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Atlantic Yards through a Jacobsian lens

The exhibition Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York won't open at the Municipal Art Society until September 25, but the companion web site launched yesterday, immediately providing some food for thought: while Atlantic Yards might subscribe to at least one of Jacobs's principles, it would violate others.

The exhibit, accompanying programs, and attendant commentary undoubtedly will stimulate discussion of the relevance (and limits) of Jacobs' penetrating vision. I'm sure there will be several opportunities to view Atlantic Yards through a Jacobsian lens (and the lenses of her critics).

Jacobsian principles & AY

For a start, however, consider the exhibit's summary of the late urbanist's principles, as expressed in her groundbreaking 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities:
Jacobs observed four key qualities of healthy, vibrant cities: mixed uses, frequent streets, varied buildings, and concentration.

The planners behind Atlantic Yards certainly were not unmindful of such qualities. The project would be a mixed-use development: largely housing, but with retail and community facilities at the base of towers--a distinct improvement over monolithic modernist design that left a single function to 1960s-era towers.

And the arena, unlike numerous standalone sports facilities, would be nestled in towers, and also activated by retail around its perimeter. (There would even be a narrow row of shops, known as a b-market, along Atlantic Avenue, thanks to the insistence of the City Planning Commission Chairperson Amanda Burden, who considers herself Jacobsian.)

That idea, however, worked better in its initial conception, when the towers housed offices, and the occupants would be entering and leaving the towers during the day, keeping the block busy before evening events began. Developer Forest City Ratner has since traded most of the office space for more lucrative housing--an experiment, indeed.

The Jacobsian elements have drawn support from some observers; architect Robert A.M. Stern earlier this year said that "in many ways the [AY] scheme is quite Jane Jacobs-like in its urban pattern." Lumi Rolley of NoLandGrab "overkilled" his failure to see the larger picture.

How much concentration?

Yes, Atlantic Yards would certainly represent concentration, but arguably too much--just as density near a transit hub is wise, but there are limits. Indeed, in a Death and Life chapter titled "The Need for Concentration," Jacobs wrote:
Obviously, if the object is vital city life, the dwelling densities should go as high as they need to go to stimulate the maximum potential diversity in a district. Why waste a city district's and a city population's potential for creating interesting and vigorous city life?

It follows, however, that densities can get too high if they reach a point at which, for any reason, they begin to repress diversity instead of to stimulate it...

The reason dwelling densities can begin repressing diversity if they get too high is this: At some point, to accommodate so many dwellings on the land, standardization of the buildings must set in. This is fatal, because diversity in age and types of buildings has a direct, explicit connection with diversity of population, diversity of enterprises, and diversity of scenes.

The challenge of open space

Jacobs warned that there was a significant tradeoff between diversity and open space--the more such space, the difficulty of achieving variety. Her examples were public housing projects and developments like Stuyvesant Town, where the open space reached 75 percent.

(Atlantic Yards would be 22 acres, with eight acres of open space--a ratio of 36 percent open space that might allow variety if the buildings weren't so big and the streets weren't demapped. The rendering was produced by the Environmental Simulation Center for the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods and subsequently adapted to emphasize Newswalk. A few buildings now would be reduced in size.)

And how high could it go? Jacobs allowed that North End of Boston managed at 275 dwellings per acre, albeit at the cost of ground coverage--the land behind the buildings devoted to additional housing. Clearly open space was sacrificed.

She wrote:
I doubt that it is possible, without drastic standardization, to go higher than the North End's density of 275 dwellings per net acre. For most districts--lacking the North End's peculiar and long heritage of different building types--the ultimate danger mark imposing standardization must be considerably lower; I should guess, roughly, that it is apt to hover at about 200 dwellings an acre.

Atlantic Yards would be nearly 50 percent more dense, at 292 dwellings an acre. Also, the presence of the arena and the taking of streets further intensifies the residential density.

