Skip to main content

Learning from Seattle: a sculpture park and a market

Seattle is quite different from Brooklyn, but citizens there have confronted similar challenges—whether to invest public money in a sports arena, and how best to guide growth—and come up with some interesting and instructive answers, like the new sculpture park depicted at right, an oasis in the midst of development.
(Photo from Seattle Art Museum)

The Seattle experience may not be directly applicable to the Atlantic Yards controversy, but it does suggest that civic debate—which was short-circuited in Brooklyn when the city/state political establishment backed AY from the gate—can produce alternatives.

Arena subsidies?

First, as I’ve noted, a community group called Citizens for More Important Things got a ballot measure passed last year that ensured that any public money toward a new arena would have to generate legitimate financial returns.

That’s served as a brake on the owners of the Seattle SuperSonics, who are now seeking $300 million in public funds for a new arena in the metro area outside the city. (That arena likely would not be a standalone like the current Key Arena but more of a mixed-use complex.)

Note that the AY project would get $200 million in direct subsidies but much more in tax breaks, public spending, and access to below-market city streets. The amount of subsidies for the affordable housing has not been publicly revealed.

New sculpture park

My visit to Seattle last week coincided with the opening of the Olympic Sculpture park, a dramatic and arresting addition to the cityscape and waterfront. The park occupies a complicated 9-acre site in the northern section of Belltown, the booming neighborhood, formerly an industrial/warehouse district, just north of the center city, along the mostly-developed waterfront.
(Photo from New York Times)

Echoes of Atlantic Yards were inevitable. The site is just about the same size as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Vanderbilt Yard, the main component of the planned 22-acre AY development. The Seattle site, formerly an oil transfer and distribution facility, required an expensive clean-up (as does the Brooklyn railyard).

The Seattle site, bisected by a busy (though not commercial) four-lane road and bordered by another road and a rail line, required some complicated bridging. Even greater challenges abound in Brooklyn, where a platform must be built to support construction. At least builders in Brooklyn wouldn’t have a site sloping downhill, as in Seattle.

Brooklyn’s Vanderbilt Yard is more than a century old; the Seattle site, established by UNOCAL (Union Oil Company of California), dates back to 1910. UNOCAL closed the site in 1975, leaving ugly empty lots—an eyesore, certainly blighted (at least under New York’s loose standards)--and later spent a decade on cleanup efforts. The time wasn’t right for development.
(Photo from Seattle Art Museum)

Building boom

In the late 1990s, as a building boom spread to Belltown, developers hatched a plan to build condos. As the New York Times reported, UNOCAL was sympathetic to the idea of turning the site into a green space—the city is environmentally conscious--so when museum officials approached the company, they were given six months to raise $17 million. (SAM hired a staffer from the Trust for Public Land for the project.) Philanthropists offered $5 million and said they’d give another $20 million for free access if SAM raised the rest of the money.

Indeed, the museum raised $173 million of a $180 million capital campaign, fully funding the $85-million sculpture park. Grants from the federal government, King County and the City of Seattle helped both add slightly to the cite and provide $21 million for toxic waste cleanup and salmon restoration. More than 52 designers competed for the commission, with Weiss/Manfredi Architects of New York selected. (Remember, there was no competition for the Atlantic Yards project.)

Zigzag site

Construction began in 2005, and the park opened on January 20. The park occupies a zigzag site—three connected parcels of land--sloping down the hill to Elliott Bay. The sculptures are striking—a cluster of five 14-foot high Richard Serra steel slabs called "Wake," a playful 19-foot tall "Typewriter Eraser, Scale X," by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, and Alexander Calder’s 39-foot-tall "Eagle" (below, right).

Is it frivolous? Actually, the park has stimulated a construction boom. While in one direction, the park offers stunning views of the bay and the distant mountains, in the other three, cranes and new construction are visible. Condos are going up—eight, 12, 15 stories. (Taller buildings are in the center city.) Real estate folk now call this “the Park District.”
(Photo from Seattle Times)

The amount of open space is only a bit more than the eight acres promised for the AY site, but the latter would be shrouded by tall buildings, and the 15,000 immediate residents would get first dibs.

The Vanderbilt Yard couldn’t be a sculpture park—its value is easily tenfold that of the Seattle site, and the railyard functions are costly to relocate. New York faces population pressure and density does belong near a transit hub. But the Seattle example shows that “blight” or underdevelopment can be cleared up by strategic public investment.

Transformational project

Seattle Post-Intelligencer architecture columnist Lawrence W. Cheek called the park “a gloriously rewarding intersection of art, architecture, urbanity and nature” and declared it “the best public space in Seattle,” with the architects triumphing over the “outrageous difficulties of the 9-acre site - a 40-foot slope plus a four-lane road and train track punching through it.”
(Photo from Seattle Post-Intelligencer)

Sheila Farr, the Seattle Times art critic, suggested that the park opening was transformational moment for the city, just as in the early 1960s the Space Needle arose as part of the nearby Seattle Center. That complex, by the way, now includes the doomed Key Arena and the much-criticized blob that is the Experience Music Project, designed by Frank Gehry. (It’s an entertaining museum, but the building has no context--not that it's supposed to.)

