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Pragmatism vs. principle: a look at the MAS & Atlantic Yards

Municipal Art Society (MAS) President Kent Barwick's severe dismay over the process behind Atlantic Yards, suggesting that the project may become this generation's Penn Station, constrasts with his organization's "mend it don't end it" stance regarding the project.

That deserves a closer look. On the one hand, the MAS and allies in BrooklynSpeaks have a legitimate role in steering clear of the lawsuits challenging the project; that allows them to offer constructive criticism if the project does proceed, while groups opposing Atlantic Yards (added: in court) won't get much, if any, attention from Forest City Ratner and the Empire State Development Corporation.

On the other hand, if Barwick really does believe the process was so bad, the principled extension of that posture would seem to be full-scale opposition. Instead, BrooklynSpeaks believes that better future process can redeem past bad process.

The Last Exit interview

In 5 Questions for Kent Barwick, the online Last Exit magazine recently asked him about Atlantic Yards:
You’d mentioned that the Atlantic Yards proposal was one of the wakeup calls that inspired this series. But you’ve gotten some heat for not coming out totally against that project. What good do you think can come of it?

Barwick responded:
There’s the [Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn spokesman] Daniel Goldstein school of thought, which seemed to us to be well represented, and they were going to go ahead and do the lawsuit and everything. And there were principles that members of Develop Don’t Destroy shared that we didn’t necessarily share. For instance, we thought that it was a good place for high-density development. You’ve got all the subways there.

That's a bit of a caricature. DDDB's posture evolved; while it began calling for neighborhood-scale development, it soon supported the mid-rise UNITY plan and then supported Extell's 2005 high-density plan limited to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Vanderbilt Yard, before the MAS entered the discussion.

“I didn’t mean to imply they’re against high-density development,” Barwick said when I queried him last Wednesday, suggesting that, in Brooklyn, “a lot of people said we can support aspects of” Atlantic Yards.

Brooklyn & the arena

The Last Exit interview continues:
If Brooklyn wants to have an arena, for whatever combination of emotional and psychological reasons — and it’s true of Brooklyn, the loss of the Dodgers is a defining event for longtime Brooklynites – it’s a good place for an arena. It’s not a great place for a rail yard. The rail yard had divided Brooklyn in two. So, there was a lot to recommend the general direction [of] the project in city planning terms. In detail, it was all over the top.

Brooklyn may want an arena, but, as Barwick acknowledged in June 2006, when he first formulated that phrase, we can't really tell. (Support for the arena, which requires the demapping of streets, also trumps BrooklynSpeaks' opposition to superblocks, since Pacific Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues would close.) And a site near a transit hub certainly offers important advantages.

But whether this arena, on the terms negotiated privately, is a good deal—why, exactly, does the developer get lucrative naming rights for a "publicly-owned" facility?—has not been subject to significant evaluation. Right now it looks like a potential loss for the city in terms of tax revenue.

A lot to recommend in city planning terms? Yes, if limited to the basic idea of density and a sports facility near a transit hub. On the other hand, given the "extreme density" of the project, the bypass of public process, and the overrides of zoning--including the placement of an arena within 200 feet of residences--opposite arguments could be made.

And yes, building decks over railyards now makes economic sense, but PlaNYC 2030 suggests a more consultative process than that which brought us Atlantic Yards.

Ratner's expertise

The Last Exit interview continues:
There wasn’t anybody playing the role of the government. And so the developer [Bruce Ratner of Forest City Ratner] was allowed to do whatever he thought best. He has a lot more expertise in some areas than others. If you look at Atlantic Center or Metrotech, you can realize that his company is a lot more comfortable in suburban settings than urban settings.

That's a charitable reading, given that Forest City Ratner defines itself as "Urban Real Estate." More likely it's that the developer, cautious about issues like security, applied suburban solutions to urban settings.

Close ties?

The interview continues:
Anyway, we thought the biggest problem with this project was that it was way over the top, it’s overreaching and there wasn’t anybody paying attention to it.

We have ties to Bruce Ratner. He and I were in the Koch Administration together. Several of my trustees were personally friendly with Bruce and members of the Ratner family. We had a number of trustees who were former Koch people. So there was a feeling on our part, yeah, everyone likes Frank Gehry as a person. And Laurie Olin was a very fine landscape architect who has done a lot of fine work in the city and elsewhere.

So we weren’t dealing with the usual schlock, let’s-rape-the-site-and-get-out-as-quickly-as-we-can developers, using anonymous architects and landscape architects. There was clearly a greater set of ambitions here.

These ties to Ratner are more explicit than MAS has previously acknowledged publicly and might have drawn more skepticism had they been announced earlier. Ratner's record of liberal politics, however, must be seen in tandem with hardball developer tactics like gag orders.

Similarly, while Gehry and Olin have done much admirable work, their unwillingness to meet with locals and testy statements--remember Gehry's crack that protesters should have been "picketing Henry Ford"?--are also part of their record.

