Wednesday, December 30, 2009

During a short walk from Fort Greene to Prospect Heights, the contrasts and contradictions of Brooklyn

It was just a short walk, less than a third of a mile. But Brooklyn's contrasts and contradictions were manifest during a walk I took on November 24, a few hours after we learned that the state Court of Appeals had green-lighted the state's use of eminent domain, justified in part by removing "blight" in Prospect Heights, to build the Atlantic Yards project.

There, at the corner of Fulton Street and South Portland Avenue, a major shopping corridor in the gentrified section of Fort Greene, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz hosted a press conference outside the new Greenlight Bookstore, a most-local independent bookstore started with the help of a prize in a small business plan contest sponsored by the Brooklyn Public Library.

The new novel by Brooklyn author Jonathan Lethem, a member of the Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn advisory board and noted critic of the Atlantic Yards plan, was in the window.

Markowitz and other were boasting "Shop Brooklyn" buttons, announcing a seasonal initiative. Markowitz's press people--the only ones looking wary at the cheery event--had sent out a notice that Markowitz would address the Atlantic Yards eminent domain decision at the event, but first there was some promotion to do, and Markowitz managed his usual enthusiasm.

After ten minutes of boosterish speeches by Markowitz and Wellington Sharpe of the Fulton Area Business Alliance, however, I couldn't stick around.

(Photo by Kathryn Kirk)

There was a Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn press conference just a few blocks away, a straight shot down South Portland Avenue, then across broad Atlantic Avenue, past the Vanderbilt Yard and then buildings within the Atlantic Yards footprint that, as of that day, were more likely than ever to be demolished.

The march of towers

First, though, I looked west, with three new residential towers the horizon; in the foreground was the oldest, the Forte Tower in Fort Greene, where poor sales led the lender to take over the building.

Behind it were two rental buildings, the Brooklyner in Downtown Brooklyn, on blocks so nondescript the marketing plan sinks to generic banality ("designed for the people who make Brooklyn an interesting place to live") and Forest City Ratner's architecturally more interesting 80 DeKalb, which also has the advantage of bordering Fort Greene Park.

(Photo by Tracy Collins)

The upshot: the march of new towers is continuing, with 80 DeKalb and the Forte threading Downtown Brooklyn through Fort Greene, and then to the Atlantic Terminal area, site of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank tower and the Bank of New York tower.

And that march would continue to the Atlantic Yards site should residential buildings be built. While AY opponents say the project would damage the residential feel of Prospect Heights and Fort Greene, it's more a question of degree. After all, most of them support the dense--but not as dense--UNITY plan, which would be limited to the Vanderbilt Yard (and wouldn't require a massive parking lot).

At Hanson Place

I walked down South Portland at Hanson Place, noticing the landscape change from row houses to mid-rise buildings, with the Atlantic Center and Atlantic Terminal malls to the west, and the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts , in a building renamed for the (tragically killed) Council Member James E. Davis. The current exhibition offered an apt parallel to the eminent domain fight. The title: "They Won't Budge: Africans in Europe."

Toward urban renewal

There are row houses on South Portland below Hanson, but the block is more clearly a product of urban renewal. On the west side I saw the first of two Mitchell-Lama towers, home to Delia Hunley-Adossa, who was trounced by City Council Member Letitia James in the recent Democratic primary, but may be back for the 2013 race.

Just to the south came Forest City Ratner's "blighted" Atlantic Center Mall, posing blank walls to the streets, and to the east, the modern row houses of Atlantic Commons, meant to invoke the older neighborhood nearby.

Below Atlantic Commons, the ten-story mixed-income Atlantic Terrace project, begun by the Fifth Avenue Committee long after Atlantic Yards was announced, was nearing completion. It's all part of ATURA, the longstanding Atlantic Terminal Urban Renewal Area.

Crossroads

Then came wide Atlantic Avenue, the official border between Fort Greene and Prospect Heights, with the eastern edge of the Atlantic Center mall--the beneficiary of a superblock--at the corner.

When I crossed Atlantic, approaching the Vanderbilt Yard, a barrier bore some gnomic posters, "Atlantic Yards is___", leaving observers to fill in the blank.

(Photos--above, below--by Tracy Collins)

Down Sixth Avenue

The street below Atlantic became Sixth Avenue, with the former Spalding factory turned condos, now owned by Forest City Ratner and housing the Community Liaison Office, at the corner. As I've written, the demolition of this staunch building, already renovated, would be a final sign there's no turning back.

To the right, looking west on Pacific Street, I could see several empty lots, signs of demolition, and the most prominent building, the former warehouse turned the 31-unit Atlantic Art building, with just one apartment occupied, that of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn spokesman Daniel Goldstein and his family.

Then, at the next block, a crowd of neighborhood residents, associated activists, and journalists, had gathered outside Freddy's Bar & Backroom, the spiritual home of the AY opposition and in more danger than ever of closing via eminent domain. (Now they're gearing up with chains.)

Some two-and-a-half years earlier, at the 5/24/07 Ratnerville Singout held at Freddy's, one song was titled "Freddy's is an Escalator Now," a suggestion ofthe fate of the space should the arena be built.

Actually, a tower--once office, now residential--was once planned for that corner. But an arena would be coming first, plus perhaps a tower to the west, at the corner of Dean and Flatbush. So the Freddy's corner more likely would be left as interim open space or, rather, an "Urban Experience."

In Prospect Heights

On the south side of Dean Street, as shown in the photo, I saw some Prospect Heights row houses. The residents can't be thrilled about throngs of arena-goers on their block.

Maybe that's why there's a city zoning regulation requiring arenas to be at least 200 feet from residential districts. And why the state, in the interest of furthering Atlantic Yards, would override that regulation.

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