Frequent streets, varied buildings

The remaining two Jacobsian qualities, frequent streets and varied buildings, would be absent from the Atlantic Yards plan. It would create two superblocks--one for the arena and another for the second phase, bounded by Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues and Pacific and Dean streets.

Indeed, as a commenter on this blog pointed out, only via the demapping of the streets can the project include as much open space as it does--even though streets themselves add crucial space.
(Jacobs wrote: Long blocks with high ground coverages are oppressive. Frequent streets, because they are openings between buildings, compensate for high coverage of ground off the streets.)

And the creation of superblocks would demolish some varied buildings, among them two industrial buildings renovated into market-rate condos, another renovated but awaiting more full use, and the Ward Bakery, deteriorated but salvageable, though too costly, according to the developer.

Architect Frank Gehry said in a 10/31/05 appearance at Columbia University, "[H]ow do you make a complex that doesn’t look like a project even though one architect’s doing it? Normally I would’ve brought in five other architects, but one of the requirements of this client is that I do it."

That makes achieving diversity of buildings a bigger challenge. Not only would they not come from different eras--new ideas need old buildings, Jacobs famously wrote--but they wouldn't be designed by different architects, nor be conceived by different developers. So that reflects urbanist Roberta Brandes Gratz's observation that Jacobs did not oppose change, just cataclysmic change.


  1. I genuinely enjoy your blog although sometimes I have a slightly different view. I don't think FCR changed the office space to residential because he saw it as more lucrative. I think he changed it because he was concerned that Shelley Silver would not approve the site without the change. After all the main reason the West Side stadium wasn't built was Silver's veto because of his concern that it would take office space away from the WT Center site. I think that this was the main reason for the change. I personally expect to see some change in this in the future.

    Sid Meyer

  2. That's also a valid point. See:

    The office space could fluctuate over the course of a project that could take many years, but right now there's a glut of office space in and around Downtown Brooklyn. See:

  3. Jacob's theories on diversity somewhat mirror ecological principles on diversity. Density can be both a driver of and a result of diversity. In theory, a diversified landscape offers more "niches," which means more types of species (or cultures, businesses, economic classes, etc.) can find a nich and thrive. If these niches within the habitat are highly partitioned, then the supportable density increases.

    So I think we need to separate habitat density (the built environment including streets) from species density (residents, businesses and visitors). Jacobs thesis is that the former influences the latter. This is *mostly* true in my view, which means that Ratner's plan is inimical to species diversity because:

    A) The buildings are not diverse.
    B) The "surfaces" for community development are reduced due to closing off streets
    C) The "mixed-use" is not so mixed.
    D) There is a single architect doing the "systemic" design in one fell swoop rather than coadaptive design occurring over time.
    E) There will probably be a single large property manager for the retail space with a fairly rigorous set of covenants and restrictions -- including signage, operating hours, etc.
    F) Every effort will be made to recruit additional "national" anchors to generate excitement.

    I'm sure I've missed a few.

    One legitimate question to ask is whether this lack of diversity may actually make sustaining the density impossible from the get go. Ratner's project would be analogous to finding an abandoned weedy lot and then planting a bunch of late stage rainforest trees and plants in hopes that a rich community of additional flora and fauna moved in. Of course they would not, and then extraordinary measures would be taken to keep the trees alive.

    If Ratner's proposal gets built as designed, I predict it will be an economic failure of epic proportions. Everyone is worried about the profit the evil developer will reap as a result of this land grab. While I sympathize emotionally, intellectually, I am far more worried about the failure of the venture on the developer's own terms. Who will bail the project out, and at what cost?

  4. The FEIS has who will bail Ratner out and don't bet it isn't actionable. The "promise" is up to 50% of the money may came from Governmental sources...which ultimately means you and me. You can also be sure that the first casualty will be the "affordable" housing. FCR will be abkle to say that the government reneged on its promise to provide funds so the affordable housing will not be built in my opinion,

    Sid Meyer


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