Sunday, April 30, 2006

A veiled defense of Atlantic Yards? The Times's Ouroussoff on "Outgrowing Jane Jacobs"

In the lead article in today's New York Times Week in Review, architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff offers a Critic's Notebook, headlined Outgrowing Jane Jacobs, arguing, as he has done in the past, that a veneration for Jacobs precludes us from embracing more ambitious projects that address challenges unforeseen during Jacobs's heyday more than 40 years ago.

Ouroussoff makes some provocative points and, read through a Brooklyn-centric lens, it's hard not to sense a defense of the Frank Gehry-designed Atlantic Yards project. Curiously, though the critic's most recently-published criticism of Jacobs came in his 7/5/05 assessment of the Atlantic Yards design, and in January he defended Gehry's design publicly--even denying that it would include a superblock--he chose not to mention the project in today's essay.

Ouroussoff wrote:
Time passes. Jane Jacobs, the great lover of cities who stared down Robert Moses' bulldozers and saved many of New York's most precious neighborhoods, died last week at 89. It is a loss for those who value urban life. But her death may also give us permission to move on, to let go of the obsessive belief that Ms. Jacobs held the answer to every evil that faces the contemporary city.
For New Yorkers, Ms. Jacobs's life remains suspended between two seismic events: The publication, in 1961, of ''The Death and Life of Great American Cities'' and her showdown in the late 60's with Mr. Moses over a proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway that would have reduced much of SoHo's handsome cast-iron district to rubble. The expressway was killed by Mayor John V. Lindsay in 1969.
By then, Ms. Jacobs had fled for Toronto, and Mr. Moses, who died in 1981, had lost much of his power and prestige. But in the popular imagination, the two are forever at odds: the imperious city planning czar versus the tireless public advocate. Today, the pendulum of opinion has swung so far in favor of Ms. Jacobs that it has distorted the public's understanding of urban planning. As we mourn her death, we may want to mourn a bit for Mr. Moses as well.
(Emphasis added.)

Regarding Atlantic Yards, however, the urban planning has been privatized and "backwards." No RFP was ever issued. The project was announced and endorsed by local officials without any public discussion of the potential use for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Vanderbilt Yard (8.3 acres of the 22-acre site footprint), and it took 18 months before the railyard was put out to bid. The scale of the project exceeds city zoning but, because city officials agreed to let Atlantic Yards be a state project, the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) can override city zoning. (Mockup from OnNYTurf.)

Small-scale challenges

Ouroussoff continued:
Her argument was simple enough, radically so. Horrified at the tabula rasa urban renewal strategies of the 1950's, she argued for a return to the small-scale city she found in Greenwich Village and the North End of Boston -- the lively street life of front stoops, corner shops and casual personal interaction.
...But the problems of the 20th-century city were vast and complicated. Ms. Jacobs had few answers for suburban sprawl or the nation's dependence on cars, which remains critical to the development of American cities. She could not see that the same freeway that isolated her beloved, working-class North End from downtown Boston also protected it from gentrification. And she never understood cities like Los Angeles, whose beauty stems from the heroic scale of its freeways and its strange interweaving of man-made and natural environments.
The threats facing the contemporary city are not what they were when she first formed her ideas, now nearly 50 years ago. The activists of Ms. Jacobs's generation may have saved SoHo from Mr. Moses' bulldozers, but they could not stop it from becoming an open-air mall.
...Nor did Ms. Jacobs really offer an adequate long-term solution for the boom in urban population, which cannot be solved simply through incremental growth in existing neighborhoods.

Indeed, there's a compelling argument for development at significant density over the railyards. However, the community-developed UNITY plan called for towers at about half the scale of Gehry's plan, plus additional streets to extend the urban fabric. This should have been a topic for public discussion.

Eyes wide open?

Ouroussoff offered some defenses of development:
Just as cities change, so do our perceptions of them. Architects now in their mid-40's -- Ms. Jacobs's age when she published ''Death and Life'' -- do not share their parents' unqualified hatred of Modernist developments.
They understand that an endless grid of brick towers and barren plazas is dehumanizing. But on an urban island packed with visual noise, the plaza at Lincoln Center -- or even at the old World Trade Center -- can be a welcome contrast in scale, a moment of haunting silence amid the chaos. Similarly, the shimmering glass towers that frame lower Park Avenue are awe-inspiring precisely because they offer a sharp contrast to the quiet tree-lined streets of the Upper East Side.
...The lesson we should take from Ms. Jacobs was her ability to look at the city with her eyes wide open, without rigid prejudices. Maybe we should see where that lesson leads next.

There was Ouroussoff defending the World Trade Center superblock when even New York City Economic Development Corporation President Andrew Alper--a booster of the Atlantic Yards project--recently acknowledged the WTC design defects, as if it were settled wisdom: "Of course the huge footprint, the superblock, divided Lower Manhattan and hurt the streetscape."

As noted, Ouroussoff did not mention Atlantic Yards as an example. His reference to Jacobs's ability to look at the city fresh might be coupled with Paul Goldberger's reference to her disdain for disingenuousness. And that might lead Ouroussoff to question, if not Frank Gehry's plan, the developer behind it.

Cohn's take on Ouroussoff

Architect Jonathan Cohn commented that Ouroussoff has it wrong:
In today’s Times, Nicolai Ouroussoff looks for ways to criticize Jane Jacobs, largely by attacking the straw-man New Urbanists. It takes guts to write about the “beauty” of Los Angeles caused by the freeways, and to idealize the former World Trade Center plaza. But to suggest that SoHo is really just the same as the superblock misses the concept of how scale matters. And to criticize Ms. Jacobs because “she could not see that the same freeway that isolated her beloved, working-class North End from downtown Boston also protected it from gentrification” is a pretty strange defense of the Robert Moses mindset. Looking for beneficial unintended consequences of this bad idea is like pointing out that the redeeming quality of bad schools is that their students won’t have to worry about paying higher income taxes if/when they get jobs.

Kunstler and others

Author and critic James Howard Kunstler (The Geography of Nowhere) called Ouroussoff's essay a "load of vicious and stupid fashionista crap." His point:
In dissing Jacobs, Ouroussoff invokes the memory of the World Trade Center as a "welcome contrast in scale" to the rest of Manhattan. Similarly," he writes, "the shimmering glass towers that frame lower Park Avenue are awe-inspiring precisely because they offer a sharp contrast to the quiet tree-lined streets of the Upper East Side." Pure bullshit. The twin tower buildings themselves were boring, grandiose death-traps, and the plaza between them was for thirty years a sterile wasteland of shearing winds, avoided even by winos, an object lesson in the failures of Modernist public space design.
These buildings, and the voids of empty space they entailed, were suited to exactly the culture of myrmidons we became in the late 20th century, which is to say of enterprises such as the New York Times. Jane Jacobs knew better than that, and she said it powerfully.

Author David Sucher (City Comforts) dismissed the Times piece:
(Ourousoff's article today is so pathetic and filled with inaccuracies that I will not spend my valuable time on earth addressing it.)

The Gutter praised Ouroussoff, generating a furious response.

Rereading Ouroussoff

In his 7/5/05 assessment of the Atlantic Yards plan (Seeking First to Reinvent the Sports Arena, and Then Brooklyn), Ouroussoff wrote:
Frank Gehry's new design for a 21-acre corridor of high-rise towers anchored by the 19,000-seat Nets arena in Brooklyn may be the most important urban development plan proposed in New York City in decades. If it is approved, it will radically alter the Brooklyn skyline, reaffirming the borough's emergence as a legitimate cultural rival to Manhattan.
More significant, however, Mr. Gehry's towering composition of clashing, undulating forms is an intriguing attempt to overturn a half-century's worth of failed urban planning ideas. What is unfolding is an urban model of remarkable richness and texture, one that could begin to inject energy into the bloodless formulas that are slowly draining our cities of their vitality. It is a stark contrast to the proposed development of the West Side of Manhattan, where the abandoned Jets stadium was only the most visible aspect of what seemed doomed to become another urban wasteland.
From the dehumanizing Modernist superblocks of the 1960's to the cloying artificiality of postmodern visions like Battery Park City, architects have labored to come up with a formula for large-scale housing development that is not cold, sterile and lifeless. Mostly, they have failed.
There are those -- especially acolytes of the urbanist Jane Jacobs -- who will complain about the development's humongous size. But cities attain their beauty from their mix of scales; one could see the development's thrusting forms as a representation of Brooklyn's cultural flowering.

