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UNITY 2007: a new, Jacobsian plan for the Vanderbilt Yard

At the same time last night that the legacy of noted urban thinker Jane Jacobs was being celebrated at the Morgan Library and Museum in Manhattan, a prelude to an exhibit opening today, the much more modest Soapbox Gallery in Prospect Heights hosted a community forum introducing the UNITY (Understanding, Imagining and Transforming the Yards) plan, a much more Jacobsian way to develop the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Vanderbilt Yard.

(Photos by Jonathan Barkey)

The idea is that if Atlantic Yards does not get built as planned, or is scotched altogether, an alternative plan, with significant bulk but not “extreme density,” limited to the railyards and an adjacent plot, could emerge.

According to a draft report issued by its organizers, planners and architects engaged under the banner of AY critics and opponents, UNITY would offer “a larger proportion of truly affordable housing, sustainable jobs and start-up businesses for local residents, improved transit, pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, solutions to neighborhood and downtown traffic problems, accessible public open space that connects the Yards with our neighborhoods, and a planning and development process that is transparent and accountable.”

Notably, the tallest and bulkiest buildings would be moved east, to Vanderbilt Avenue, while the triangle of land between Flatbush, Fifth, and Atlantic Avenue, currently slated for the Urban Room and part of the Miss Brooklyn tower, would be used for a park.

With a smaller footprint (less than half of the 22-acre Atlantic Yards site) and no eminent domain, the site could not accommodate an arena, and with 1500 housing units (nearly 200 per acre, without counting the triangle park), rather than 6430 (nearly 300 per acre), UNITY would not include as much housing. The percentage of affordable housing (60%) would be greater than Atlantic Yards, and 60% of that would be affordable to households earning up to $40,000—far more affordable than the Atlantic Yards plan.

FCR criticism

While the plan would involve multiple parcels and developers, ideally allowing for a faster build process, and the withdrawal of certain subsidies ($305 million so far, from the city and state) for arena/project infrastructure would presumably free them for other use, there are neither developers nor government commitments attached to the UNITY projections.

And Forest City Ratner, whose Jim Stuckey last year criticized the Extell bid for the Vanderbilt Yard as fiscally unrealistic, yesterday issued a statement, according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle: “But probably most important is that Atlantic Yards is real, based on detailed engineering and design work and realistic financing models. Forest City Ratner has a proven track record in Brooklyn for a quarter of a century – a track record that ensures that these benefits become a reality rather than just another empty promise.”

Done deal?

The delay in the planned schedule of Atlantic Yards, as well as unresolved court cases, however, suggest some ambiguity and, as the UNITY planners stated, “The long history of failed projects that did not have community support proves that IT’S NOT A DONE DEAL.”

UNITY 2007 is based on a planning workshop held April 28, under the auspices of the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods. The result in turn grew out of a 2004 plan, based on a participatory planning workshop organized by Council Member Letitia James. The 2005 bid for the MTA’s by Extell, the only rival to Forest City Ratner, was in part based on the original UNITY principles.

The plan was unveiled yesterday at a press conference and community meeting at the Soapbox Gallery, 636 Dean Street (between Carlton and Vanderbilt Avenues), across from the Atlantic Yards footprint. The UNITY materials will remain on display through October 3. The meeting drew about 100 people.

I wasn’t able to attend either event, but I got several secondhand reports and got a copy of the UNITY document prepared by University of Cincinnati architecture professor Marshall Brown (right, a former Brooklynite), Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development founder Ronald Shiffman (also a board member of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn), and Tom Angotti, director of Hunter College’s Center for Community Planning and Development. I also got a chance to question Shiffman and Angotti.

New paradigm

To move UNITY forward, planners would have to make the case that this project is, as Borough President Marty Markowitz is wont to say about Atlantic Yards, is “the right project at the right time in the right place for Brooklyn.” The site, planners argue, needs a zoning change and suffers from “developer’s blight.” (The former no one would debate, though the state would override zoning, while the latter, of course, is contested.)

Shiffman (who will join me on a walking tour of the AY footprint Saturday), suggested a lot of things should be on the table: “This is an alternative way of developing the site. It needs alternative financing and a different kind of commitment by government.” One other reason for that, he noted, is to “meet the commitments of PlaNYC 2030,” Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s sustainability plan, which, as I've pointed out, suggests a far more consultative way to develop over railyards.

Community supporters and the press yesterday were especially curious about two aspects of the plan: the absence of the arena and the density shift. To the latter, which could include a building up to 400 feet, slightly taller than the nearby Atlantic Terminal 4B housing project across Atlantic Avenue, the UNITY document responds:
The Yards form the northern edge of a triangle that includes the Vanderbilt and Flatbush Avenue Corridors. One corner is defined by Grand Army Plaza. Another corner is formed by the Atlantic Terminal. Rather than increase the congestion around the Atlantic Terminal by adding even more density, we propose an alternative strategy that concentrates density at the Vanderbilt/Atlantic intersection. This will improve that currently underdeveloped intersection as well as create the opportunity for a large new public square at the Atlantic Terminal, providing an experience similar to Union Square.

Brown, I'm told, noted that a building of that height was only one solution for adding density at that intersection. Planners pointed out that the intersection is only eight minutes from the Clinton-Washington C stop in Fort Greene, thus rendering the site sufficiently transit-accessible.

And what about the new railyard and the subway entrance planned as part of the Urban Room? “We question the need to move the railyard,” Angotti responded. “Without an arena a new subway entrance becomes much simpler and cheaper; but a new entrance isn't necessary for this project.” (On the other hand, the site aimed for the new park consists only partly of public land; most is currently owned by Forest City Ratner.)

