Skip to main content

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


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Barclays Center/Levy Restaurants hit with suit charging discrimination on disability, race; supervisors said to use vicious slurs, pursue retaliation

The Daily News has an article today, Barclays Center hit with $5M suit claiming discrimination against disabled, while the New York Post headlined its article Barclays Center sued over taunting disabled employees.

While that's part of the lawsuit, more prominent are claims of racial discrimination and retaliation, with black employees claiming repeated abuse by white supervisors, preferential treatment toward Hispanic colleagues, and retaliation in response to complaints.

Two individual supervisors, for example, are charged with  referring to black employees as “black motherfucker,” “dumb black bitch,” “black monkey,” “piece of shit” and “nigger.”

Two have referred to an employee blind in one eye as “cyclops,” and “the one-eyed guy,” and an employee with a nose disorder as “the nose guy.”

There's been no official response yet though arena spokesman Barry Baum told the Daily News they, but take “allegations of this kind very seriously” and have "a zero tolerance policy for…

Behind the "empty railyards": 40 years of ATURA, Baruch's plan, and the city's diffidence

To supporters of Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards project, it's a long-awaited plan for long-overlooked land. "The Atlantic Yards area has been available for any developer in America for over 100 years,” declared Borough President Marty Markowitz at a 5/26/05 City Council hearing.

Charles Gargano, chairman of the Empire State Development Corporation, mused on 11/15/05 to WNYC's Brian Lehrer, “Isn’t it interesting that these railyards have sat for decades and decades and decades, and no one has done a thing about them.” Forest City Ratner spokesman Joe DePlasco, in a 12/19/04 New York Times article ("In a War of Words, One Has the Power to Wound") described the railyards as "an empty scar dividing the community."

But why exactly has the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Vanderbilt Yard never been developed? Do public officials have some responsibility?

At a hearing yesterday of the Brooklyn Borough Board Atlantic Yards Committee, Kate Suisma…

Barclays Center event June 11 to protest plans to expand Israeli draft; questions about logistics

At right is a photo of a poster spotted in Hasidic Williamsburg right. Clearly there's an event scheduled at the Barclays Center aimed at the Haredi Jewish community (strict Orthodox Jews who reject secular culture), but the lack of English text makes it cryptic.

The website explains, Protest Against Israeli Draft of Bnei Yeshiva Rescheduled for Barclays Center:
A large asifa to protest the drafting of bnei yeshiva in Eretz Yisroel into the Israeli army that had been set to take place this month will instead be held on Sunday, 17 Sivan/June 11, at the Barclays Center in Downtown Brooklyn, NY. So attendees at a big gathering will protest an apparent change of policy that will make it much more difficult for traditional Orthodox Jewish students--both Hasidic (who follow a rebbe) and non-Hasidic (who don't)--to get deferments from the draft. Comments on the Yeshiva World website explain some of the debate.

The logistical questions

What's unclear is how large the ev…

Atlanta's Atlantic Yards moves ahead

First mentioned in April, the Atlantic Yards project in Atlanta is moving ahead--and has the potential to nudge Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn further down in Google searches.

According to a 5/30/17 press release, Hines and Invesco Real Estate Announce T3 West Midtown and Atlantic Yards:
Hines, the international real estate firm, and Invesco Real Estate, a global real estate investment manager, today announced a joint venture on behalf of one of Invesco Real Estate’s institutional clients to develop two progressive office projects in Atlanta totalling 700,000 square feet. T3 West Midtown will be a 200,000-square-foot heavy timber office development and Atlantic Yards will consist of 500,000 square feet of progressive office space in two buildings. Both projects are located on sites within Atlantic Station in the flourishing Midtown submarket.
Hines will work with Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture (HPA) as the design architect for both T3 West Midtown and Atlantic Yards. DLR Group will be t…

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…

"There is no alternative": DM Glen on de Blasio's affordable housing strategy

As I've written, Mayor Bill de Blasio sure knows how to steer and spin coverage of his affordable housing initiatives.

Indeed, his latest announcement, claiming significant progress, came with a pre-press release op-ed in the New York Daily News and then a friendly photo-op press conference with an understandably grateful--and very lucky--winner of an affordable housing lottery.

To me, though, the most significant quote came from Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen, who, as the Wall Street Journal reported:
said public housing had been “starved” of federal support for years now, leaving the city with fewer ways of creating affordable housing. “Are we relying too heavily on the private sector?” she said. “There is no alternative.” Though Glen was using what she surely sees as a common-sense phrase, it recalls the slogan of a politician with whom I doubt de Blasio identifies: former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a Conservative who believed in free markets.

It suggests the limits to …