There was no acknowledgement of zoning and the appropriate scale for this project. Yes, he's right that a mix of scales could be welcome. But who gets to decide the appropriate scale? (Graphic of earlier version of plan from 7/5/05 New York Times, with addenda by

Responding to Ouroussoff

In a 7/11/05 letter to the editor, noted sociologist Nathan Glazer wrote:
Nicolai Ouroussoff is engaged in a misguided war with Jane Jacobs: there is no ''quaintness'' in the ''Jane Jacobs-inspired vision of New York.'' She examines what makes cities attractive, livable, desirable, humane and productive.
Mr. Ouroussoff is revealing a taste for the huge and grotesque, and for projects that will certainly add to the unlivability quotient, even in New York City. A crowd of 37- to-47-story residential towers is proposed to replace an area of 3- to-6-story buildings built up over the years.
The towers are not improved by the architect Frank Gehry's outlandish notion of slanting them so they look as if they are ready to tip over, which I assume is what attracts Mr. Ouroussoff. Ms. Jacobs was attacking ''catastrophic'' development, the erasing of history and complexity by master conceptions, the obliteration of the multifarious city at one blow by a massive single use.
The situation is only made worse by the necessity to take private property by eminent domain, while getting state and city subsidies, too.

Other slaps at Jacobs

Glazer's letter also cited a 6/28/05 Ouroussoff essay (Making the Brutal F.D.R. Unsentimentally Humane); in it, the critic addressed the master plan for an East River esplanade:
Even so the idea is to create a seamless, contemplative environment along the waterfront that embraces both the fine-grained scale of the surrounding communities and the monumental scale of the freeway. In doing so, the architects shrug off the conflict between Modernists and historicists that absurdly still defines so many urban planning debates in New York.
That schism dates from the 1960's, when the activist Jane Jacobs challenged Moses' megalomaniacal plans, but it has little relevance today. For architects like Mr. Pasquarelli, the suburban promise embodied in Moses' freeway and park projects represent, for better or worse, a part of our collective memory. Their task, as they see it, is to salvage the corners of unexpected beauty from those childhood landscapes and give them new meaning. It is an approach that is far more relevant to contemporary life than Jacobs's -- and every bit as humane.

In a 5/26/05 essay about the Landmarks Commission's scaleback of an expansion plan for the Whitney Museum of American Art (Commission Preserves the Past at the Cost of the Future), Ouroussoff wrote:
Essentially, for the sake of preserving a humdrum brownstone facade on Madison Avenue, the commission embraced a substitute design for the museum that transforms a generously proportioned public entrance into a more confining experience.
We no longer live in the 1960's. There is no Robert Moses, with the power to bulldoze entire neighborhoods in the name of urban progress. Jane Jacobs, the activist who took him on, now lives in Toronto. The old tradition-vs.-Modernism battles are irrelevant. On the contrary, many Modernist buildings are now landmarks worthy of preservation.

Ouroussoff's worth listening to, and arguing with. But when it comes to the Atlantic Yards project, you have to wonder how much time he's spent walking around Brooklyn, and how much he's studied the project beyond Gehry's drawings.

What would Jane Jacobs say? Disingenuousness & Atlantic Yards

On the Brian Lehrer Show last Wednesday on WNYC radio, architecture critics Paul Goldberger (of the New Yorker) and Martin Filler (House and Garden and the New York Review of Books) discussed the legacy of the recently-deceased urbanist Jane Jacobs.

At about 23:55 of the segment, a caller brought up the Atlantic Yards project. Filler concluded that Jacobs most likely would've disliked the project and Goldberger also leaned in that direction, though with more caveats. I think both would have been more confident in Jacobs's likely opposition had they understood more about the project and had considered Jacobs's likely reaction to past Forest City Ratner projects. I'll examine that below, following the transcript.


Rose in Brooklyn: I would like to talk about Brooklyn, about Atlantic Yards, because it seems to me that Jane Jacobs’ legacy is really being trashed in Brooklyn. I’ve read about suburban communities who are now trying to develop like cities, with organic neighborhoods, with people walking. And in Atlantic Yards, what would happen, if the development went up as planned, is that neighborhoods would be separated from each other and they would not be able to cross through there, it would be totally this enclave that was kind of plunked down in the middle of everything, so that Fort Greene would be cut off from Prospect Heights, both of them would be cut off from Boerum Hill and Park Slope, and it would be totally inorganic and just totally foreign. (Current site footprint above right.)

Brian Lehrer: Paul, do you know if Jane Jacobs actually commented on that program before she died-- (Current site plan at right, from the Empire State Development Corporation's Final Scope.)

Paul Goldberger: I do not know. It would be fascinating to know about that, actually. Obviously, one would assume that she would not have been enthusiastic about it. On the other hand, she also had a fascinating way of sometimes confounding all of us by looking at things freshly. One thing that I know Jane Jacobs did not like and was rather impatient with was the kind of reflexive formulaic application of her ideas. She and I once talked about that whole trend of replacement of huge suburban covered shopping malls with these sort of new pseudo-village places, with fake streets that also pretend to be little ersatz villages. Which one might think of as a way in which some of her ideas have actually percolated into the commercial mainstream and, indeed, they were that. But she was rightly offended by the fakery of it, by the pretense, and the utter disingenuousness of it.

I think disingenuousness in urban planning and urban design offended her most of all. And whether she would’ve felt that Brooklyn was another example of disingenuousness raised to a high scale, or something that had a sort of an inherent quality of its own that she might have respected would’ve been very interesting to know, actually, and I don’t know that she ever spoke out on it. (Previous site plan at right, from the ESDC's Draft Scope.)

Brian Lehrer: Even though, Martin, it’s a bunch of high-rises down there and it cuts off neighborhoods in the way that Rose says, it is mixed use in a certain sense, because--

Martin Filler: --‘Even though.’ I love the way she started--

Brian Lehrer: -- it’s an arena and residential development for various income levels, as well as the office towers and commercial space. Could it have been something she would be drawn to, on that basis?

Martin Filler: I really, really seriously doubt it, an arena. I think the neighborhoods—the overlapping areas that the Atlantic Yards project comprises is a textbook example of that kind of pregentrified New York of old. Yes, there are parts that include some very expensive townhouses--even that part of Brooklyn has not been immune from the insane rise of real estate values, residential real estate values, particularly in New York. (Photo of Freddie's bar at Sixth Avenue and Dean Street.)

But what is appalling about the scheme is the fact that I think that the city has kind of rolled over and played dead on the kind of redlining, as it were, of what gets to stay and what gets to go. And I did not see sufficient attention being paid to the low-income residents of the neighborhood and, furthermore, even if you find them another place to live, it doesn’t have that wonderful energizing sense of mixtures of people of diverse incomes living in close proximity.

What Jacobs might have thought

I'd speculate that Jacobs, like some Brooklynites, would approach Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards project with some ingrained skepticism, based on the developer's much-criticized architecture and urban design at MetroTech, the Atlantic Center mall, and the Atlantic Terminal mall. (Photo at right of MetroTech on a Saturday afternoon, by Brian Carreira for the Brooklyn Rail.)

She might have worried that the project would create a superblock, with the closing of Pacific Street between Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues. She might not have been as conclusory as the WNYC caller about how the project cuts off neighborhoods--project proponents point out that the sunken railyard also cuts off neighborhoods, which is why development of some sort makes sense.

But she probably would've looked closely at the new planning principle added to the Final Scope, possibly a response to alternative plans that would have continued the street grid from Fort Greene: "Creation of visual and pedestrian corridors from Fort Greene going south into and through the proposed project’s open space and connecting surrounding neighborhoods." However, visual and pedestrian corridors do not a street grid make, and the map above from the Final Scope does not seem that different from the plan in the Draft Scope, except for some changes in the east side of the project.

