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Is criticism of Atlantic Center mall just 20/20 hindsight? (Nope)

So, should we give some slack to Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Center mall, which opened in 1996, a different era in an ever-changing Brooklyn? Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, during a recent TV discussion, suggested we should: "Certainly the Atlantic [Center] mall, the first mall, you can’t say it’s an attractive mall. We all know it’s not. But when it was built, I and almost all the other elected officials were celebrating, my god, somebody is investing something in the area."

However, the mall still shows up on lists of the city's most reviled buildings, and yesterday appeared in an amNewYork article headlined 10 to lose: Ugly buildings NYC would be better without.

The expert quoted on the Atlantic Center was Rob Lane, Regional Design Programs, Regional Plan Association, who said, according to the article:
"Seems like the focus should be on buildings and structures that are not just ugly in someone's opinion, but things that detract from, if not destroy, the most essential part of urbanity--the pedestrian experience. One example is Atlantic Center in Brooklyn. Not only is it an eyesore, it completely detracts from the walkers experience through long empty sidewalks and hallways and absolutely no street life whatsoever."

Bruce blames himself

We know Bruce Ratner's explanation for the isolation imposed in the interior, which reflects on the exterior as well. The New York Times reported 5/26/04:
“It’s a problem of malls in dense urban areas that kids hang out there, and it’s not too positive for shopping,” Mr. Ratner said. “Look, here you’re in an urban area, you’re next to projects, you’ve got tough kids.”

Ultimately, however, even Bruce Ratner blames the bad design on himself, not inexorable external forces, as New York magazine's Kurt Andersen wrote in an 11/20/05 column:
Until now, most of Ratner’s buildings have ranged from the uninspired to the bad, like his shopping center across from the Atlantic Yards. Even he admits the Atlantic Center mall is “not up to snuff. Philip Johnson did a first design, but I made a decision not to use him. I have to blame myself. I’ve been talking for ten years about trying to use ‘design architects’ instead of ‘developer architects.'"

In other words, it was a bottom-line decision that could have gone another way.


  1. Really, Ratner hasn't learned much. Atlantic Terminal mall is still a disaster in terms of design. Nearly everything about it is wrong in terms of pedestrian traffic, which is why several businesses have already gone kaput, from the Benihana's to the mattress store to what I suspect will soon be the Guitar Center and Buffalo Wild Wings.

    It's like the designers had never been in a mall before. Compare this to the Time Warner Center and you can only weep at what could have been a central destination for Brooklyn shoppers.

  2. Should we “condemn” (use eminent domain against) the “condemned” (the abhorred)?- Tear down Atlantic Center?

    I mean we do tear down shopping centers and they don’t have to be very old for us to do it.- In fact, it’s guaranteed that developers are eager to tear things down when it means replacing them with the reward of more density.

    Right now there is a proposal afoot to tear down the South Street Seaport mall. The proposal is to build densely out over the water, and then to explain why that maybe should be permitted, they would tear down something on land (the mall). Councilman Alan J. Gerson may wind up stopping it. (See: South Street Seaport Building Plan Faces Council Roadblock

    But things don’t need to be terribly old to tear them down. Atlantic Center opened in the fall of 1996. The South Street Seaport opened just 13 years before in the summer of 1983.

    If we are ready now to tear down the South Street Seaport which got undeserved acclaim when it was built maybe we can tear down the significantly worse Atlantic Center which has been justly decried from the beginning without waiting as long.- - - - It will give Ratner some land to build on and simultaneously a chance to correct mistakes rather than leave a longer trail of them behind.

    Interestingly, on the Stoler shows, the same series where Marty Markowitz was making apologies for, but minimizing, Atlantic Center’s design flaws, developers have, for some time now, been striking a beat about how the South Street Seaport’s time had come, how it was old and passe. You could tell something was up. Before the fall comes the denigration! But would there be denigration without the fond hope of more density? South Street Seaport mall tenants are collectively litigating. They are charging that the mall is being intentionally mismanaged to run it into the ground.

    What if we don’t tear down the Atlantic Center mall now? Well then, in 13 more years, probably before much of Atlantic Yards is ever built, it will catch up and be as old as the South Street Seaport is now. And then it will surely be ready to be torn down. The advantage to Ratner of waiting to tear it down is that he can use the interim years to acquire, tear down, and demolish other people’s property in pursuit of windfall subsidy through eminent domain abuse. He wouldn’t be able to do that if Atlantic Center were torn down now. But if he waits, then he can tear down Atlantic Center later for still more density without having to give up windfalls now.

    So can we predict the transition? On the Stoler shows of today Marty Markowitz makes apologies for, but minimizes, Atlantic Center’s design flaws. In just about a decade the drumbeat will start and the developers and Marty Markowitz’s future-day equivalent instead of minimizing the Atlantic Center’s flaws will exaggerate them- And we will hear the refrain- “Atlantic Center’s time has come!”

    In the meantime what does it mean to put ever more of beloved Brooklyn into Bruce Ratner’s questionable custody?

    I appreciate the AYR post’s two Ratner quotes wherein the poor design of Atlantic Center is accounted for, but there is another good one that was missed where Ratner said he is not “particularly proud of” Atlantic Center: (See: “Atlantic Terminal to bridge failed mall”

    In 2004 explaining the failures of his Atlantic Center mall (adjoining the proposed megadevelopment) Bruce Ratner said: "When I started, I did not have any understanding of the importance of architecture." It is doubtful that in a few short years Mr. Ratner has graduated from not understanding the importance of architecture to understanding the much greater complexities of megadevelopment and city building.

    Michael D. D. White
    Noticing New York


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