Saturday, December 03, 2011

Times architecture critic Kimmelman embraces planner Garvin's take on the "public realm" and the need to put the public first, calls Atlantic Yards "ill-conceived"

Those of us who've followed the work of urban planner and scholar Alexander Garvin know he likes to talk about "the public realm," what he calls (as he did three years ago) "the quality of life of a great city,” including streets, squares, transportation systems, schools, public buildings, and parks.

So it's no surprise he spoke similarly in an walkabout interview, scheduled for the cover of tomorrow's New York Times Arts & Leisure section, with new New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman, headlined Treasuring Urban Oases.

What is surprising--though less so with each article--is that Kimmelman continues to emphasize the impact of architecture on the city as a whole, rather than focus mainly on spectacular new buildings. 

Writes Kimmelman, laying out the fundamentals:
“The public realm is what we own and control,” [Garvin] told me the other day when we met to look around Midtown. More than just common property, he added, “the streets, squares, parks, infrastructure and public buildings make up the fundamental element in any community — the framework around which everything else grows.”
Thinking first about public space

And the critic takes an implied shot on his predecessors, Nicolai Ouroussoff and Herbert Muschamp:
We’ve been so fixated on fancy new buildings that we’ve lost sight of the spaces they occupy and we share. Last month Mr. Garvin addressed a conclave of architects, planners and public officials from around the country and abroad, who met on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of New York’s landmark 1961 zoning resolution. That resolution established the incentive program for private developers, whereby developers construct public spaces — plaza “bonuses,” in zoning lingo — in return for bigger buildings. Acres of some of the costliest real estate in town have been turned into arcades and squares as a consequence, but sheer space, the urban sociologist Holly Whyte famously observed, is not “of itself” what people need or want. Quality, not quantity, is the issue. Mr. Garvin argues that the city should reverse its approach, zoning neighborhoods like Midtown, Lower Manhattan and Williamsburg, Brooklyn, by thinking first about the shape of public space instead of private development.
Why big projects like Atlantic Yards are "ill-conceived"

And while Garvin walks around midtown with Kimmelman, Atlantic Yards gets a prominent mention:
The Dutch today put together what they call “structure plans” when they undertake big new public projects, like their high-speed rail station in Rotterdam: before celebrity architects show up, urban designers are called in to work out how best to organize the sites for the public good. It’s a formalized, fine-grained approach to the public realm. By contrast, big urban projects on the drawing board in New York still tend to be the products of negotiations between government agencies anxious for economic improvement and private developers angling for zoning exemptions. As with the ill-conceived Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, the streets, subway entrances and plazas around Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues, where millions of New Yorkers will actually feel the development’s effects, seem like they’ve hardly been taken into account.
I suspect that, when Kimmelman takes a closer look at the Atlantic Yards arena, he'll find aspects to praise: perhaps the "rusty cool" (as per New York magazine's Justin Davidson) of the arena exterior (though some may be rusting pretty fast), or the fact that passers-by can see the scoreboard.

Even the adjacent, yet to be unveiled, plaza, with its transit connection, will be promoted as good urban planning. And it is a good idea to emphasize subway access to an urban sports facility.

But the plaza, of course, is a fallback, the residue of a failed (as of now) plan to bring an office tower, the presence (and tax revenues) of which was a justification for the project.

And the changes in the public realm--the closing of streets and the creation of a massive interim surface parking lot one long block away--were made not, as with a "structure plan," to serve the public but to serve Forest City Ratner's interest.

Those are inextricable from whatever glitz the arena brings.

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