As for disingenuousness, Jacobs might have been concerned about the developer's deceptions regarding the Atlantic Yards project as well as jobs at the Atlantic Center mall. And surely she would've been concerned about the design at Atlantic Center (right), which violates her precepts about encouraging street life by setting up barriers to entry by residents of subsidized housing adjacent to the mall. That's not to say that Forest City Ratner hasn't learned from past mistakes; it's just that they can't be ignored.

Would Atlantic Yards truly be a mixed-use project? Jacobs might simply have consulted the 11/6/05 New York Times, which, examining the changes in jobs and housing, called the project essentially a large residential development with an arena and a relatively small amount of office and retail space attached to it.


Critic Filler, I believe, was fuzzy in describing the area of the Atlantic Yards project as pregentrified. The neighborhoods around the project have gentrified significantly, though there is a significant component of subsidized housing, from row houses to high-rises, north of the project border within the Atlantic Terminal Urban Renewal Area (ATURA).

The footprint itself contains a mix of buildings in various stages from renovation to disrepair, as well as railyards that were never development, so only part of it could be called pregentrified. (See Forgotten NY for the range.) I suspect Jacobs would wonder why former industrial buildings recently renovated into housing, such as the Spalding factory at right, would be sacrified for high-rise development. The response would be that new construction would bring more density and more affordable housing.

Indeed, Filler's question of whether "sufficient attention [is] being paid to the low-income residents of the neighborhood" is a complex one. The several dozen rent-stabilized tenants currently in the footprint could ultimately move back into the project after vacating their buildings; however, their transitional rent would only be subsidized for three years, and they'd have to desist from any criticism of the project.

Jacobs, I think, would question the scale of the project--significantly discontinuous with most of its surroundings--and wonder whether the scale was driven by the need to include both affordable housing (2250 units) for political support and market-rate housing (4610 units) to generate sufficient profit. Project supporters contrast Atlantic Yards with market-rate towers in Downtown Brooklyn that include no affordable housing. The absence of affordable housing is hardly defensible, but the scale of those buildings was negotiated publicly as part of a rezoning.

Affordable housing

For Atlantic Yards, the affordable housing component was negotiated by the developer and ACORN, rather than any public representatives, and the scale of the project is up to the unelected Empire State Development Corporation rather than an elected city body. So Jacobs, I think, would want more public discussion of the scale, via efforts like the mock-up (above) by OnNYTurf.

Also, Filler's comment could be examined in terms of the project's potential effect on not merely on affordable housing in the project footprint, but on displacement via rising rents in the surrounding areas.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Traffic engineer Ketcham: DEIS will be "another massive cover-up" of traffic issue

So, it wasn't just the bloggers who offered tough criticism of the Final Scope for an environmental impact statement for the Atlantic Yards project. Brian Ketcham, the traffic engineer who heads Community Consulting Services, warns that "archaic" methods and resistance to community input show that the upcoming Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) "will be another massive cover-up of the issue that most affects surrounding neighborhoods: traffic."

Ketcham spoke Thursday night at a forum in Brooklyn Heights and also handed out documents, including a tough statement criticizing the Final Scope, which was issued by the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC).

In his statement, Ketcham said:
By choosing to hide behind the archaic, simplistic City environmental practice of only analyzing isolated intersections near the site, the DEIS will ignore the spillback that causes traffic back-ups the length of Fourth Avenue, Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues.

Ignoring the East River crossings

ESDC continues to offer a strikingly narrow claim, as I noted: that that "the study area was developed to account for the principal travel corridors to/from the site and is bounded on the north by Tillary Street/Park Avenue, on the south by Eastern Parkway/Union Street, on the east by Grand Avenue, and on the west by Hicks Street." (Emphasis added)

Ketcham continued:
By not even looking at the effects on the BQE, the DEIS will ignore what we all know, that when traffic is crawling on the BQE, the overflow is flooding local streets.
By omitting the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges altogether, the DEIS will ignore these traffic chokepoints.
By leaving out major approach roads like Third, Sixth, and Seven Avenues, Schermerhorn, Lafayette, Ashland, Vanderbilt, and dozens of side-streets, like Pacific, State and Dean, the DEIS will ignore impacts on the real world bypass routes that Forest City Ratner's own consultant, Gridlock Sam, advises drivers to take to avoid congestion.

"[F]or all the talk about 'community benefits,' FCR and ESDC intend to ignore the public in the environmental review," Ketcham added, noting that all three community boards--CB2, CB6, and CB8--all called for more modern traffic modeling. He called for the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods (CBN)to be equipped with the tools and expertise to test the impact of Atlantic Yards on all affected streets, highways, and transit.

"It is entirely inadequate for the scope of the DEIS to get away with a one-liner for subway service demand," he wrote, because it's still unclear what measures would be used--and the choice of measuring tool affects the analysis.

The DEIS is due by early June. After that, there will be at least 45 days for the community to comment, and for the state agency to hold a public hearing. Project critics hope for a much longer period to gain technical assistance to respond to the document.

More delays coming

Ketcham, who last year said that the enormous scope of development in and around Downtown Brooklyn was cause for a pause in the Atlantic Yards plan, also distributed ominous results from a recently completed traffic model.

The average travel speed in Downtown Brooklyn last year was 6 mph. Given the development planned for the area in the next few years, his estimate for 2012 was 4 mph. And, after the full buildout of Atlantic Yards by 2016, speed would go down to 2 mph.

Total travel time (hours) would increase 75% in 2012 from the 2005 baseline, and 345% by 2016. Emissions of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, and volatile organic chemicals would go up about 63% by 2012, and about 275% by 2016.

Parsing Hakeem Jeffries' views on Atlantic Yards

Attorney Hakeem Jeffries (right), who had previously challenged incumbent Roger Green for the 57th District State Assembly seat, has announced his candidacy for the seat he is vacating, setting up a race against Bill Batson.

Batson unequivocally opposes the Atlantic Yards project. Jeffries, according to a report Thursday in the Brooklyn Downtown Star headlined Jeffries Concerned About, But Not Opposed To, Yards, has more nuanced view. And a closer look at his statements suggests that his fence-sitting could easily migrate to support--especially given the clearer sentiments expressed in an article in the Courier-Life chain.

The Downtown Star reported:
Indeed, Jeffries' rhetoric when discussing the big local controversy was quite elevated. "I'm trying to raise the level of discourse," he told the Star afterwards. "It's important that we all come together. This issue has been threatening to divide people in the district along race and class lines."
Batson has made his opposition to the Yards project clear, while Jeffries is still hedging his bets. He said he would not have supported the $100 million allocation for the project within this year's state budget, only because, "I haven't seen anything comprehensive yet. Bringing in 15,000 people into a community [Prospect Heights] that has only 19,000 already...I need to know how that's going to affect police, fire, sanitation, schools, all kinds of services. I have strong questions."

Strong questions? Andrew Zimbalist wrote a report for Forest City Ratner, claiming that incremental costs for police protection would be "negligible," while the Independent Budget Office disagreed. Does Jeffries need to wait for the Empire State Development Corporation's Draft Environmental Impact Statement to have qualms about Ratner's position on this? (Apparently, he does. See below.)

The Downtown Star continued:
Two of his strongest concerns, in relation to the massive development proposal, are the threatened use of eminent domain and the already signed community benefits agreement (CBA). He said he would oppose eminent domain "unless there was a clearly defined public benefit."

Clearly defined public benefit? Again, has Jeffries tried to analyze Forest City Ratner's dubious claims of $6 billion in revenue, which are hardly embraced by others in urban planning?

The Downtown Star article stated:
As for the CBA, he used the phrase, "mend it don't end it," to describe his attitude. "We need to make sure the jobs provision and the loans consortium provision is enforceable. Based on my experience as an attorney, looking at the current language, I'm troubled by it. I think we need to sit down with the developer and tighten it up."

Well, there's a difference between rewriting a contract to make it enforceable and questioning the premises of the contract. Does Jeffries think the eight signatories--only two of which were incorporated at the time--represent the community?

