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"New Improved Brooklyn" revisited more than 4.5 years later (with a hint about an architect helping Gehry)

Let's flash back to Alexandra Lange's 4/26/04 article in New York Magazine, headlined New Improved Brooklyn, subtitled "A glittering skyline, waterfront condos, new jobs, Frank Gehry buildings galore: Brooklyn is on the verge of a makeover even more extreme than you thought, re-creating itself in Manhattan’s image. What’s wrong with this picture?"

It's a fascinating look back, given the promises unfulfilled, and it even contains a hint that Forest City Ratner, despite public orders to the contrary, once planned to have Hugh Hardy, the architect of the developer's Atlantic Terminal mall and Court Street cinema complex, collaborate with Frank Gehry on Atlantic Yards.

The big rezonings

Lange wrote about Department of City Planning director Amanda Burden's plans to rezone Downtown Brooklyn and the Williamburg-Greenpoint waterfront:
Burden’s plans, enabled by two lengthy rezoning proposals, could add more than fifteen new towers, 4.5 million square feet of office space, and 8,500 new housing units. The city’s plans would have been enough to herald a major conceptual shift, but then, in October, developer Bruce Ratner of Forest City Ratner announced that he had hired Frank Gehry to design an arena for what will become the Brooklyn Nets over the MTA rail yards at Flatbush and Atlantic avenues. The less-examined portion of Ratner’s plan for the Atlantic rail yards adds residential towers for 4,500 people between Fort Greene and Prospect Heights. Across the street, Ratner is rushing to complete the Atlantic Terminal, a mall that includes a Target in a big box below and 1,500 Bank of New York employees in a tower above.

Well, the mall got built, but the arena has gone through two more designs, and that roof garden would no longer be public (nor even green). (And, yes, the arena would not be "over the MTA rail yards," an error the New York Times made too often; if so, no eminent domain would have been needed.)

In the BAM cultural district

Lange wrote:
Two blocks away, the BAM Local Development Corporation has just announced a second Frank Gehry project: The Theatre for a New Audience will be housed, sometime circa 2007, in a building designed by Gehry and echt–New York architect Hugh Hardy. The theater will share a triangular site with a public Visual and Performing Arts Library designed by up-and-coming Mexican architect Enrique Norten.

Well, Gehry's been ousted from the theater project, and the library plan--for an impressive building whose cost way outstripped the library's fundraising ability--is history.

What is Brooklyn?

Lange tried to assess the stakes:
On one level, this is simply the mother of all NIMBY (not in my backyard) battles—since Gehry’s stadium and its accompanying towers will literally be built in some Brooklynites’ backyards. And Brooklyn’s potent, sometimes cloying nostalgia for the way things were—dese and dose, egg creams and spaldeens—can fuel a knee-jerk rage at any change at all. But now there’s another force at work. In the past five years, Brooklyn has reached a new maturity and self-confidence. Gehry is arriving at a moment when the borough is fashionable, even by Manhattan’s exacting standards. Who wants to live on the Upper West Side when you can live in Park Slope? Who needs the East Village when you can socialize on Smith Street? Ratner and Burden seem to want to raise the borough up, make Brooklyn take a quantum leap, create a new kind of city—one that more closely resembles Manhattan. Which seems wrongheaded to many current residents. The real topic here is, what is Brooklyn?

Indeed. While some arena opponents might be called (and still are) NIMBYs, the emergence and embrace of the UNITY plan should have pretty much put that to rest.

And the question "what is Brooklyn" might have been well put to Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, who cloyingly invokes the Brooklyn Dodgers when plumping for the arena, and who seemed lost in the desperate 1990s when, in 2003, he told Brooklynites they should be thankful for Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards investment, rather than driving a hard bargain for some very valuable land.

Downtown a place for jobs?

Lange cited the city's justification for rezoning Downtown Brooklyn:
But residents, the city says, are refusing to see the greater good; in the post-9/11 era, the boroughs need to play their part in what is delicately referred to as “business-continuity planning.”

