Thursday, June 11, 2009

OK, we get it: It's all BrooklynSpeaks's fault (and other Brooklyn Eagle misreadings)

So, who are The Spoilers, in the words of Brooklyn Eagle columnist Henrik Krogius?

Not just "the first-tier opponents of Atlantic Yards" like Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn but also other neighborhood groups like the Cobble Hill Association, Community Board 6, and even the Brooklyn Heights Association (BHA), which "took a negatively-tinged wait-and-see stance on Atlantic Yards."

That means that the BHA joined BrooklynSpeaks, which has (had?) a philosophy of mend-it-don't-end-it. If Krogius is going to take a swing at BrooklynSpeaks, he has to also take on the corporate-friendly Regional Plan Association, which criticized the project but essentially endorsed it.

Who else to blame?

Krogius writes:
What is so disappointing is that so many Brooklynites jumped immediately to a hostile view of the project rather than seeing it for the brilliant proposal it was. Some sensational local papers abetted the hostility. The literary and intellectual set, which might have been expected to respond to so imaginative and idea, tended instead to retreat to a sentimental preservationism (preservation of what?!), as manifested by such as the author Jonathan Lethem and the children’s performer Dan Zanes. There was even a purported “documentary” film created to fight the project.

Sentimental preservationism? In his open letter to Frank Gehry in Slate magazine, Lethem wrote, in part:
When local politicians speak of the need for growth and renovation in the partly desolate areas encompassed within Ratner's footprint, they're not wrong. Those of us who have long lived in range of the Atlantic and Flatbush intersection do connect that area with the vanishing of the Dodgers and other symbols of Brooklyn's disappointment and thwarted potential. It's precisely that legacy of long expectation that dictates we not accept a pre-emptive engulfment by a single private corporation—especially one so imperiously allergic to genuine dialogue and meaningful compromise, and with such a bad track record.

As for the documentary, it's called Brooklyn Matters. Sure, it's prosecutorial, but it might teach Krogius a thing or two. So might video of the oversight hearing May 29.

Unasked questions

Krogius writes:
Frank Gehry’s design for the Nets arena will not get built, its cost having escalated through a combination of lawsuit-caused delays, inflation, and the economic downturn. Instead of Gehry’s elegant oval situated between the bases of towers to either side – a design that would have added real interest to the streetscape along both Flatbush Avenue and Atlantic Avenue – we will get something looking more like an airplane hangar, designed by the sports arena specialists Ellerbe Becket of Kansas City and expected to shave one-fifth off the $1-billion cost of the Gehry design.

Well, yes, Gehry's design would have added interest, but was it realistic? Were any office towers ever realistic? Once the last office tower, Building 1, became un-realistic, Gehry's plan unraveled. What about the funding for affordable housing--was there ever enough to make the other three towers realistic?

Why did the State Funding Agreement, signed in September 2007 before the economic crash, give Forest City Ratner 12 years to build Phase 1, essentially giving the developer an easy out from Gehry's plan? And why should Ellerbe Becket's off-the-shelf arena cost $800 million?

How planning might work

Krogius takes a jab at planning:
Community planning boards, established as a way to prevent the roughshod bulldozing of neighborhoods by Robert Moses, as well as to further the street-oriented ideas of Jane Jacobs, have had some beneficial effect in modifying the more disruptive elements of proposed projects. But mostly they are not really planning boards in the sense of originating ideas. The notion of “community planning,” as it was invoked by critics of Atlantic Yards, consisted of trying to throw out the original concept and substitute for it some tepid, uninteresting, banal alternatives. It was a strictly reactive approach to a proposal whose vision and scope had not occurred to those reacting.

Community boards do, in fact, create 197-a plans that can be frameworks for development but are so underfunded they can't regularly initiate bold plans.

The "vision and scope" of Atlantic Yards had not occurred to city officials either, because, as a City Planning official said, they weren't yet focusing on the active railyard. Had there been a different planning process--notably an open competition--more ideas would have emerged.

The UNITY Plan is hardly perfect, but it has evolved, and would evolve more should it go forward. But shouldn't Krogius address UNITY's concept of developing a large site in multiple parcels, so as to speed development, rather than letting Forest City Ratner control it for "decades," as Empire State Development CEO Marisa Lago said in April?

Abuse of process?

Krogius has no problem with trumped-up claims of blight, concluding that the real blame has to fall on Atlantic Yards’ willful opponents and the lack of civic outrage in Brooklyn that allowed them latitude to pursue their abuse of the legal process. Even Pratt Institute played an ignoble part in the sorry history. So, if Ratner became cynical, there was basis for his cynicism.

DDDB attorneys on Tuesday addressed the question of frivolous litigation.

As for Pratt, I'm assuming Krogius does not mean the Institute's caution (so I've heard) about allowing firm security enforcement at the recent oversight hearing but rather the sober March 2005 Slam Dunk or Air Ball? report the Institute put out, which contained the much-ignored (at the time) conclusion that Forest City Ratner's economic claims for the project were bunk.