Clearer in the Courier-Life

In the Courier-Life article, Jeffries suggested he would offer his support after a some compromises:
There has been progress made by the developer and I am very encouraged by the affordable housing component of the project, but there are some additional steps that need to be taken by the developer before I’m prepared to come on board and support the project,” said Jeffries.
Jeffries said there is a complex set of problems that the community faces when thinking about Atlantic Yards, including affordable housing and the massive unemployment among men of color between the ages of 18-35.
“You don’t just tackle these complex set of problems by saying, ‘yes you should build, or no, under no circumstances, should the developer (FCRC) or anyone else,” said Jeffries.
“There is a stridency that come from comments on both sides of this fight and what the community needs to do is find a principled approach for development to move forward that addresses the concerns of the critics in a meaningful way, but at the same time helps to resolve some of the complex social ills that exist in central Brooklyn,” he added.

Does a principled approach involve distortions and lies?

He continued, according to the Courier-Life:
“The developer and the state need to make clear how a neighborhood can absorb a massive infusion of people without creating a serious strain on delivery of public education, fire and police protection, transportation, sanitation and traffic. The hope is the DEIS [Draft Environmental Impact Statement] will address it in a meaningful way,” he said.

Apparently Jeffries hasn't been listening to Brian Ketcham.

Public benefit?

Jeffries made some very curious comments to the Courier-Life about eminent domain and public benefits:
Jeffries said a second concern is the issue of eminent domain utilized by a private developer under circumstances where the benefits of the public are not clearly defined.
“My understanding here is the public benefit in the revenue generated by the sports arena. To me the public benefit is far clearer in the affordable housing component, and that there are people in public housing who do not have access to jobs,” he said.
Jeffries said he is far more bullish on the housing component than the arena, in which he still wants to examine the tax dollars spent to build it and the jobs it purports to give to the community.
The arena, though, may be needed as a practical matter so the developer can make enough money to support the affordable housing, he said.
“If it’s necessary to create the jobs and housing, then I think we have to take a hard look at the arena,” said Jeffries.

While the direct subsidies would mainly go to infrastructure at least connected with the arena component, the long-term public subsidies would go to the project as a whole. According to the Independent Budget Office, the arena is very modest economic plus--though the IBO's figures have been disputed. Forest City Ratner, however, claims that the public benefit would be enormous new tax revenues.

The arena would not be the profit center for Ratner to create jobs and housing; the profits come from the market-rate housing, built at a scale in excess of what city zoning would allow.

And if the public benefit is in the affordable housing, why was that public benefit negotiated by ACORN and the developer, rather than hashed out--say, as in the Greenpoint-Williamsburg rezoning--by elected representatives?

Some interesting support

Jeffries has gained the support of some critical of the Atlantic Yards project, including the Reverend Clinton Miller of Brown Memorial Baptist Church, and Eric Adams, candidate for the neighboring 20th senatorial district. But as the New York Observer's Politicker blog reported, there was another supporter in the audience at the launch of Jeffries' candidacy: Dan Klores Communications employee and Forest City Ratner spokeswoman, Lupe Todd, a friend of Mr. Jeffries' who worked on his 2002 race for the 57th district, prior to working for DKC."
When reached at her office, Ms. Todd had no comment.
Activists opposed to the Atlantic Yards project are dismayed at the connection between Ms. Todd and Mr. Jeffries. Daniel Goldstein, activist resident of the 57th district and supporter of Jeffries' opponent, Bill Batson, emails over: "The community and district need advocates it can trust. Mr. Jeffries' campaign's association with Ms. Todd, one of Bruce Ratner's 'Atlantic Yards' PR reps and lobbyists, is troubling. It raises serious questions about the infusion of private, billionaire interests into Mr. Jeffries' assembly race."

Going too far?

Jeffries followed up to point out the presence of Miller and Adams, as well. Goldstein's quote generated some fierce debate on the blog message board. Was it going too far? As a private citizen, Todd is allowed to do what she wants--and she has attended public meetings held by Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn claiming that she was there just as a concerned citizen.

On the other hand, former Democratic Mayoral candidate Freddy Ferrer said he thought the Bloomberg campaign had a hand in the disruption of a campaign event, and Forest City Ratner representatives were there as well. So these things can blur. Will Todd be visible at other events? How much will Forest City Ratner representatives contribute to Jeffries' campaign?

Can either affect Atlantic Yards?

One poster on the Politicker wrote:
Anyone making the case that this is a race about Atlantic Yards will first have to demonstrate that the election of Bill Batson will actually be able to stop what is an already runaway approval process. The incoming 57th Assembly member will have no vote on this project. The PACB will vote on this project long before either of these guys gets into office. And it would be foolish to believe that after so much backroom bargaining, Shelly Silver will simply defer to the wishes of the Assembly member. If Pataki-Bruno-Silver needed Roger's vote, they wouldn't have cut him loose to run for Congress.
If anything radically changes this project, it will be a lawsuit, which, if successful, may force the community and the developer to come to negociate a "principled compromise." If we came to that point, I don't think we'd find that Jeffries's and Batson's views were very far apart.

Indeed, when I wrote in March that Batson's candidacy could stop the Atlantic Yards plan, that was before the state legislature and Governor Pataki agreed to support $100 million for the project. As for the Public Authorities Control Board, it's not clear whether they will vote before the election--that could be delayed by lawsuits.

Yes, a lawsuit may force a "principled compromise." Would the views of Jeffries and Batson be similar on the scale and design of the project, and on eminent domain? It's too soon to tell. Maybe we'll learn in the eventual debates.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

The Times finally corrects the "Downtown Brooklyn" errors

From the Corrections box in today's New York Times:
Because of an editing error, an article in The Arts on Tuesday about Frank Gehry's design for the first phase of the Grand Avenue development project in Los Angeles misstated the location of the proposed Atlantic Yards project that Mr. Gehry is designing in Brooklyn. (The error also appeared in sports articles on Feb. 9 and April 11, in the City section on Jan. 15 and in several articles in 2003, 2004 and 2005.) It is on rail yards and other land in Prospect Heights and on a block in Park Slope; it is not in Downtown Brooklyn, although it is near that neighborhood.

This is a welcome, if belated, correction, since it was pointed out in my 9/1/05 report and on several occasions since then, including an article Tuesday and a post pointing out that the "rowback" in the Metro section--a correct location without a correction being published--has not led to accuracy in other sections.

Interestingly, the correction appeared under the rubric "For the record," where the Times publishes its more technical corrections, leaving the "Corrections" rubric for topics of greater importance. Given Forest City Ratner's continued use of the term "Downtown Brooklyn" as part of its goal to build at a scale discontinuous with the surrounding blocks, a correction explaining the political import of the terminology would've been helpful.

Has the Times appended the correction to past coverage? A Lexis-Nexis search showed four corrections appended to articles from 2006 and 11 corrections appended to articles from the previous three years. However, there were no corrections appended to 14 articles in the Sports section in 2003.

Addendum: Read carefully, the correction actually goes too far. The Park Slope component of the project, known as Site 5 (current home of Modell's/P.C. Richard) was not publicly described as part of the Atlantic Yards project until May 2005, though a Memorandum of Understanding regarding the site was signed in February 2005. Thus a correction appended to a 2004 article, for example, would be inexact, since Site 5 was not yet part of the plan.

Atlantic Yards out of place in "New Downtowns" discussion

Last Friday, 4/21/06, I attended “The New Downtowns: A Conference on the Future of Urban Centers,” sponsored by the Policy Institute for the Region at Princeton University. While the panels focused on Lower Manhattan and Philadelphia—and to a lesser extent Newark and other New Jersey cities—it was striking how, viewed through a Brooklyn-centric lens, the Atlantic Yards project seems out of place in the discussion of lessons learned and best practices.

While the mostly-residential Atlantic Yards has been promoted by the developer as an economic development engine (because of the dubious theory of increased income tax revenues), the development of residential over commercial space was hardly heralded in the same manner. (Graphic of earlier version of plan from 7/5/05 New York Times, with addenda by

While there was no planning for the Atlantic Yards site and there has been little public process, panelists cited the value of neutral planners and the importance of public participation.

While Atlantic Yards would be a single-source project announced as a fait accompli, panelists stressed the importance of a level playing field and an open competition for sites.

While Atlantic Yards would close streets to create a superblock and otherwise violate some precepts advocated by urbanist Jane Jacobs (RIP), a panelist from the Bloomberg administration presented Jacobs’s insights as enduringly valuable. (Indeed, there was no example in the panels of a major rezoning--or in the case of Atlantic Yards, a state override of city zoning--to stimulate a much more dense development.)

