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Barclays Center, Neighborhood Catalyst? MAS award is badly misguided (lingering unbuilt railyard, pending SEIS, etc.)

The Municipal Art Society, the venerable urbanist organization whose critique of Atlantic Yards still stands in many ways (though MAS by 2010 left the Brooklyn Speaks coalition it helped found), is giving the Barclays Center an award as "Neighborhood Catalyst," part of its 2013 MASterworks Awards, at a ceremony today.

Reuters photo from first Nets home game
This annual juried award is "for a project that has been a catalyst for change in its neighborhood."

The awards "celebrate excellence in architecture and urban design in New York City and recognize the best projects, completed within the last year, that have made significant contributions to the built environment of the city."

Misguided award

However the Barclays Center may be worthy of distinction, I believe that the "Neighborhood Catalyst" award is badly misguided, given:
  • the arena's mixed record in its immediate neighborhood, with rising commercial rents (bringing new tenants but also ejecting others), impacts from operation (not as bad as feared, but still significant, including leaking bass; see Atlantic Yards Watch),  and construction violations
  • the lawsuit regarding the state's failure to study the impacts of a delayed project buildout, and the pending Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS)
  • the arena's clearly non-catalytic role regarding the most important change in its neighborhood: the delayed plan to build over the adjacent Vanderbilt Yard.
I wonder how many people in the neighborhood the jury consulted, or whether they walked around to view (as in the photo below) the arena from two blocks away, looking west from Vanderbilt Avenue between Atlantic Avenue and Pacific Street.

That view takes in the two-block railyard property that awaits 1) a new permanent railyard 2) condemnation/purchase/demolition of the StorageMart and adjacent building 3) construction of an expensive deck (which some believe developer Forest City Ratner will try to fob off on public entities) 4) vertical construction.

Behind the arena, obligations remain

The award validates the failure of any effective governance over the project. And it essentially validates the self-serving, misleading passage in an April 2012 New York Times article about the impact of the then-unfinished arena:
For Forest City Ratner, the developer of the project, which was strongly backed by many city leaders, the changes are evidence that the arena has already met its goal of transforming a dreary section of Brooklyn — the Long Island Rail Road’s rail yards and surrounding industrial buildings, which the company’s spokesman described as “ a scar that divided the neighborhood.”
In other words, the project has successfully removed the blight that was the justification for eminent domain. It hasn't.

Forest City hasn't even paid the MTA for the development rights to most of the railyard. It renegotiated a 21-year schedule to pay. It has twice pushed back the official starting date of the permanent railyard--the modernized storage and service functions.

Forest City has no immediate plans to build on the railyard but instead plans to build on the surface parking lot after completing three towers around the arena, as indicated in the graphic at right.

The "high-low" city

The award also validates the framing posited by architect, planner, academic, and author Vishaan Chakrabarti, who also happens to be the partner in SHoP Architects tasked with developing Atlantic Yards.
From SHoP's Vishaan Chakrabarti

Chakrabarti considers the arena block the exemplar of the "high-low" city, melding high rises with more modest structures, and maintaining urbanity with crucial open space like plazas.

But the Barclays Center plaza is an accident, though it goes unmentioned in the book. There was supposed to be an office tower there. As I've written, it's unlikely the project would have been approved without the tower.

Awards it might deserve

The Barclays Center has won kudos from many architecture critics, as well as sports publications. With its swooping metal cladding and nightclub-esque interiors, it's surely more inventive and slick than most sports facilities. It does take advantage of the adjacent transit hub, and finds the accidental plaza very useful.

Time Out New York recently named it Best surprisingly cool big music venue: Barclays Center and counted it as among the Top ten NYC landmark openings.

The Village Voice gave it the Best Stadium Dining Experience - 2013. Then again, the New York Times last Sunday placed the Barclays Center in the middle of its snarky Meh List.

But I'd hope MAS, above others, would recognize the big picture, including the record of the arena's operations. Here's a list of (fanciful) awards the Barclays Center might get:
From New York Times, 1/16/05, the promised roof garden
A mixed impact

However much the Barclays Center has spotlighted Brooklyn--and, reciprocally, surfed on the borough's rise--the impact of the arena and overall project on the immediate neighborhood is quite mixed.

Commercial landlords have benefited significantly from rising rents, but many of their tenants have not, and have been pushed out.

Some bars and restaurants have benefited, others have not, and the changes on main arteries such as Flatbush and Atlantic avenues--more chains like Tony Roma's and Shake Shack--are still emerging.

The impact on residential blocks is less than feared, though still significant--and maddening--for many on the closest blocks.

It's a notably tight fit, with low-rise blocks abutting the south and southeast flanks of the arena, which is why MTV chose to set its Video Music Awards on the streets outside the arena--despite pledges not to operate on such streets--with highly problematic results.

lawsuit and pending SEIS

The state agency overseeing/shepherding Atlantic Yards, the Empire State Development Corporation, lost a lawsuit filed by two community coalitions, requiring a SEIS to evaluate a potential 25-year buildout, given that the state assumed a ten-year buildout and only studied a delay of five years.