The Floor Area Ratio, or FAR, of the project, would be about 7, not insignificant but hardly approaching the Atlantic Yards plan. (Above, from right: Shiffman, Brown, Angotti.)

And what about the arena? The report calls for a study, stating: The Mayor, the Chairman of the ESDC, the Borough President, and City Council should issue an RFP for a planning consultant to undertake a study to locate a suitable site for a basketball arena to be built in Brooklyn.

In essence, the planners seem to be saying: an arena's not right at this site, so deal with it. Previous studies have also pointed to Coney Island, as well as the Prospect Heights site; the question is whether, should Atlantic Yards fail and an arena thus delayed, a major league team would be around to populate a Brooklyn arena. (The bet here is that, if Atlantic Yards fails, the Nets will move to the new arena in Newark.)

The planning principles

The draft report lists some Jacobsian planning principles:
• CONNECT Prospect Heights, Fort Greene and other neighborhoods
• Develop at a HUMAN SCALE and density
• Promote DIVERSITY AND VITALITY in urban design
• Create and preserve AFFORDABLE HOUSING
• Create JOBS for Brooklyn residents
• Create accessible PUBLIC SPACES
• Guarantee an OPEN PLANNING PROCESS, with transparency and accountability


Would the entire project be built as planned? That is “both highly unlikely and entirely undesirable,” according to the draft report. And even if it does go through, it’s unlikely the project would be built by 2016, as planned. Given the likelihood of delay, organizers recommend a new environmental impact statement.

What if nothing gets built? That, obviously, is the organizers’ preferred alternative, and the scenario for the extended report issued yesterday. And what if only Phase 1, involving the arena and four towers (plus one across the street at Site 5), gets built?

The draft report warns of “several unexpected consequences with serious negative impacts,” including the possibility that 2000 interim surface parking spaces could become permanent, and that Forest City Ratner—bedeviled by changing market conditions and potential new political configurations—could decide to hold empty properties and cleared sites.

“Therefore, no demolition should be permitted on Phase 2 sites, and no interim parking should be allowed on existing vacant sites,” the report urges, arguing that Phase 1 “must incorporate and satisfy its own parking needs”—a seeming impossibility, according to the Atlantic Yards Final Environmental Impact Statement.

Affordable housing

The amount of affordable housing, 900 units, planners noted, would exceed that promised in Phase 1 of Atlantic Yards and more affordable housing could potentially be added in the adjacent blocks currently owned by Forest City Ratner. (More likely is that the developer would sell or develop the properties for market-rate units.) And the affordable housing would be guaranteed into perpetuity, rather than 30 or 40 years.

How to how pay for the affordable housing? Angotti responded, “We would rely on the same pool of affordable housing subsidy as FCR. Cross-subsidy is an option to be considered. We would need to do a complete financial plan for UNITY to know how much overall public subsidy is needed for the project; clearly we would expect a similar amount if not more than FCR's promised subsidies, and we would get a much bigger return for the public in terms of low-income affordable units, public open space, neighborhood preservation, etc.”

New designs

UNITY would eliminate the planned superblocks and add streets, putting open space on the edge of such streets and also employing green roofs. (Atlantic Yards would get a significant slice of planned open space by demapping Pacific Street between Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues.) I wasn't able to get a tally, however, for the acreage.

Also, notes the report:
Brooklyn has a diversity of densities, building sizes and types. One can find many different scales of buildings around the Vanderbilt Yards. Building heights and massing in our proposal would be regulated to respond to these diverse conditions - from small scale to large.


One of the most interesting aspect is the effort to lift “transit-oriented development” beyond simply putting density near a transit hub. The report proposes “extensive traffic calming, parking reduction, and bicycle lanes to discourage vehicle use for both local and inter-borough travel.”

Among the long term proposals include connecting the Long Island Rail Road to lower Manhattan and JFK Airport—an expensive proposition—and a Brooklyn trolley loop. (The transportation program was led by Brian Ketcham and Carolyn Konheim of Community Consulting Services.)

The proposal also suggests that the congestion pricing cordon should be expanded to downtown Brooklyn to reduce traffic. If that occurs, however, the area around the Vanderbilt Yard might become a park-and-ride hub without limits on parking on the site, residential parking permits, and peak pricing for parking.

A new process

The report argues for an open planning process involving multiple stakeholders, a distinct contrast with the process that led to the Atlantic Yards plan. It suggests the following:
--create urban design principles
--approve arena site
--create a new and improved Community Benefits Agreement
--create a Community Oversight Committee
--approve urban design principles
--amend ATURA (Atlantic Terminal Urban Renewal Area), create special zoning district
--divide the site for development
--launch a public design competition
--transform the COC to a trust.

Likely? At this point, no. Possible? Stay tuned.


  1. While I have some issues with the some of this plan, I am impressed by the transit portion. As to the expense, I believe that that the feds have appropriated 2 Billion dollars for a connector from JFK to the Wall Street area, which will require a new transit tunnel to Manhattan. Whether the Arena is ever built, transit will continue to be a problem and Brooklyn is being short changed by a short sighted state and city, that will be spend billions(the lower Manhattan transit hub 4 billion plus, the connector to the west side convention center 2 billion plus{all NY City taxpayer money BTW)and a second avenue subway 4 billion plus that connects to Queens but not Brooklyn) in Manhattan and pennies in Brooklyn

    Sid Meyer

  2. One thing I especially like about the plan is the larger park at the slightly more dense Eastern end of this site plan (nearest to the Clinton Washington Stop C-Train stop on the A-Train line.) The Park’s orientation along side the Ward Bakery building will show off the Ward building brilliantly. The park will be instantly resplendent with a wall of white terra cotta arches. It reminds me of the Boathouse beside the pond in Prospect Park. In my mind I am thinking of this new park as the “Ward Bakery Park.”


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