Live. Work? Play.

First, Downtown Brooklyn—and Forest City Ratner's proposed extension via the Atlantic Yards project—may not qualify as a “new downtown,” because its development, as of now, is skewed toward residential space. Moreover, part of the proposed footprint is a long-neglected segment of an "old" redevelopment effort, the 1960s-era Atlantic Terminal Urban Renewal Area (ATURA).

A “new downtown,” according to a definition presented by Eugenie Birch, of the Penn Institute for Urban Research of the University of Pennsylvania, is a central business district and its surrounds that has experienced reinvention as a well-populated, mixed-use center suitable for living, working, and playing. It has low vacancy rates and high usage of its infrastructure and amenities. Its tax revenues soar and its household growth rates surpass its city’s. It is an icon of urban resilience and renaissance. Its reach extends beyond the traditional central business district into nearby neighborhoods… [It] has new residential, entertainment, cultural, and recreational activities and has refashioned its retail and office employment.

This would apply only partly to Brooklyn. Notably, even though Downtown Brooklyn has been rezoned to accommodate new office construction, developers have been building residential towers rather than office space. In planning to turn Prospect Heights into Downtown Brooklyn with the Atlantic Yards project, Forest City Ratner originally promoted a mix of residential, office, and recreational uses. Though the “Live. Work. Play.” slogan was promoted heavily by FCR in the early stages of public discussion, the new web site drops that formulation, likely because FCR recognizes that it’s hard to promote “Work” when the number of promised office jobs has been slashed from 10,000 to 2500. (Graphic is of new projects at Gold Street.)

Panelist Paul Levy, president and CEO, Philadelphia Center City District, noted that 60 percent of downtown Philadelphia residents work downtown, and 37 percent walk to work. “We are reclaiming people who live in the suburbs,” he said, adding that new residents also cited the ability to walk to arts facilities and other amenities. In Brooklyn, most of those moving downtown or to the Atlantic Yards project likely would take the subway to Manhattan for work.

Elizabeth Strom, a geography professor at the University of South Florida, observed that, for generations, urban density was determined by constraints caused by transportation, communication, technology, and safety. After the decline of downtowns, and the departure of former mainstays like banks, insurance companies, and department stores, the new downtown was coaxed by public and philanthropic dollars, not the market.

Now downtown development corporations are dominated by real estate concerns, along with can’t-leave-the-city institutions in health care and higher education. The “new downtown,” Strom observed, is about culture, entertainment, restaurants, and residences. “It’s just not economically important the way it used to be.”

Why the new Downtown?

Economist Richard Voith, VP of Philadelphia-based Econsult Corporation, and a panel of respondents offered several reasons for the decline of downtown, and its revival. (Voith's paper is here.) Suburbanization and the automobile fueled the post-war decline of central cities. Burdened by higher social and service costs, faced with a lack of federal investment, cities lost power regionally and nationally. Cities became notorious for crime and underperforming schools. Beyond that, telecommunication advances were thought to have eliminated the need for face to face contacts.

However, downtowns bounced back in the 1980s. Post-college youth always move to cities and, because they got married and had kids later, were more likely to stay. Baby boomers downsized from the suburbs and moved back for urban amenities. Costs in the suburbs increased, and many recognized the implicit costs of commuting times. Cities made changes, such as offering tax incentives and creating Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) to foster residential construction and amenities. New mayors focused on fighting crime and improving schools.

Observed Levy: “I don’t think we’re restoring the CBD [Central Business District] of 1910 but the downtown of 1850 that was a live-work environment, that has never ceased to exist in Europe.” The residential use was squeezed out in the 1890s, as cities boomed, but the transit network makes urban life attractive.

Levy noted that deliberate federal policies undermined cities. “From 1934 to 1968, every American city was redlined by the FHA [Federal Housing Administration],” he said, adding that gas price subsidies and highway spending also fostered suburbanization. “Maybe we can consider the investments in downtowns as reparations payments.”

Jobs crucial

“We have to remember that the downtown holds jobs,” Birch said. “Downtown jobs are extremely important for supporting the neighborhoods.” And the questions was also addressed by Andrew Alper, president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation (right), the keynote speaker at lunch.

Is there too much residential in a business district, Alper asked rhetorically, as he discussed the transformation of Lower Manhattan. “My response, based on my [University of] Chicago free market training, is we should let the market work,” he said, though he allowed that “sometimes the market needs a push.”

Asked about the emphasis in Downtown Brooklyn on residential construction, Alper said that the area remains “natural back office space” for Manhattan companies that need to diversify their locations. “Until recently, there’s been excess space in Lower Manhattan,” he said, perhaps overselling the amount of space that’s been filled at the World Trade Center. “I think you’ll see that change.” Perhaps that’s why Forest City Ratner is retaining an alternative plan that would restore most of the slashed commercial space.

Alper cited the construction of the office tower at (Forest City Ratner’s) Atlantic Terminal mall for the Bank of New York as the “best example” of the Downtown Brooklyn strategy. (The mall is north of Atlantic Avenue, and near the southeast boundary of the Downtown Brooklyn. The Atlantic Yards project would be further southeast.) After 9/11, the Bank of New York was “almost completely knocked off line,” he said. Given that the bank’s other option was to leave the city (presumably for Jersey City and a new tax jurisdiction), “We put together an incentive package to build a new building at Atlantic Terminal.”

In this case, thanks to $90.8 million in Liberty Bonds, the market was given a push. (Voith in his paper criticized "the prevalent pay to play culture of ad hoc incentives;" while that may not apply to the special case of a business that almost closed in Lower Manhattan, Forest City Ratner has relied on ad hoc incentives for its other developments.)

Brooklyn’s competition for back office space is Jersey City, which buttresses a point made by panelist Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at New York University. “There’s a view that cities are competing with suburbs. I think cities are competing with other cities. Providence has revived because of the costs in Boston.”

Economic boost?

So, is housing downtown a boost? “Some people are concerned that you have too much residential,” Voith said. In Philadelphia, at least, increasing residential conversion has not depleted commercial space. (Neither has it done so in Miami, where residential growth is adjacent to the location of business space, but in Downtown Brooklyn and at the Atlantic Yards site, there have been tradeoffs of commercial space for residential space.) Moreover, he observed, the fiscal impact of residential development is “probably beneficial,” as Philadelphia relies on a wage tax—and many of the people paying wage taxes don’t have kids to increase school costs.

Then again, one respondent suggested, if retirees move in, they won’t be paying wage taxes. Nobody mentioned residential development as a possible spur to increased state income taxes, as in the Atlantic Yards plan, even though Pennsylvania has an income tax.

Clearly, commercial development was seen as a bigger bang. “Downtown is the local engine for redistribution,” observed Levy. “For every million square feet of office space, we can put 372 police officers on the street.” Notice that he didn’t tout market-rate residential space.

In New York, commented Alper, “You’re better off having commercial than residential” for tax receipts, citing the role of 421-A abatements in lowering property taxes. While Alper did say that real estate transfer taxes had offered a current boost to the local economy boom, he didn't argue that adding high-end housing would provide economic development through increased income taxes. (Then again, his agency did issue such an analysis, curiously without any acknowledgement of costs.)

Carl Weisbrod, former president of the Alliance for Downtown New York and current president of the Real Estate Division for Trinity Church, offered a cautionary note. While the business community in Lower Manhattan supported a transition from a 9-to-5 business neighborhood to a 24/7 mixed-use community, “I don’t think the business community recognized the conflicts.” He cited competition for land and development sites, as well as the loss of commercial tenants priced out of the neighborhood after their aging office buildings were converted to residential space.

Public process

It’s already been acknowledged that there was no plan for the railyard in the Atlantic Yards footprint, nor any rezoning to stimulate construction or redevelopment along Pacific Street. And, despite Forest City Ratner’s claims, the public process has been very limited; moreover, the railyard was put out for bid 18 months after the project was announced. (Map from OnNYTurf.)

Planner and architect Barbara Faga, chair of the consultancy EDAW, described five steps for building a new downtown: establish vision, build support, determine funding, early design, implementation. “Every step of this has to have a public process involved,” she said. Such a full public process has been absent in Brooklyn.