The Jacobsian analysis

The interview continues:
We were invited out to the neighborhood by these groups. We were kind of apprehensive because it’s easy to dismiss us as some Upper East Side group, with headquarters on Madison Avenue. You’re always vulnerable to that. We didn’t tell anybody anything. It was kind of a Jane Jacobs thing, even though we didn’t know it. So we said, OK, let’s look at the plan. Let’s look at the parks in Brooklyn and see which ones work and which ones don’t work and why. Let’s look at the streets. We used examples. We went through the whole idea of we need multi-use retail, we need parks to be close to major thoroughfares, and people really responded. And that’s when we came up with the idea to say, let’s set up an alternative voice. Not the pro-Ratner, pro-Marty Markowitz. Not Develop Don’t Destroy. We knew they were going to do what they were going to do. But there seemed to be a need for a third voice. But there are a lot of people uncomfortable with “No, we don’t want anything, no.”

The MAS did, in that June 2006 presentation, provide a worthy analysis, though some panelists urged an even tougher line. But it's wrong to caricature the Atlantic Yards opposition as saying "we don't want anything."

Also, a Jacobsian analysis of Atlantic Yards inevitably leads to issues of process, as I wrote in September. Yes, sometimes Jacobs negotiated solutions and sometimes Jacobs protested; which tactic would she have chosen here?

Not much heat

The interview continues:
So we think it was finally a useful thing to do. We haven’t felt so much heat. Norman Oder, who writes the Atlantic Yards blog, is harsh with us, but he’s supportive. He attends almost all these Jane Jacobs things. So I feel we’ve been fairly treated. I am proud of the work that we did. I’m glad we did it, and I think it will lead to more. I think there’s a growing feeling in Brooklyn that the city by itself is not going to adequately plan. There’s so much change going on that there needs to be a broader context, a broader set of discussions. Most offensive about Atlantic Yards was the failure of the city to do anything, the failure of the state to engage in the communities. The communities were just ignored. It was really offensive.

Well, the sometimes-tense relations between DDDB and BrooklynSpeaks are a small sideshow compared to larger issues.

I consider the MAS's contributions to the Atlantic Yards debate worthy--and worthy of scrutiny--and think the Jacobs panels, however flawed, have ventilated important issues. And I've had fruitful discussions with Barwick and MAS staff.

Challenging the process

As for challenging the process, Barwick told me Wednesday, “our lawyers did not feel the challenge to eminent domain was going to succeed.” [Updated and clarified] He also said MAS lawyers didn't think the challenge to the AY environmental review would succeed. Adding a few more civic groups to that lawsuit, a path others were already on, he said, wasn’t necessary. “We believed something’s going to be built there and we wanted to affect it.”

That’s a legitimately pragmatic position. (There's no evidence yet that the critique has resonated with the developer, but Gehry and Olin likely are working on redesigns.) The MAS critique and BrooklynSpeaks have filled a vacuum, representing those who support the project in part or may not support it but are resigned to its inevitability.

However, others decided earlier that the process issue was definitive. As former City Planning Commissioner Ron Shiffman put it when announcing his support for DDDB, "The Municipal Art Society’s plan falls short because it avoids discussing the process issues and attempts to apply a design solution to a fundamentally flawed and ill-conceived plan."


  1. Ah! The old ends-versus-the-means question.

    And if we live in a less than pure world then doesn’t compromise make sense if it is the only way to live in a better world?

    But, offers to compromise don't work if the other side won't meet you half way.

    Nobody, Spitzer, Bloomberg nor the City Council is pushing FCR to compromise. I also think that in pushing his abuses further (like with the 421-a) Ratner has lost status as someone with whom people should be willing to negotiate.

    Politicians who “say” they want a better project and are sitting around “waiting” for the opportunity to compromise are doing nothing. If they think Brooklyn Speaks is affording cover for being ineffective then this is bad and we should oust such politicians from office.

    The Municipal Art Society is creating a space for dialogue and discussion about the project. That’s good because no one has anything good to say about it. It creates a shift.

    The Brooklyn Heights Association, part of Brooklyn Speaks, was doing good back when it was promoting things like showings of “Brooklyn Matters.” Now it is amongst the ineffective. One would think that the Brooklyn Heights Association knows that it could be effective even though it is not doing the job of being effective. One could argue that the BHA underestimates how extensively the blight caused by Atlantic Yards will reach or that the effect will certainly cascade into Brooklyn Heights. I am aware of another theory which is that the BHA thinks Spitzer/Bloomberg will punishingly withhold what it wants on the Brooklyn Bridge Park if the BHA doesn’t tolerate AY. If that were so, it would be a misestimation on the BHA’s part and the BHA would be misplaying it cards.

    Politicians could be effective with Ratner is they so chose. Spitzer, Bloomberg and the City Council each individually have the power to kill the project. If the City Council took back the commitment of city funds those funds could be used for worthwhile projects. Aside from killing the project outright each could demand compromise from Ratner.

    Ratner, I think he has given everyone ample excuse to oppose him out-and-out for abuse-upon-abuse and abuse-after-abuse. That applies to "compromise" politicians and MAS as well.

    And if we look to whether the end justifies the means? The project is a terrible project to end up with and has a long way to go before adjustments would justify ending up with it.


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