff.” (Stuckey doesn't seem like the begging type, and Goldstein allowed afterward that he’d used a bit of dramatic license in describing the effort to acquire his apartment.) He added: "They're concerned about an eminent domain lawsuit, because they will lose that lawsuit."

Several speakers urged audience members to get involved in the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods, which will coordinate responses to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, which is expected next month.

Some expressed optimism that the momentum from the meeting could lead to a more open review for the project. More certain is Barwick’s description of the project: “a major fork in the road for Brooklyn.” Expect congestion ahead.

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