"That area might have developed very differently, have turned into condo and retail space and not the wide-open panorama it now provides," Councilman Peter Steinbrueck, an architect, told Farr: "It's next to [Belltown] the state's fastest growing and densest area, denser even than Capitol Hill, and it's going to continue. [The park] will spur new economic development in the area, which will be positive."

Density issues

For all its environmental virtues, Seattle has long lacked public open space in and around downtown. So this serves as a crucial corrective, and a reminder of balanced growth. In a Seattle Post-Intelligencer op-ed, Seattle Art Museum director Mimi Gates (wife of Bill, Sr.), director of the Seattle Art Museum, and Gene Duvernoy, president of the Cascade Land Conservancy, wrote:
…If we cannot find comfort in a monumental work of art such as Teresita Fernandez's 220-foot colorful glass trellis along the bridge over the railroad tracks that captures incredible views of the Seattle skyline amid the green of a major sculpture park, our cities will be hollow places, as colorless as the thin sunshine of a winter's day.
This all comes together around the recent debates on building heights downtown, really a debate about that word we all dislike - density. That word is often the problem - it is algebraic, dealing with such and such per-square something or other and avoids the critical question of how we live together. It's a two-way street. Density can bring good things to urban neighborhoods but good things need to be explicitly provided to neighborhoods to make density a good thing.

(Emphasis added)
(Photo from Seattle Art Museum)

Indeed, that’s the debate we haven’t had in Brooklyn. “Growth is good, but growth has its limits,” City Council Member Letitia James said simply but gravely at the 8/23/06 Atlantic Yards public hearing, as captured in the documentary “Brooklyn Matters.” And shortly after that sentence, as James began talking about asthma that the new development would likely increase, she got booed.

Because the state overrides local zoning, we haven’t had a debate about what size and kind of development should go there. Rather, city and state officials essentially let the developer decide. And the decision to include some measure of affordable housing—funded by the public, of course--gives politicians a reason to support something out of scale. The density of Atlantic Yards, I’ve argued, was a privately-negotiated affordable housing bonus.

Learning from Pike Place

There’s another lesson for Brooklyn—heck, for all urbanists—in the heart of Seattle. Everybody knows the Pike Place Market at the downtown waterfront—it’s a tourist attraction (10 million visitors a year) and a working market, scruffy but busy, with genuinely local, independent restaurants, fishmongers, fruit sellers, craftspersons, and purveyors of goods. The first Starbucks opened there. (Photo from here.)

While the market’s official history leaps between the 1907 establishment of a public street market to connect farmers with consumers and its success a century later, the nine-acre market barely survived some lean years. According to the 1989 book Downtown, Inc., by Bernard Frieden and Lynne Sagalyn, by the 1950s, the market was on its last legs, and the arcade buildings were almost collapsing. Downtown business leaders wanted to put up offices, apartment towers, and hotels. (The Project for Public Spaces, which praised the market, notes that it was deemed "blighted.")

An architecture professor named Victor Steinbrueck (father of the abovenamed councilman) led a citizen effort for a voter initiative to save the market, which passed by a 60 percent vote in 1971. “It was an abrupt repudiation of the business coalition’s goal of a thoroughly modern city center dedicated to economic development,” Frieden and Sagalyn write.

Mayor Wes Uhlman, who’d previously helped save Pioneer Square—just below downtown—from the establishment of office towers, was sympathetic. ("I wanted to save it because it was human scale," he said of Pioneer Square.)

It wasn’t easy to renovate the market. A manager had to find tenants that would satisfy the newly-established Historical Commission and had to generate significant aid to subsidize the merchanges. The city funded most of the project with $40 million in federal money—just as Robert Moses did in his most of his projects in New York.

The preservationist mindset, according to the book, led to conflicts over security, as the market bordered Seattle’s sleaze district. Just three years ago, on my previous visit, the blocks nearby had several sketchy businesses. Now most are gone, a testament to Seattle's steady growth.


Sure, the market is a product of its time and place, and such federal subsidies are no longer available on that scale. Still, it’s remarkable how an alternative vision, based on the wisdom of a community, could prove enormously successful.


Popular posts from this blog

Forest City acknowledges unspecified delays in Pacific Park, cites $300 million "impairment" in project value; what about affordable housing pledge?

Updated Monday Nov. 7 am: Note follow-up coverage of stock price drop and investor conference call and pending questions.

Pacific Park Brooklyn is seriously delayed, Forest City Realty Trust said yesterday in a news release, which further acknowledged that the project has caused a $300 million impairment, or write-down of the asset, as the expected revenues no longer exceed the carrying cost.

The Cleveland-based developer, parent of Brooklyn-based Forest City Ratner, which is a 30% investor in Pacific Park along with 70% partner/overseer Greenland USA, blamed the "significant impairment" on an oversupply of market-rate apartments, the uncertain fate of the 421-a tax break, and a continued increase in construction costs.