One of the winning coalitions is BrooklynSpeaks, which was founded by MAS. But MAS thought litigation an unwise idea and withdrew, leaving them, as I suggested, on the wrong side of history.

That SEIS has been suspiciously delayed, perhaps awaiting Forest City's plan to find new investors; a partnership with the Chinese government-owned Greenland Group has been announced but not formalized.

As part of that lawsuit, a state judge even awarded attorneys' fees to the lawyers representing the community coalitions and suggested that, had the state agency come clean, the arena might not have been built. That's another confirmation of the taint behind the arena and the project.

The MASterworks winners

Campbell Sports Center
The winners of the 2013 MASterworks Awards include:
Best New Building/Campbell Sports Center, Steven Holl Architects
Best Restoration/McCarren Pool and Bathhouse, Rogers Marvel
Neighborhood Catalyst/Barclays Center, SHoP Architects
Best New Urban Amenity
Brooklyn Botanic Garden Visitor Center, Weiss/Manfredi
The Campbell Sports Center, by the way, is Columbia University's new sports building in Upper Manhattan. It's far more modest than the Barclays Center, without all the logos.

The jury (updated)

According to MAS, the jury comprised "architect Pedro Gadanho (Curator of Contemporary Architecture, Department of Architecture and Design at MoMA), Gabriel Calatrava (Principal, Calatrava), Toni Griffin (Professor of Architecture and Director, J. Max Bond Center, Spitzer School of Architecture, City College of New York, CUNY), and Mimi Hoang (Partner, nArchitects)."

Previous Neighborhood Catalysts

According to the MAS, the previous winners of the Neighborhood Catalyst awards were:
  • 2012: Silberman School of Social Work and Queens Central Library: Children’s Discovery Center 
  • 2011: Myrtle Hall at Pratt Institute
  • 2010: The High Line, The Concrete Plant Park, and West Harlem Piers Park 
  • 2009: TKTS Booth
  • 2008: The Floating Pool and New Museum of Contemporary Art 
  • 2007: Fairway Market in Red Hook
Note that Forest City Ratner won the Best New Building award in 2012 for New York by Gehry at 8 Spruce Street.

Forest City Ratner support for MAS

A few people have asked me if I think Forest City Ratner's charitable support for MAS, giving $25,000+ in the past two years (but not before, though it did support the 2011 Summit on NYC) has made a difference in these awards.

I can't conclude that; it's not like giving an award of some kind to 8 Spruce Street or the Barclays Center is a huge stretch. And these are juried awards.

However, I would bet that only after MAS left BrooklynSpeaks did Forest City consider a charitable donation.

I don't fault MAS for allowing Forest City executive MaryAnne Gilmartin solo time at two of its recent Summits for New York City to talk up, respectively, 8 Spruce Street and Forest City's modular housing plan.

Both are worthy of public discussion. But I do think those presentations should have been coupled with some caveats and context, adding to Gilmartin's understandably self-serving presentation.

I critiqued Gilmartin's 2011 talk on 8 Spruce Street and will write shortly about her recent presentation.

MAS softening?

Note Warren St. John's recent op-ed in the Times, “Shadows Over Central Park,”which stated:
Opposition to Mr. [Mort] Zuckerman’s plans [for Columbus Circle[, for example, was spearheaded by the Municipal Art Society, a watchdog on issues of urban design that today is a comparatively acquiescent organization — with developers on its board.
Also note the MAS response, from Chairwoman Eugenie Birch and President Vin Cipolla, in a letter:
Shadows Over Central Park,” by Warren St. John (Op-Ed, Oct. 29), contrasts the public outcry in 1987 against two proposed towers on Columbus Circle with today’s relative silence as a small forest of hyper-tall buildings sprouts on or near 57th Street.
The difference in response reflects a pivotal distinction. Twenty-six years ago, the project in question was subject to public scrutiny and review; today’s seven towers — most more than 1,000 feet tall — are being constructed as-of-right.
This means that New York City does not require the developers to secure discretionary permits and associated environmental analyses of the effects of their buildings — like potential shadows or traffic — as would be mandated if the zoning law were different.
Thus, under current conditions, only the market can offer any restraint, and in a limited way, so can the Landmarks Law, but only on landmark sites and for certain conditions.
The Municipal Art Society has been calling for an overhaul of the city’s outdated zoning and is working on a study that frames a critical choice before the public and its elected officials. At the core of this argument is a belief that regulations governing our city’s future should include public consultation when new proposals are so powerful as to transform a neighborhood.
The next mayor should make this a priority.
MAS and me

I should disclose that, wearing my other professional hat as a tour guide, I've led various neighborhood tours for the MAS and have led tours of Atlantic Yards (saying, of course, that I don't speak for the group). I cordially critiqued their Atlantic Yards positions well before I had any relationship with them as a guide.


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