“When you look across the Hudson River, you can see all the jobs that should have been in New York City,” says Amanda Burden. “Downtown Brooklyn has every advantage and is completely underzoned right now for development.”

By increasing the possible heights on several city blocks, and assembling large land parcels that include the lot on which Chatel’s house sits, City Planning hopes to create sites for four new towers, of 18 to 40 stories each. Its goals are to knit MetroTech, Ratner’s earlier, much reviled project, on Adams, to the bustling retail corridor along Fulton Mall, creating a tall, tight Downtown business district and to connect this new, improved Downtown to Boerum Hill and Cobble Hill.

Well, there are sites for many more than four towers. Most, however, contain (or will contain) market-rate housing, given that the market for office space tanked and the city, in its lack of foresight (and pressure from activists) refused to consider requiring affordable housing as a tradeoff for the increased density and value offered to developers.

Design issues

Lange pointed to Ratner's checkered record with design:
Frank Gehry’s arena is Bruce Ratner’s glittering gift to Brooklyn’s intelligentsia. Since Bilbao, Gehry has levitated out of the architecture ghetto to become an American aesthetic hero, a god with feet of titanium. “Having a Frank Gehry–designed arena in Downtown Brooklyn will put Brooklyn on the map globally,” says Burden. “We know how great Brooklyn is; now everyone will know how great it is.”

“Bringing in Frank Gehry to do everything, that’s huge,” says Bruce Bender, a Forest City Ratner executive vice-president, a born-and-bred Brooklynite, lately of Peter Vallone’s office, who lives in Park Slope. “He could have gotten away with picking another architect, but he wanted it to be very special.”

Of course, many of the neighbors see Gehry as window-dressing, a beautiful distraction, a Trojan horse for Ratner and his cookie-cutter condos and big-box stores. To say that Ratner is not a figure most would entrust with Brooklyn’s aesthetic future would be an understatement. MetroTech is inarguably bland and deserted after five and on the weekends. His Atlantic Center mall is worthy of a Mike Davis inner-city architecture rant.

“The biggest complaint about this,” Bender says, gesturing across Atlantic Avenue at the sunken rail yards, “is that they don’t want it to be that,” pointing to Ratner’s hated Atlantic Center—a tan box with sidewalk-side retail on no sides, zero interior amenities, and long, hot institutional hallways between the few popular stores: Pathmark, Old Navy, Party City. “Bruce is very focused on upgrading Atlantic Center to the standards of Atlantic Terminal.”

Atlantic Terminal is an improvement: It is brick, or, at least, brick-faced, and its squat office tower is self-effacing. The architect, Hugh Hardy of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer, has even given the whole a ballpark entrance: a white, semi-circular pavilion that pops out toward the intersection of Flatbush and Fourth Avenue. Hardy is a classic choice, and will be collaborating with Gehry in the next block, but he is best known to Brooklyn as the designer of the borough’s second most reviled building, the rick-rack-sided twelve-plex on Court Street in Brooklyn Heights, a pile of misplaced giant Christmas gifts.

(Emphasis added)

It seems like Lange broke some news here, in retrospect, given that Gehry has said he'd typically bring in other architects but "the client insisted that I do them all."

Could it be that, given a ten-year (official) or 20- (acknowledged by project landscape architect Laurie Olin) or 30-year (more likely, if ever) buildout of the project, Gehry, who turns 80 next February 28, was never expected to design the whole project?

After all, Gehry in 2006 said, "The determining factor [in taking a commission] is: Can I get it done while I am still alive?"

Open space & a superblock

Lange suggests that the architects, not the developer, drove the superblock design:
It is this desire for groves and lawns, a true escape, that pushed the architects to ask for the closing of Pacific Street, and the creation of what looks very like a sixties superblock. Olin dismisses this criticism—“We’re not going to build thirties towers in a greensward. We’ve learned in the last 30 years about seeing and being seen”—a paraphrase of “eyes on the street,” one of urban theorist Jane Jacobs’s most valuable insights.