While the delay essentially confirms the obvious, given that two major buildings have not launched despite plans to do so, it raises significant questions about the future of the project, including:
if market-rate construction is delayed, will the affordable h…

Revising official figures, new report reveals Nets averaged just 11,622 home fans last season, Islanders drew 11,200 (and have option to leave in 2018)

The Brooklyn Nets drew an average of only 11,622 fans per home game in their most recent (and lousy) season, more than 23% below the announced official attendance figure, and little more than 65% of the Barclays Center's capacity.

The New York Islanders also drew some 19.4% below announced attendance, or 11,200 fans per home game.

The surprising numbers were disclosed in a consultant's report attached to the Preliminary Official Statement for the refinancing of some $462 million in tax-exempt bonds for the Barclays Center (plus another $20 million in taxable bonds). The refinancing should lower costs to Mikhail Prokhorov, owner of the arena operating company, by and average of $3.4 million a year through 2044 in paying off arena construction.

According to official figures, the Brooklyn Nets attendance averaged 17,187 in the debut season, 2012-13, 17,251 in 2013-14, 17,037 in 2014-15, and 15,125 in the most recent season, 2015-16. For hoops, the arena holds 17,732.

But official…

At 550 Vanderbilt, big chunk of apartments pitched to Chinese buyers as "international units"

One key to sales at the 550 Vanderbilt condo is the connection to China, thanks to Shanghai-based developer Greenland Holdings.

It's the parent of Greenland USA, which as part of Greenland Forest City Partners owns 70% of Pacific Park (except 461 Dean and the arena).

And sales in China may help explain how the developer was able to claim early momentum.
"Since 550 Vanderbilt launched pre-sales in June [2015], more than 80 residences have gone into contract, representing over 30% of the building’s 278 total residences," the developer said in a 9/25/15 press release announcing the opening of a sales gallery in Brooklyn. "The strong response from the marketplace indicates the high level of demand for well-designed new luxury homes in Brooklyn..."

Maybe. Or maybe it just meant a decent initial pipeline to Chinese buyers.

As lawyer Jay Neveloff, who represents Forest City, told the Real Deal in 2015, a project involving a Chinese firm "creates a huge market for…

Is Barclays Center dumping the Islanders, or are they renegotiating? Evidence varies (bond doc, cash receipts); NHL attendance biggest variable

The Internet has been abuzz since Bloomberg's Scott Soshnick reported 1/30/17, using an overly conclusory headline, that Brooklyn’s Barclays Center Is Dumping the Islanders.

That would end an unusual arrangement in which the arena agrees to pay the team a fixed sum (minus certain expenses), in exchange for keeping tickets, suite, and sponsorship revenue.

The arena would earn more without the hockey team, according to Bloomberg, which cited “a financial projection shared with potential investors showed the Islanders won’t contribute any revenue after the 2018-19 season--a clear signal that the team won’t play there, the people said."

That "signal," however, is hardly definitive, as are the media leaks about a prospective new arena in Queens, as shown in the screenshot below from Newsday. Both sides are surely pushing for advantage, if not bluffing.

Consider: the arena and the Islanders can't even formally begin their opt-out talks until after this season. The disc…

Skanska says it "expected to assemble a properly designed modular building, not engage in an iterative R&D experiment"

On 12/10/16, I noted that FastCo.Design's Prefab's Moment of Reckoning article dialed back the gush on the 461 Dean modular tower compared to the publication's previous coverage.

Still, I noted that the article relied on developer Forest City Ratner and architect SHoP to put the best possible spin on what was clearly a failure. From the article: At the project's outset, it took the factory (managed by Skanska at the time) two to three weeks to build a module. By the end, under FCRC's management, the builders cut that down to six days. "The project took a little longer than expected and cost a little bit more than expected because we started the project with the wrong contractor," [Forest City's Adam] Greene says.Skanska jabs back
Well, Forest City's estranged partner Skanska later weighed in--not sure whether they weren't asked or just missed a deadline--and their article was updated 12/13/16. Here's Skanska's statement, which shows th…

Not just logistics: bypassing Brooklyn for DNC 2016 also saved on optics (role of Russian oligarch, Shanghai government)

Surely the logistical challenges of holding a national presidential nominating convention in Brooklyn were the main (and stated) reasons for the Democratic National Committee's choice of Philadelphia.

And, as I wrote in NY Slant, the huge security cordon in Philadelphia would have been impossible in Brooklyn.

But consider also the optics. As I wrote in my 1/21/15 op-ed in the Times arguing that the choice of Brooklyn was a bad idea:
The arena also raises ethically sticky questions for the Democrats. While the Barclays Center is owned primarily by Forest City Ratner, 45 percent of it is owned by the Russian billionaire Mikhail D. Prokhorov (who also owns 80 percent of the Brooklyn Nets). Mr. Prokhorov has a necessarily cordial relationship with Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin — though he has been critical of Mr. Putin in the past, last year, at the Russian president’s request, he tried to transfer ownership of the Nets to one of his Moscow-based companies. An oligarch-owned a…