Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A "Brooklyn version of Roppongi Hills"? Could densifying New York make Atlantic Yards site look like Tokyo?

I'm finally catching up on New York Magazine's 10/9/11 Urban Design issue, in which architecture critic Justin Davidson has a mostly astute essay, including a section headlined What New York Can Steal From Hong Kong Or Copenhagen, or Tokyo, or even Medellín. The building of a better capital of the world..

The section on Copenhagen has to do with livability, that on Medellín with social equity, and that on Hong Kong and Tokyo  about density (which is not defined purely as residential density):
Vishaan Chakrabarti knows how to fix New York. He’s an apostle of density with a relentlessly optimistic energy and a persuasive grin, and as Manhattan city planning director, he helped shape the coming thicket of skyscrapers at Hudson Yards. Later he went to work for the site’s developer, the Related Companies. Now he runs the real-estate program at Columbia’s architecture school, prodding students to think sweepingly about design, land, and money. “This emphasis on the Copenhagen/Amsterdam model is a distraction,” Chakrabarti says, waving away all the genteel tinkering with bike lanes and sidewalk cafés. “We have a lot more in common with Hong Kong and Tokyo. Our counterparts are dense, mixed, financial-services cities, not cute European towns.” For Chakrabarti, density and public transportation are the conjoined twins of rational city planning. “We have to wean Brooklyn and Queens off cars, but they’re not dense enough. When I go to P.S.1, I get out of the subway—there are four lines converging there—and all I see is one- and two-story buildings. There’s way too much blue sky.” Stacking families and offices in vertical cities conserves energy and steers people out of their cars and into less-polluting subways. It also creates wealth, because so much more is salable on each lot. Hong Kong’s transit corporation, MTR, makes fortunes by erecting agglomerations of skyscrapers on new landfill and simultaneously building the rail lines to serve them. “When they’re talking about transit-oriented development, they’re not talking about a little trolley line,” Chakrabarti says.
Fair enough, but these are systematic changes. We already see what traffic problems have been wrought near the Atlantic Yards arena site without adding residential density. And those living in Hong Kong, it turns, have some questions about their city-state's relentless pursuit of density.

Making density exciting

Davidson acknowledges that density doesn't work in some poorer cities, but suggests a model:
But some wealthier East Asian cities manage to make density exciting rather than claustrophobic. In 2003, the shrewdly starry-eyed developer Minoru Mori opened his Roppongi Hills in Tokyo, a teeming zone of corporate offices, restaurants, and luxury apartments revolving around an ungainly tower. A few years later, a similarly massive project, Tokyo Midtown, opened a few minutes’ walk away. East Asia bristles with these vertical towns where it’s theoretically possible to sleep, dine out, work out, go to work, see a movie, buy underwear or a ball gown, go dancing, visit a museum, catch a train, and park the car, all without leaving the premises. Even if nobody actually lives this way, the cumulative effect of all these options is constant, round-the-clock bustle, with nightspots emptying just as offices flicker to life. Burned, perhaps, by the blah Time Warner Center, where CNN workers, residents, and hotel guests hardly cross paths, New York has avoided mixing uses and populations under the same high roof. Here, an office building will sit on a thin layer of retail—a restaurant, say, or a sporting-goods emporium—and a high-rise condo might include a hotel. But an Asian-style complex or five would do the city good.
OK, but where to put them? How much to encroach or build on local context? The massive tower in Roppongi Hills is 238 meters, or 781 feet. There are many taller buildings in Manhattan, while in Brooklyn, so far, no building tops 515 feet, the height of the new Brooklyner tower. As noted below, one of the best opportunities for such a complex may be at Queensboro Plaza.

Where to add density

Davidson observes that there are lots of places to add density :
Queens Boulevard, [Chakrabarti] says, should be an allée of towers, with separated rapid-transit bus lanes that would slice through rush-hour traffic. He’s eyeing New Jersey, too, envisioning a Hong Kong–style high-rise cluster around the new but often empty Lautenberg train station at Secaucus Junction, which sits amid sparsely built marshland. New York–bound buses could terminate there and disgorge passengers to an extended No. 7 line, binding Northern New Jersey closer to Manhattan and creating a chain of business districts linked by subways, buses, and ferries.
Those are reasonable ideas, given the existing or potential infrastructure. But there are other ways to add density, such as by adding light rail or bus rapid transit along 21st Avenue in western Astoria or Third Avenue in the Bronx, as planner Alex Garvin has suggested.