Well, undoubtedly they could build a better superblock, with buildings flush to the street as opposed to isolated in a park. But that still doesn't mean the public, as opposed to project residents, would use the open space much. (Streetsblog hosted some interesting comments, some supportive of Olin, given his track record.)

Olin, in a 2/25/07 interview with the New York Observer, said he was brought in well after the decision to demap the street was made; the Observer's Matthew Schuerman observed that the street bed was needed to marginally increase the already-low open space ratio in the area.

The market at work?

Lange wote:
The most contentious issue is the displacement, via eminent domain, of the 200 to 400 people who live and work on and between Pacific and Dean streets. Ratner says he has to condemn these blocks of brownstones, condominiums, and small businesses, because the arena won’t fit any other way. Bender says the market has been given enough time to repurpose the old bakeries, the mini storage centers.
(Emphasis added)

Well, the number at risk of displacement--most, ultimately, not via eminent domain but the threat thereof--was 463 residents (plus 400 in a homeless shelter) and 225 workers, according to a Village Voice report, using numbers from activist Patti Hagan. (Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, based on work by Hagan and others, prepared a March 2004 census that showed 334 residents--209 tenants, 125 owners--and 235 employees, plus the 400 people who regularly use the shelter, some for over a year.)

The second sentence in that paragraph is misleading. True, the arena wouldn't fit without condemning the south side of Pacific Street and north side of Dean Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues: Block 1127. But the portion of Block 1128, on Dean and Pacific streets just east of Sixth Avenue, is needed for Forest City Ratner's plans to stage arena construction. And Block 1129, bounded by Pacific and Dean streets and Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues, was chosen for interim surface parking and Forest City Ratner's plans to maximize square footage.

And the third sentence is simply a lie. The market wasn't given much time because the neighborhood wasn't rezoned. Repurposed industrial buildings like Atlantic Arts, Spalding, and Newswalk were the result of spot rezonings. The Ward Bakery could have been repurposed and, as reported, owner Shaya Boymelgreen (the Newswalk developer) once considered it for a hotel.

Forest City Ratner got the state to override zoning rather than let the market work. Here's the ESDC's head-in-the-sand take.

Community contact?

Lange wrote:
Gehry and his associates have already begun holding videoconferences with members of the affected community, and the design is evolving from the publicized model. “It’s a shifting plan because they have community meetings. They call and say, We’re going to leave this building and that building and What if this happens? and What if that happens? We do a lot of what ifs, and ands, and buts.”

Videoconferences with members of the affected community? I sure don't remember the invite. Gehry has notoriously not been permitted to meet with the public.

(Update: I'm told that one such invitation-only videoconference was held, at the request of community members; the developer was not receptive to the idea of moving the arena.)

Battery Park City?

Lange checked in with the project's leading political opponent:
Like the Downtown Plan’s rendering of Willoughby Street as a second Rockefeller Center, Ratner’s idea of residential towers—however elegant—seems airlifted in from the other bank. “It’s a Battery Park City,” says City Councilwoman Letitia James, who represents Fort Greene as a member of the Working Families Party. She, practically alone among the better-known Brooklyn politicians (Marty, Chuck), has vehemently opposed Ratner’s plan, speaking against the arena, against eminent-domain abuse, for affordable housing, for jobs for Brooklynites. The Atlantic Yards plan is largely out of the city’s hands, on state-owned land, funded by a private developer. But it could have as great an impact, and as many towers, as the Downtown Plan: home to the Brooklyn Nets, 2.1 million square feet of office space, 4,500 housing units, and 300,000 square feet of retail space. The tallest projected tower, at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush, would top out at 620 feet—108 feet higher than the Williamsburgh Savings Bank building.

The irony is that Battery Park City, while criticized for not fulfilling promises of affordable housing, has much-praised open space and a projected density, at full buildout, a little more than half that of Atlantic Yards, at least as approved.

