Monday, November 23, 2009

Bloomberg architecture critic Russell: "Ratner won’t keep any promises that prove inconvenient"

Yet another architecture critic has slammed the new design for the Atlantic Yards arena and offered some (misplaced) nostalgia for the forsaken Frank Gehry plan.

Still, James S. Russell, the critic for Bloomberg, grasps a fundamental issue that has eluded too many observers: "[Developer Bruce] Ratner won’t keep any promises that prove inconvenient."

Project changed for the worse

Russell writes, in a commentary headlined Bruce Ratner’s Brooklyn Arena Awaits Judges’ Ruling, Bond Sale:
The project has already changed drastically for the worse. It was once a glittering Gehry blueprint that would have covered the rail yards with a glass-walled arena and sprouted 16 towers wrapped in fluttering ribbons of metal and glass.

As the climate for property development went frigid, Ratner dumped Gehry and brought in a sports-design specialist, the San Francisco office of architect/engineer Ellerbe Becket Co., which was recently bought by design giant AECOM Technology Corp.

When images of the revised arena project -- a bloated, brown airplane hangar -- were greeted with revulsion, Forest City Ratner disavowed them. The developer hastily married Manhattan-based SHoP Architects with Ellerbe Becket. SHoP wrapped the brown blight in a pelt the color of rusting steel. The gambit got the arena cost down to $800 million from $1 billion, according to Forest City Ratner.

The result still smacks of hack expediency. One of SHoP’s overlapping metal bands thins as it arches into a broad porch over a bleak plaza, where Gehry had planned to build a high, glass-walled public space. Instead we would have a toad hunkering at one of the most important intersections in Brooklyn, that of Flatbush and Atlantic avenues.
A couple of footnotes. First, the arena would cover much more than the western segment of the Vanderbilt Yard but extend a block south. Second, perhaps the most importantly, the only images issued were images of the revised arena, not the project as a whole.

And, to be clear, the "gambit" that saved money was the trade-off from Gehry to Ellerbe Becket/SHoP, not between the latter pair.

While surely a standalone arena, without the mechanicals of the surrounding towers integrated into the structure, would be cheaper than the Gehry vision, it's still not clear why this arena would cost $800 million.

Gehry's plan

Russell writes:
Gehry’s 2005 master plan was flamboyant and untidy, leaving important issues, like traffic, not fully addressed. But it injected tremendous energy into downtown Brooklyn, while subtly weaving together areas long divided by the sunken rail yards.
Well, it was a 2003 master plan. It got the most praise for wrapping the arena in four towers, thus dampening its impact, as well as the Urban Room at the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues. Not only was traffic not fully addressed, but the plan depended--and still depends--on a massive surface parking lot bookended by "fingers" of the Prospect Heights Historic District.

Also, the project would be just outside Downtown Brooklyn, though arguably would extend it.

But even relatively moderate critics like the Municipal Art Society critiqued Gehry's plan for not weaving together divided areas, given the use of a superblock and the expectation of massive parking lots. And the UNITY Plan would do much better to weave areas together, given the extension of streets from Fort Greene.

Dissing SHoP

In contrasts to critics like the New York Times's Nicolai Ouroussoff and the New Yorker's Paul Goldberger, Russell is unimpressed by the revision of the arena design. He writes:
Fans would stand soaking on the plaza on rainy days. The broad cineplex-look entry awkwardly squeezes into a much tighter gathering space and concourse. The secondary entrances have shrunk to the size of subway holes.

The spacious yet largely useless plaza and the beaklike porch occupy land slated in the Gehry plan for an iconic commercial tower once dubbed Miss Brooklyn. Ratner has promised the tower will be built. That means lopping off the beak, which would destroy what little integrity the design possesses.

Ratner must insist on the tower’s eventual presence - even if he cancels it later -- because giving it up now means redoing the environmental review, as Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn seeks, costing him the favorable financing.
Not only that, the absence of the tower severely cuts into the projections for new tax revenue. And, as noted, there's no design for the arena block any more, much less the project as a whole.

In conclusion

Russell concludes:
Ratner blames not-in-my-backyard delays and the real-estate meltdown, but he shouldn’t have been surprised. Protesting neighbors are predictable -- they now correctly fear that empty buildings and cracked asphalt parking lots will blight the neighborhood for years. They suspect affordable housing backloaded in the project will never be built.

Yes, the economy tanked, but Ratner had to figure that New York would boom and bust in the course of his project, as it repeatedly has.

Brooklyn might have been proud of the Gehry arena. Swapping it for a life-sucking eyesore suggests that Ratner won’t keep any promises that prove inconvenient.
(Emphasis added)

Indeed, Ratner's MetroTech took much longer than originally promised. Delays should be no surprise. Russell points out the likelihood of continued blight but could have added that such blight belies the ostensible justification for the use of eminent domain.

Legal cases

Russell notes that a ruling for the plaintiffs in the pending eminent domain could formally block the arena.

He cites another suit seeking additional environmental review, and says a victory in that could block arena financing. While that may be true, we can't be sure; also, there are two suits, not one, making similar claims, as well as a pending case challenging the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's revision of the Vanderbilt Yard deal with Forest City Ratner.

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