Targeting the AY site?

The section closes, curiously, with an Atlantic Yards mention:
Even if we don’t raise new acres out of the water, New York has plenty of space at the edges for its next high-rise precincts. There are only so many 1,000-foot towers you can jam into Manhattan’s central wedge, but even now we have vast swaths of territory that could absorb stands of skyscrapers. Rather than refurbish the tired and cramped Javits Center, we should build a new convention center near the airports—in Jamaica, say, or Willets Point—and fill in the bleak West Thirties with towers. Instead of lining the waterfront with bedroom communities (as we are in Williamsburg and Long Island City), we could be erecting hybrid-high-rise neighborhoods there, unbound by the old divisions between work, leisure, and commerce. The subway node at Queensboro Plaza, too, is practically begging for a supertall complex to replace the area’s dusting of three-story buildings. The original concept of a dense development at Atlantic Yards, which devolved into the reality of a basketball arena surrounded by a vast hole, could be redeemed by a Brooklyn version of Roppongi Hills. That would add not just residential towers but a pleasing tangle of business and play. Those who think New York is all built out have their eye too close to the horizon.
(Emphasis added)

First of all, the term "at Atlantic Yards" obscures the nature of the site. "Atlantic Yards" is the name for a proposed dense development site, in some cases--like a good chunk of the 100 feet east of Sixth Avenue between Dean and Pacific streets--not yet controlled by the developer or state.

Nor is an "arena surrounded by a vast hole." Actually, the site is long, not round, as with Roppongi Hills, at left (map credit here).

The arena's got some spaces bordering it for future development, and a temporary plaza. There's a huge surface parking lot two blocks away, a yet-unbuilt skyscraper site occupied by P.C. Richard/Modell's (aka Site 5), and a mostly working railyard that's undergoing reconstruction.

A "Brooklyn version of Roppongi Hills"?

Arguably, the original project plan--an arena wrapped by four towers would something closer to the spirit of Roppongi Hills. However, that plan included ideas already scotched, such as a park and running track on the arena roof.

The rest of the Atlantic Yards site, given its increased distance from transit, makes it an even less likely candidate to be Roppongi Hills.

According to Virtual Japan, the 27-acre Roppongi Hills (photo from official web site) emphasizes both height and public space, with fewer than 800 apartments (versus 6430 planned for Atlantic Yards), meaning that the density refers to office/cultural/retail uses more than residential:
Roppongi Hills was originally conceived in 1986 by Mori Building and over the course of the next 14 years more than 400 small lots were acquired and amalgamated in the Roppongi District to make up the 27 acre site. Upon acquiring all of the necessary permits and land needed to build, the complex was started in 2000 and cost an estimated $4 Billion to build. Opening in 2003, the complex is now home to offices of businesses such as Lehman Brothers, Konami, Yahoo! Japan, TV Asahi, and Godman Sachs.
The initial six levels of the Mori Tower is devoted to retail outlets and restaurants and the top six floors are given over to the Mori Art Museum and viewing platforms. The rest of the building is devoted to office space.
Roppongi Hills is also home to the Roppongi Hills Residence buildings with multiple locations surrounding the Mori Tower. Roppongi Keyakizaka Street is located behind the Mori Tower and is home to many luxury shops from around the world. A total of 793 apartments are available in the 4 separate Roppongi Hills Residence Buildings.
Almost half of the total 27 acres of Roppongi Hills is designated for open areas such as gardens and pavilions, including the extravagant Mohri Garden, which includes actually parts of the Mohri Clan’s lost mansion.
That doesn't sound much like Brooklyn--given that it doesn't (yet) have the cachet to support such major office tenants or the world's luxury shops. Then again, things could change.

Where could it go?

But the more I think about it, I recognize there is--or at least was--a better place than the Atlantic Yards site for something Roppongi Hills-like: Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Terminal site, right above the subway/LIRR hub, not--as with Atlantic Yards arena block, across the street, connected by a new exit.

Add the adjacent Atlantic Center site and the potential increases, though, even together, they don't come close to a 27-acre site like Roppongi Hills.

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