Taking on Jane Jacobs

Krogius observes:
It is time to come away from the belief that only small projects are desirable. The Jane Jacobs approach has proved excessively limiting.

True, Jacobs is often invoked by those who speak for neighborhood scale, though the Jacobsian Roberta Brandes Gratz rightly wrote in City Limits that Jacobs believed in big projects like mass transit; boulevards and greenways; real public space; vast school and health care systems; and economic development that did not rely on large construction projects.

More recently, planner Alexander Garvin, no neighborhood preservationist, has argued for strengthening the public realm, "the quality of life of a great city,” including streets, squares, transportation systems, schools, public buildings, and parks: "Because if the framework is right, then private development around it will grow up in a way which is complementary.”

That doesn't sound like AY.

Reflecting on the exhibit honoring Jacobs, I wondered (spurred by commentators like Andrew Blum) that the question remained as to how today's Jacobsians could best support the provision of more affordable housing, a selling point for Atlantic Yards. It's a lingering issue.

But Jacobs wrote her seminal book nearly 50 years ago. So perhaps the most resonant advice, for Krogius and the rest of us (who must listen to Brett Yormark), comes from Paul Goldberger:
So if there is any way to follow Jane Jacobs, it is to think of her as showing us not a physical model for city form but rather a perceptual model for skepticism.

2 comments:

  1. The major thing missing in the Krogius article, is that the community boards were excluded from this planning process. I have maintained that if Atlantic Yards went through the City's Ulurp process much like the Dock Street development was required to, it would have been built by now even with all the controversy. Ratner has no one to blame for the fact it didn't go through that process except himself. Finally I do attend Brooklyn Speaks meetings for that other BHA...the Boerum Hill Association. What Brooklyn Speaks tried to do was establish a dialog between all the constituencies and the Powers that are including Ratner to make the project better not to stop it. If that is viewed as stopping it so be it but it wasn't intended that way. Smeyer418

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  2. Jane Jacobs was not categorically against "big" projects -- this is a misreading of her work by adversaries and admirers alike. What Jacobs was against was the automatic assumption -- very common in the 1950s, and still not uncommon today -- that big is (supposedly) pretty much ALWAYS better than small (e.g., "Make no small plans . . . ").

    Here's some evidence:

    In "Death and Life . . ." Jacobs explicitly says (sorry I don't have the page numbers handy at the moment) something like, "Cities need large medical centers, they need highways [for trucking], etc. , but it's also important to first understand how successful cities and successful urban districts work so that we will recognize whatever negatives such big projects have and know how to successfully mitigate them."

    Also, in "Death and Life . . ." Jacobs praises Rockefeller Center -- almost the definition of a "big" project" -- quite a number of times. (Her comments about Rockefeller Center can be found using the index.)

    The only thing about Rockefeller Center that I recall Jacobs ever criticizing (and this may be in an interview rather than in "Death and Life . . . ") is its homogenous design scheme -- which she seems to feels is a bit monotonous and deadening. (Personally speaking, I love it and don't see this problem at all.) However, in the same statement, she goes on to say that the high density of the development helps overcome this defect.

    Furthermore, as far as I know Jacobs has never criticized the construction of such big [some gigantic] projects as the New York City water and sewer system, the New York City subway and elevated system, NYC's big bridges and tunnels, it's big airports, its outer borough boulevards, etc.

    In mindlessly claiming that Jacobs was supposedly categorically against big things (e.g., projects, plans, organizations, etc.), it seems to me that her adversaries -- and many of her admirers, too -- make a number of mistakes.

    1) They forget that "big" and "small" are relative terms. For instance, none of today's "big" phone companies are as big as Amerian Telephone & Telegraph (which I believe was a publicly regulated monopoly) in its heyday. Yet, these companies are not small "mom and pop" operations either (nor should they be).

    It seems to me that Jacobs herself doesn't make this mistake, though. (And if I'm not mistaken, she actually explicitly addresses this issue in one of her books.)

    2) They overlook the various REASONS why Jacobs cautioned against (but did not categorically condemn) bigness and touted smallness.

    Jacobs was interested in understanding processes: why cities grow or stagnate and decline; why economies grow or stagnate and decline; why civilizations grow or stagnate and decline. And her concern with "big" vs. "small" was with regard to how bigness or smallness affects, for better or worse, these processes in cities, economies and civilizations.

    There are times when "bigness" works, and it is an asset; there are times when "bigness" doesn't work, and it is an impediment.

    3) One of the reasons that big planned projects tend to be problematic is that they tend to little more than a mindless multiplication and/or enlargement of a simplistic idea. Most big projects (e.g., Stuyvesant Town, etc.) fit into this category. But some big projects (e.g., Rocefeller Center, etc.) don't.

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