George Hawkins, executive director, New Jersey Future, pointed out that an organized citizens’ group can often stop or slow a project often not because of its content, but because of a flawed process. “I want to emphasize the importance of public participation,” he said.

In her paper, planning professor Birch observed, "The tradition of employing neutral, urban advisors drawn from academia or private practice in plotting the course of downtowns is an important and longstanding phenomenon."

Regarding Atlantic Yards, the possibility of a lawsuit over either the ESDC’s environmental review process, or the taking of private property via eminent domain, could slow or stop the process.

Architect Jonathan Cohn, in his Brooklyn Views blog, recently commented on the distinction between the public hearing held last October by the Empire State Development Corporation and a true ventilation of the issues raised by the project: Again, the discussion was supposed to be only about the scope of a study, which is quite different from a discussion about the project itself. A real discussion about the project would address the process, the financing, the schedule, and the idea of what this project means for Brooklyn.

Planning and Jane Jacobs

Speaking before Jacobs's passing, the NYCEDC’s Alper also stressed the importance of planning in the reconstruction of Lower Manhattan after 9/11. “We had an obligation to rebuild,” he said. “We had an opportunity to rebuild the right way.”

Lower Manhattan had been in decline, losing jobs, and the underground mall at the World Trade Center, though successful, hampered street-level retail. “Of course the huge footprint, the superblock, divided Lower Manhattan and hurt the streetscape,” he added. Note that the Bloomberg administration supports a superblock in the Atlantic Yards project, via the taking of Pacific Street on the eastern half of the footprint.

Alper pointed out that Lower Manhattan had not seen investments in transportation for 70 years, and lacked open space, schools, and other amenities. “It was essentially just office space. The streets rolled up at six every night,” he said, citing Jacobs’s 1961 observation, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities “that few downtowns had reached the degree of imbalance as in Lower Manhattan. We couldn’t agree more.”

Jacobs also talked about adaptive reuse of building--and so did Birch at the conference. Notably, four former commercial or industrial buildings in Prospect Heights have recently been converted to residential use, a hallmark of the creation of new downtowns. While one of those buildings, Newswalk, has been sliced out of the plan, the other three buildings--conversions that maintain the street fabric, like the former Spalding factory at 24 Sixth Avenue (right)--would be razed to build at a density that exceeds current zoning.

Not targeted at one developer

Alper said of Lower Manhattan, “We created a comprehensive plan that encourages multiple uses—the core of the mayor’s vision plan was a mixed-use, balanced community.” He cited significant investments made by the city and state, including open space such as a new East River Esplanade, transportation (a new PATH station and Fulton Street transit hub), and tax breaks to stimulate development.

The efforts contrast markedly to Alper’s testimony at the 5/4/04 City Council Economic Development Committee hearing, where he was asked: Are we doing this now because this has been brought to us, or are we doing this because we proactively looked and said, we think this is good for Downtown Brooklyn, and we think this is good for New York City? And depending on your answer, the second part of it is, how do you know it is a good deal, unless we know that there is somebody else out there?

Alper responded that the city was marketing itself, but added:
This particular project came to us…. The developer came to us with what we though was actually a very clever plan. It is not only bringing a sports team back to Brooklyn, but to do it in a way that provided dramatic economic development catalyst in terms of housing, retail, commercial jobs, construction jobs, permanent jobs. So, they came to us, we did not come to them. And it is not really up to us then to go out and find to try to a better deal. I think that would discourage developers from coming to us, if every time they came to us we went out and tried to shop their idea to somebody else. So we are actively shopping, but not for another sports arena franchise for Brooklyn.”

This suggests that the key to Forest City Ratner's strategy was leveraging a scarce commodity—a sports team and arena—for favorable terms regarding a less scarce commodity, the right to develop office and residential space. The developer gained a further advantage--not just development rights, but at a scale that overrides city zoning. At City Council, Alper turned it into a question just about sports.

How it should work

Alper described how the city is stimulating development in dozens of projects, ncluding 19 outside Manhattan. The city has made transportation improvements, streetscape improvements, rezoned city land, and put out RFPs for city properties. All of these were absent in the Atlantic Yards process or—rather—infrastructure improvements were promised to a favored developer.

David Thornburgh, former executive director of the Pennsylvania Economy League, pointed to two “x factors” regarding resurgent downtowns. First, he cited the importance of competitive transaction costs, such as permitting and site acquisition. Further, he said, that the political culture must be clean, not corrupt or “pay-to-play,” in which palms are greased. “Those cities with straight line cultures will do better in the long run.”

While there’s no evidence that economic development is pay-to-play, that certainly describes Brooklyn’s political culture regarding judgeships, and it should be noted that the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement involves the vice chairwoman of the Brooklyn Democratic Party. Moreover, the use of lobbying and strategic charitable donations, plus the support for “community” groups in the CBA process, suggests a culture that is hardly “straight line.”

What are the boundaries?

How draw the boundaries of a downtown? “There is no accepted definition,” Birch stated. “You have to ask the people for their opinions. Boundaries are moving outward.”

So, would the Atlantic Yards project constitute a new downtown? The proposed footprint—except for two relatively small parcels at the western edge—was not considered as part of the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning. The area of Prospect Heights proposed for the footprint has been a mix of industrial, commercial, and residential spaces.

Interestingly, in Brooklyn, major cultural institutions are not downtown but rather on the edge (the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the proposed Visual and Performing Arts Library) or a mile or so away in the Grand Army Plaza area (the Central Library, Prospect Park, and the Brooklyn Museum). That suggests that the construction of housing at the Atlantic Yards footprint might be even more valuable.

Affordable housing

One lurking issue in downtown redevelopment concerns the provision of affordable housing. Commented Vishaan Chakrabarti, VP, The Related Companies, which does much business in New York City: “I believe affordable housing should be mandated. I don’t think it will hurt the development. We will not fulfill the economic needs of the city without a diverse population.”

Chakrabarti, however, was not about to take aim at the city's much-criticized 421-A subsidy for market-rate housing. Rather, he suggested “the silver bullet” was that New York gives the federal government $18 billion more than it gets back. A legitimate point, but not at the exclusion of reforming subsidies that support luxury development.

Can affordable housing be mandated? Voith observed, “If you create an environment that delivers amenities people value, the prices rise well beyond construction costs.” (Indeed, that’s what’s happened in Brooklyn.) “You can mandate affordable housing—the effect is on the land price, not the developer.”

That suggests we should see the pro forma that lays out Forest City Ratner’s financial projections. And it also means that, had the city and MTA decided on an open public process to build housing, and affordable housing, over the Vanderbilt Yard, the issue could have been hashed out publicly rather than negotiated between FCR and ACORN.

Interestingly, Philadelphia has more flexibility than New York, given the numerous neighborhoods that have yet to revive. “In Philadelphia, we don’t have to worry about affordable housing,” Levy said, “because they’re moving the edge out, and we have a good transit system."

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Edifice Complex: reflections on Ratner and Gehry

Deyan Sudjic, the architecture critic for London's Observer newspaper, last year published The Edifice Complex: How the Rich and Powerful Shape the World. As the subtitle indicates, this is not an appreciation of decontextualized aesthetics but a world-historical tour of architecture in the service of leaders, democratic and demagogic, and the wealthy. If read through a Brooklyn-centric lens, it prompts some reflections about Bruce Ratner, Frank Gehry, and the Atlantic Yards project.

Telling the story of those who build it

Taking off from a picture of Saddam Hussein at the Mother of All Battles Mosque, Sudjic observes:
Architecture is about power. The powerful build because that is what the powerful do. On the most basic level, building creates jobs that are useful to keep a restless workforce quiet. But it also reflects well on the capability and decisiveness--and the determination--of the powerful. Above all, architecture is the means to tell a story about those who build it.

It seems that Forest City Ratner has discovered the role of architecture. FCR first build a series of projects involving designs that were ordinary or, like MetroTech, were derided. Then, in building the Times Tower with a high-profile media partner, the developer had to ramp up. An architect was chosen in a competition, and now FCR heralds Renzo Piano's building in full-page newspaper ads.