Lange wrote:
But to many, particularly the architecturally savvy, BPC is an image of an evil to be avoided at all costs—antiseptic, overpriced, homogenous, all that is not Brooklyn.

Affordable housing

The article didn't press James to explore a contradiction:
Tucked into the back of a social-service agency, James’s district office doesn’t even have a view of the back side of the Atlantic Center, much less the parks on the future arena site. Her barred windows look across a set of bare backyards. No pictures on the walls. Not even a flower on the desk. “The No. 1 issue throughout the city of New York is the crisis in affordable housing,” says James. “There are these ten acres of land available, and I would like to provide for the needs of my constituents. I’d like to see an expansion of Atlantic Commons”—three-story rowhouses, inexpensively built, between South Oxford and Cumberland streets. “I’d like to build more townhouses, I’d like to build some more rental units and some more commercial and retail units. Something which is more in character with the community.”

Well, like many of us, James has learned a lot more about urban planning over the years. Atlantic Commons, while pleasant enough for its residents, is far less dense than the infrastructure could support.

Atlantic Yards, as approved, would supply a significant amount (2250 units) of subsidized housing, even if only about half of that would be accessible to the "real Brooklyn" and it might take a very long time to get there. The complication is, to get that number of units, the developer, signing a privately negotiated affordable housing bonus with the advocacy group ACORN, got to decide the density. And the total is by no means guaranteed.

Manhattan vs. Brooklyn

Lange found more subtlety when looking into plans for the BAM LDC:
“We talked about the difference between Manhattan and Brooklyn, looking between the two places to try to identify what is the Brooklyn thing,” says Charles Renfro, the Diller Scofidio + Renfro partner who was team leader for the firm’s BAM LDC master plan. “We researched how many artists lived there, and Brooklyn has way more artists than Manhattan. The reality about Brooklyn is that people are living there and doing their stuff and not screaming out for attention.”

...“The Fort Greene district lies at the crossroads of all these different forces—how do you make something interesting that’s not dictatorial?” Renfro says. “How do you make something that deals with the scale of the city while not being banal? How do you reinforce it but also make it more interesting? We made images which tried to evoke a spirit, an experience of the place, as opposed to a look.”

Open spaces, like the one Norten describes, were a part of that spirit, as was an attempt to remove as few buildings as possible. “It is certainly a contrast to the Atlantic Yards development, which is exactly the kind of thing we tried not to do—a wiping clean of the blocks, and a top-down megastructure placed in it,” Renfro says.

In conclusion

Despite her sympathy for grand plans like Gehry's, Lange was skeptical in her conclusion:
It shouldn’t take towers along the waterfront to recenter our mental maps of New York on the East River, not at Central Park. Brooklyn is already different, inextricably linked, but equal. It shouldn’t be back-office territory, but front-office space for smaller businesses. Those potential Williamsburg towers really are on the Fifth Avenue of the future. Enrique Norten’s library, Frank Gehry’s theater and arena are equivalent to Herzog & de Meuron’s South Bank Tate Modern—jewels in the setting that is Brooklyn, rather than alien presences.

The trick, then, for Brooklyn’s neighbors is to negotiate with the city, with the developers, with the architects, from a position of strength. Know neighborhood character, and admit its weaknesses. Point the Manhattan developers to real instances of blight. Look to the development that has been and is now already occurring, without benefit of tax breaks and zoning incentives.

The fear of Manhattanization is not, in this case, knee-jerk nimby-ism, but the sense that many chose to Brooklynize instead—to move here from other places, to stay here for multiple generations. What is attracting all this top-down money is work that has already been done by people happy to say, when asked at a party, No, I don’t live in New York. I live in Brooklyn.

(Emphasis added)

The trick was that Mayor Mike Bloomberg and his allies never tried to let the neighbors negotiate.