Sudjic comments generally on Piano's work for Fiat patriarch Gianni Agnelli:
It's not hard to see that Piano's genuine fascination with elegan mechanisms and high-performance materials represents a passion that would have aroused a sympathetic resposne in a tycoon who was equally passionate about speed in the form of fast boats and even faster cars. But however the buildings look, and whatever they are made of, as it has turned out, Piano has all along been designing structures that are in fact the embodiment of the most traditional of all architectural impulses. They speak of power, continuity, and memory.

The Atlantic Yards story

After the Times Tower--FCR's first foray into high-end architecture--came the even more ambitious (and controversial) Atlantic Yards project, and the hiring of Frank Gehry. So, capitalizing on the Times Tower and Atlantic Yards, Bruce Ratner can be seen not merely as a savvy developer who can maximize shareholder value. Ratner in the past has participated in cultural entities like the board of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, but now he has finally stepped up to create culturally notable buildings.

As Kurt Andersen wrote, in an 11/28/05 New York magazine article headlined Delirious New York, there was a political reason for involving Gehry (right, photo from Columbia University web site):
Ratner isn’t spending 15 percent extra on these new buildings simply because he wants to underwrite cool design. He understands that in Brooklyn, just as his quotas of apartments for poor people and construction jobs for women and minorities were ways of winning over key constituencies, hiring Gehry was politics by other means, sure to please the city’s BAM-loving chattering class. “The spirit of what you say,” Ratner agrees when I posit this theory, “is accurate.”

The limits of criticism

Part of what allows architects to succeed among the "chattering class" is a focus on aesthetics over politics. Sudjic also observes:
We are used to discussing architecture in terms of its relationship to art history, or as a reflection of technological change, or as an expression of social anthropology. We know how to categorize buildings by the shapes of their windows or the decorative detail of their column capitals. We understand them as the products of available materials and skills. What we are not so comfortable with is coming to grips with the wider political dimensions of buildings: why they exist, rather than how.

Indeed, in Chapter 14 of my report, I pointed out how New York Times critics Herbert Muschamp and Nicolai Ouroussoff (right) barely looked at Forest City Ratner's track record. They didn't plumb Ratner's reasons for engaging Gehry. Nor did they fully engage the question of scale, and how the oversize nature of the project might not be merely an expression of "cultural flowering" (in Ouroussoff's phrase), but also an attempt to build big enough to ensure a certain level of profit.

An "elusive sense of settled ease"

It's interesting that Gehry is trying to transform 19th-century Brooklyn, since Sudjic observes that the architect's important source of inspiration is modern Los Angeles (along with childhood memories):
With its seemingly random urban landscape of colliding shapes and odd juxtapositions, Gehry's architecture reflects the context in which it was born. When you are surrounded by freeways, giant advertising signs, and drive-in restaurants in the shape of giant bowler hats or hot dogs, there is not much point trying to create chaste, well-mannered buildings.

Now, interestingly enough, Gehry's working on a new L.A. downtown.

While Sudjic writes critically of many projects and buildings, he lauds Scotland's new Parliament building in Edinburgh, designed by Enric Miralles and Benedetta Tagliabue:
Walk around the foot of the Royal Mile, past the gates of Holyroodhouse Palace, and up toward Salisbury Crags, the volcanic cliff that looms over Edinburgh's Georgian terraces. It's a site of quite exceptional beauty and there, unwinding in front of you, is Miralles's parliament. It suggests an elusive sense of settled ease. It belongs to its surroundings.

Well, that's a high bar for any project, and some buildings, like Gehry's Guggenheim in Bilbao, have been lauded not for "settled ease" but for their modernist flash. Sudjic writes of the Bilbao museum (right):
His design was a sensation because it looking nothing like an art gallery--or, for that matter, not much like a piece of architecture, at least not as architecture had previously been understood. With its puckered titanium-skined roof, swooping and soaring through the bridges and embankments that line Bilbao's river, the Guggenheim was more like a train crash than a building, a homemade mutant version of the Sydney Opera House.
..Gehry had also succeeded in unleashing a wave of exhibitionistic architecture, motivated as much by materialistic as by cultural concerns.

It's hard to imagine that the Atlantic Yards project--planned at a major discontinuity from the surrounding scale--could achieve "settled ease." But "exhibitionist architecture"--at least in terms of the arena block--is more likely the goal. (Graphic of earlier version of plan from 7/5/05 New York Times, with addenda by

The politics and the fray

Sudjic notes that architects must engage the powerful:
Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, Rem Koolhaas and Renzo Piano, Wallace Harrison and Frank Gehry, are not free agents. Their work depends on their engagement with the political context of the world.

And, at the same time, a distance from the fray. Could we expect Gehry to comment that the Atlantic Yards project overrides city zoning? (Graphic from OnNYTurf.) Or that the achievement of affordable housing is partly dependent on an out-of-scale project? Or that it was achieved via a sweetheart deal, given that the MTA was negotiating with Ratner for 18 months before the Vanderbilt Yard was put out to bid?

Rather, we hear Gehry declaring himself to be a "do-gooder," just like his patron. However, their personal political proclivities, in the voting booth and in charitable endeavors, do not make this process transparent and democratic--or honest.

Regarding the advantages and disadvantages of a celebrity like Gehry, architect Jonathan Cohn observes:
While he is more likely to be successful in influencing the developer-provided project direction, he may also be less likely to listen to the ideas, input, and concerns of others. An architect with major commissions around the world may not have the time or interest to learn much about the unique site conditions of each one.

Indeed, can Gehry do Brooklyn and Los Angeles--and his host of other projects--justice at the same time?

The bottom line

Gehry's buildings can be stunning and his work admirable, but the Atlantic Yards project (arena block at right from shouldn't be analyzed separately from the larger context. It's disappointing that the architecture critics in New York have barely touched on the issue. Then again, they're often more concerned with art. Sudjic writes:
Architects have given up trying to persuade us that buildings have the power to make our lives better or worse. Of course architecture can do that, in the sense that leaking roofs make us wet and weather-tight ones keep us warm, but that is not what interests most architects. Perhaps that is why architects are now so keen to pose as artists, liberating themselves from the alibi of function.

For Gehry, one might speculate, there are several motivations. To design his first sports arena. To establish himself in New York, a city from which his work has long been absent, until the InterActive headquarters that is nearly finished. To "build a neighborhood from scratch in an urban setting," as he told the 12/11/03 New York Times (A Grand Plan in Brooklyn for the Nets' Arena Complex). To work on what he mistakenly called an "empty site."

But he's not motivated to design the entire project. Gehry has said that "Normally I would’ve brought in five other architects, but one of the requirements of this client is that I do it." Bruce Ratner, for whatever reasons--deadline pressure, consistency, the Gehry imprimatur on each building for sales purposes--wants Gehry to design the whole project, and Gehry complies.

Why? Perhaps because, as the book says, "the rich and powerful shape the world." Or perhaps, as Ratner (photo from New York Times Magazine, 6/26/05) told the Times Magazine last June, in response to a question about the acquisition of the New Jersey Nets, "Like so many things in life, it was just a matter of money."

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

"Downtown Brooklyn" error recurs--in the Times's Arts section

As I've written, the Metro section of the New York Times, whose staffers have apparently seen a memo regarding "factual pitfalls" in coverage of the Atlantic Yards project, describes the location of the proposed development as "near downtown Brooklyn."

The Sports section, however, has misdescribed it as "downtown Brooklyn," and the error recurred today, in the Arts section. An article headlined Los Angeles With a Downtown? Gehry's Vision contained this passage:
In complexity, he said, the multiuse project resembles the proposed Atlantic Yards development he is designing for downtown Brooklyn, which includes a corridor of high-rise towers and a new arena for the Nets basketball team.

This error is most likely attributable to balkanization. Given that the Metro section has changed the description without printing a correction, it's time for a printed correction to remind all staffers to be consistent.

Forest City Ratner's ad in the Times: home court advantage?

The weekly City Section in the 4/23/06 Times was devoted to the 75th anniversary of the Empire State Building. Most of the editorial content concerned the iconic skyscraper, and advertisers were obviously alerted, since several of the ads referenced the building.