Whitehead: our own eminent domain

An accompanying essay is headlined Don't You Be My Neighbor, subtitled "Colson Whitehead laments the latest death of Brooklyn at the hands of developers— but says we all practice forms of eminent domain."

The novelist wrote:
I used to live in Fort Greene, and whenever I visit my old neighborhood, I am tormented by the same absurd thought: I should have bought that crack house when I had the chance. Never mind that I was broke—this line of thinking is a natural member of that gang of peculiar New York regrets.

AY resistance

He wrote about those resisting Atlantic Yards, reminding us of a cohort that doesn't get acknowledged:
For weeks now, signs have been visible in the windows of Pacific Street apartments, saying SAVE OUR HOMES and HELL NO WE WON’T GO. Apartment buildings and businesses will be demolished to make way for these grand plans, and it’s estimated that 200 to 400 people will be displaced, though this figure doesn’t include a shadow number—the people who would have lived in the neighborhood in its current incarnation but won’t be able to afford it. Half of them probably don’t even live in the city limits now, haven’t bought their tickets yet.

What about the sky?

Whitehead wrote not without irony:
It was impossible not to notice the sky that afternoon. You could see it, lots of it. There was simply too much sky there, and the city hates it when there’s too much sky. The space needs to be filled. The anti-development folks were so small compared with the empty railroad tracks. You had to ask, What is the power of people against the might of buildings? I wish them luck. The people, that is. The buildings don’t need it.

The next new thing is always ugly in proportion to its inevitability. Is it the death of Fort Greene? It’s the death of Fort Greene.

But the current Fort Greene was the death of the one before it. Eminent domain approaches in many guises. It comes in sledgehammers, bulldozers, pieces of paper that declare in legalese, “This building condemned.” Then there is eminent domain in its quieter, less bombastic forms: the arrival of the goateed and bohemian-minded, rent increases, the monied, the condoed....

Does displacement simply segue into eminent domain or is there a difference?

Beyond adaptation

He concluded:
In the end, the same energy that draws us here, binds us to this place, is alternately creative and destructive, razing here, renovating there, and it’s all we can do to adapt. I doubt that the well-heeled future inhabitants of those Pacific Street high-rises will be happy come game day, when the jerseyed hordes bubble out of the Atlantic Avenue station. The only people who are happy and without care are the little cartoon people who promenade across architectural plans, in the artist’s renderings of the Atlantic Yards, the new World Trade Center, the Olympic Village in Queens. Certainly their features betray no troubled thoughts as they stand before the fountains, stadiums, and tree-lined plazas. It helps that they have no faces.

He's a brilliant writer, but his acceptance of inevitability sounds somewhat akin to that of Danny Hoch in his recent one-man show about gentrification, "Taking Over." The alternative to acceptance is community engagement in planning.

While many might see that engagement as dull and demanding, keep in mind that New York City as of now structurally inequipped; the community boards, which service areas the size of small cities, generally have just one professional staffer.


  1. In the world of Atlantic Yards Report and DDDB, people are not mistaken or wrong...they are liars.

    It is always sad to watch community activists' slow descent into paranoia.

    I've seen it up close. There is no remedy. If they win, it merely justifies their specialness. If they lose, it merely justifies their paranoia. Same thing.

  2. If Bobbo/NetIncome/Mr. W. agrees with Bender that the market was given a chance to work, maybe he should supply some evidence.

  3. Too often in this world of ours liar is considered an unmentionable 4 letter word.

    But in this world of ours liars must be called liars when they, uhm, how to put it...lie. Otherwise they'll continuously get away with it. Which is what Bobbo seems to prefer.

    Atlantic Yards has been plagued with lies and the lying liars who tell them from 2003 at the start, straight through 2009.

    In the world of Bobbo, etiquette requires calling lies "public relations" or, and how silly can you be Bobbo, "mistakes." So be it.

    But the rest of us don't have to follow such an insidious construct.

  4. Bobbo should sign his name Bob Windrem.


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