And there, on the back page of the section, a full-page ad saluted the Empire State Building, with a swagger, "See you in the skyline, Big Guy." The advertiser: Forest City Ratner Companies. The building in the ad: the Times Tower scheduled to open next year on Eighth Avenue across from the Port Authority. The rendering of the Renzo Piano-designed tower featured a relatively discreet "New York Times" logo above the building entrance.

Was there a discount?

A natural question would be whether FCR got a discount from the New York Times Company, the newspaper's parent company and partner in building the Times Tower. (I don't say the newsroom is FCR's partner, but I believe that the advertising department is more tightly linked to the parent company.)

So I emailed spokesperson Catherine Mathis to ask how much the ad cost, if there were a discount (and how much), and whether such a discount might apply to future ads from Forest City Ratner. (Wouldn't FCR want to welcome Frank Gehry's Ms. Brooklyn with the same fanfare?) And I said I thought the issue was blog-worthy whether or not there was a discount.

Her response, in toto: Forest City Ratner would be the appropriate organization to answer these questions.

However, FCR doesn't answer my questions. It seems a little fishy. If there were no discount, wouldn't the Times be proud to say that? But I can't be sure, so I'll leave it to others to keep asking.

The Times & Ratner's success

I should point out, as noted in Afterword B of my report, the New York Post reported (Liberty Bonds Key to Ratner, 10/28/03) that the New York Times Company agreed to guarantee a $100 million loan to help Forest City Ratner complete the top half of the tower. (FCR was to contribute $100 million and borrow the remainder of the $400 million needed.) It wasn't reported whether the Times Company actually followed through, but the gesture suggests that the newspaper company has an interest in FCR's success.

And an impressive ad touting the building can only help FCR fill the office space it has long been trying to lease, and make it easier for the company to pay back its loans. The New York Post reported, in a 3/30/06 article headlined Ratner Courts Top Times Tower Tenant:
It looks like Bruce Ratner may finally have a big tenant interested in taking space in The New York Times Tower now under construction opposite the Port Authority bus terminal.
The Post has learned the law firm Dechert is in the market for some 200,000 square feet, where they would move from 30 Rockefeller Center.

"Buried by The Times": a darker story of inadequate coverage

I've been quite critical of the New York Times's inadequate and unskeptical coverage, in both the news and editorial pages, of Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards project. I can't sort out the reasons for the Times's performance; it likely includes a mix of lack of continuity, balkanization, Afghanistanism, and a reliance on the form of objectivity above the goal of fairness.

A defender of the paper might say that coverage has been better (and the level of attention has improved in recent months), just as the Times's willingness to print a few critical letters might indicate a variety of voices. However, as I've noted, the Times hasn't met the challenge set by Lynne Sagalyn in her critique of the newspaper's coverage of Times Square redevelopment: a commitment to digging coupled with prominent placement of stories.

A historical shame

I recently read a book that takes on a vastly more important aspect of the Times's responsibility to its public, and has a particular resonance today, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Buried by The Times: The Holocaust and America's Most Important Newspaper, by Northeastern University journalism professor Laurel Leff, published last year, paints a depressing and distressing picture of how the Times buried the story. The Times consistently failed to put news on the front page, to identify the victims as Jews, and to editorialize when appropriate.

Leff writes on p. 2:
They reported it. In fact, from September 1939 through May 1945, the Times published 1,186 stories about what was happening to the Jews of Europe, or an average of 17 stories per month. But the story never received the continuous attention or prominent play that a story about the unprecedented attempt to wipe out an entire people deserved.

Most but not all publications did a poor job as well, but the Times was the country's leading newspaper. Leff's conclusion: the decisions stemmed from publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger's personal reluctance to view the Jews as a people rather than solely a religion, his anti-Zionism, and a concern that the Times would be seen as a 'Jewish' newspaper.

Leff couldn't find an explicit policy, she writes on p. 190:
That does not mean it did not exist. Such a memo might not have been included in the Times' less-than-comprehensive files, or the policy may have been communicated verbally, and thus no record ever existed. But the more likely explanation is that no record exists because there was no need for an explicit policy. "There is a tendency, even on the best newspapers, for the economic, political, and social views of the owners to seep down through the entire organization," [former Times senior editor] Neil MacNeil wrote in 1940 about a publisher's influence in general, although he had to have had his boss, Arthur Sulzberger, in mind. "Reporters viewing the event and editors passing judgment on it are inclined, be it ever so slightly, to see it from the publisher's angle. They doubtless want the approval of their superiors, for interesting assignments, promotion, and higher salaries usually await such approval. Few will bite the hand that feeds them. Almost without knowing it the news favors the owner's viewpoint. The story in which the publisher is interested becomes a 'good story,' and vice versa."

Applicable today?

That's a 66-year-old statement, so it's hard to apply it today, and Times officials reiterate the newsroom operates independently of the business side. There's no proof that the parent company's partnership with Forest City Ratner in building the Times Tower shapes coverage of the Atlantic Yards project.

More questions might be raised regarding the Times's reticence in covering the Times Tower issue. As for the editorials, that's murkier; the publisher does intervene at times.

Paul Moses, a former New York Newsday City Editor and author of Village Voice articles on the Times Tower, suggested that parent company's real estate transaction might hamper objectivity. Interviewed 8/16/02 on the radio show CounterSpin, which is a product of the group FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), Moses warned of the effect of the apparent conflict:
How do papers balance this role of reporting on local news and being local businesses? I think sometimes the result can be kind of weak local coverage.
…I do have a lot of respect for the reporters and the editors at the Times, but it has to weigh on their minds that, “Ooh yeah, can we criticize the subsidies in this deal when our newspaper is getting even bigger subsidies from government?”…And then the editorial page, again I have great respect for the editor of the editorial page,
but it reports to the publisher who’s the chairman of the Times Company, who’s doing this deal with the state and city. So I think they’re factors that people should know about in evaluating the coverage that they’re reading…
I think it [the track record regarding subsidies for the New York Times Company] makes it harder for the Times to report on these kinds of arrangements between government and business.

A peevish review

The Times reviewed Leff's book, rather peevishly, in the 5/15/05 Book Review, under the headline Horror Story. Robert Leiter, literary editor of The Jewish Exponent, a Philadelphia weekly, deemed the book impressive "on the level of sheer reporting," but argued that Leff treats "Sulzberger's anti-Zionism like some evil aberration." Citing the unprecedented nature of the death camps, Leiter wondered, "How could Sulzberger or any other newspaper executive have comprehended the extent of what was happening in Europe?" His conclusion: the Holocaust was buried "by the times in which the participants lived and not solely by The New York Times."

Leff responded in a letter in the 6/26/05 issue of the Book Review, asking how the reviewer would explain the numerous articles, editorials, and "contemporaneous comments I quote, from Sulzberger and others, acknowledging what was happening to the Jews in Europe?"

Her criticism of "Leiter's calculated effort to let the newspaper off the hook" raises the question of whether the reviewer was influenced by the newspaper that assigned him the review. I read Buried By the Times, and I think that Leiter gave Leff too little credit. Would a review applauding Leff's conclusions have hurt the freelance reviewer's relationship with Times editors? I don't know, nor can anyone prove that Leiter, consciously or not, skewed his review.

Still, his posture toward what he called Leff's "high-minded crusade" contrasts with a more generous appraisal by former Times executive editor Max Frankel, in Turning Away From the Holocaust, published 11/14/01 in the 150th Anniversary special section of the Times. Frankel, responding to a journal article rather than Leff's yet-unpublished book, called her "the most diligent independent student of The Times's Holocaust coverage" and quoted three powerful paragraphs of her work.

Indeed, the Times book review even drew comment from the New York Observer, which in a 5/23/05 editorial headlined "The New York Times and the Holocaust," observed that "the review is defensive in tone and works hard to discredit Ms. Leff's point of view." It should be noted that nearly all the reviews of Leff's book were positive, but the Washington Post also ran a critical review that made some stronger points than did the Times review.

Doing better today?

Leff's book raises contemporary questions about coverage of world events like the genocide in Darfur. There's no comparison between the Holocaust and a controversial Brooklyn real estate project, but Leff's criticisms parallel some raised about coverage of the Atlantic Yards project; yes, the Times has written articles and editorials, but it has not pursued the subject with the energy and care that one might expect from the country's (and city's) leading newspaper.