Friday, June 06, 2014

Atlantic Yards Alternatives? Architects redistribute bulk from Dean Street, revise open space; a "preposterous amount of square footage"

The first thing to recognize about "Five Proposals for the Future of Atlantic Yards," a new exhibition--regarding Phase 2, only--at the Warehouse Gallery in Prospect Heights, is that none of the proposals, no matter how interesting, is likely to be built.

In fact, two towers for the project's Phase 2 are said to be starting within the next year, on the southeast block of the project site.

So the exhibition is more an intriguing exercise--with an understandable element of self-promotion--than a viable alternative. (That said, if the deck over the railyard never gets built, some piece of an alternative plan could emerge. So go see the exhibition, through June 22, Tuesday-Sunday, 11 am to pm, at 623 Bergen Street, just west of Vanderbilt Avenue, near the Atlantic Yards site.)

The second thing is that this differs significantly from the UNITY Plan, the last major proposal for (part of) the site, since the latter made no attempt to match Forest City Ratner's ambitious, humongous scale and the new exhibition does not result from community consultation.

While these new projects do match the density of Forest City's plan (mostly), they attempting to revise the public space, jettisoning Forest City's "towers in a park" plan, and bulk to harmonize better with the urban context, for example with far smaller buildings on the southeast block of Dean Street between Carlton and Vanderbilt Avenues.

Unlike UNITY, which in its most recent incarnation somewhat counter-intuitively stressed bulk near Vanderbilt, these new projects emphasize bulk closer to the arena block and Atlantic Avenue.

The third thing to recognize is the tension behind the statement, as professed in the background material for Atlantic Yards Alternatives, that the "schemes will show that the proposed density is not inherently problematic if distributed properly on the site."

After all, at the lively exhibition opening last night, one architect involved in the project acknowledged, in casual conversation with a skeptical resident, "In the end, it's a preposterous amount of square footage."

The fourth thing is that some of the projects, expressed in renderings as well as three-dimensional models, included the Barclays Center arena and three towers around the arena block, and the absence of B1, the flagship office tower and largest building (aka "Miss Brooklyn") is glaring, and helps make the giant project more publicly accessible.

The fifth thing is that nearly all the projects ignored B15, the 272-foot tower scheduled to be built just east of Sixth Avenue between Dean and Pacific streets.

Indeed, as seen at right, the schematic for even distribution of the units ignores B15 completion. (Note that the project directors suggest a density of 220 units per acre; Atlantic Yards' overall density, with 6430 apartments over 22 acres, would be 292 unites per acre.)

The sixth thing to recognize is that most of the architects have spent more time on the overall plan than building design, which means the buildings mostly look blocky--and would have to become more detailed and differentiated to pass muster with architecture critics.

The seventh thing to recognize is, were these projects to become more viable, they'd be subject to the kind of scrutiny and sniping that Unity faced, with Forest City Ratner claiming that alternatives were not financeable nor buildable. (Well, Atlantic Yards has not been built on schedule, either.)

It's questionable whether vertical open space over housing would be acceptable to residents, for example, or how new sites could be added north of Atlantic Avenue, or who would pay to move the Long Island Rail Road terminal to the Atlantic Yards site (or why that makes sense, given the distance from the subway hub).

Comments a few architects made to me 

Update: Nor would it necessarily work for the subsidized housing. An architect writes to me:
The proposals were refreshing to look at, they were very academic, or at least reflective of design ideas trendy in architecture schools these days. Not really realistic about function, structure, and inhabitability but that was not the point.... the physical realities of efficiently laying out HPD / HUD design standards for the units and the need for very economical structure and building enclosure systems tend to yield certain results which don’t allow for swoopy shapes, huge areas of glass, or daring structural cantilevers and long spans.
Another writes:
The fact that they are not viable alternatives and not really meant to be implemented is a common architectural exercise, and in fact constitutes architectural training. The point is to say something about an approach.
And it appears that some did, to a greater of lesser degree. For example, pointing out the difference of scale between Atlantic Avenue and Dean Street is a significant point, recognizing that Prospect Heights is complete. Extending the grid of the surrounding areas and proposing suitable development on other sites is an important issue, and missing in most discussion to date.
Soliciting actually implementable ideas would result in a different kind of exhibit - not so much an architectural issue as a planning and policy issue. That exhibit would examine the 2006 master plan, which was not primarily an architectural concept but an approach to development. One might expect guidelines that respect the city context and existing conditions on and off the site while providing for opportunities for a range of developers.
From the background information:
The “Atlantic Yards: Five Proposals” exhibit will show five alternative designs for the Phase II portion of the FCRC scheme. Phase II includes the three blocks east of 6th Avenue, and is slated to receive 4,278,000 S.F. of residential space (4,320 units), 156,000 S.F. of retail space, and 1,324 parking spaces. Each of the five schemes incorporates the approved bulk and square footage in order to present a parallel comparison with the FCRC plan.
​The projects explore the site’s development potential while respecting historic scale and context, activating public-private space interaction, and integrating characteristics of the urban streets that surround the site. Each project aims to underline possibilities to create:
- meaningful public space within the development
- relationship to the adjacent urban context
- a sustainable and healthful environment
​Each project accepts the benefits of high-density, high-rise urban development located adjacent to existing urban infrastructure as a sustainable approach to development.
The five proposals are intended to illustrate alternative architectural possibilities to the community through schemes that are equally profitable for the developer. The schemes will show that the proposed density is not inherently problematic if distributed properly on the site. The exhibition will open up a dialogue about the site’s potential, giving the community a deeper understanding of architectural and urban planning possibilities to properly develop one of the most significant large scale sites in New York City
 The Garden in the Machine

One of the most developed examples came from organizer Thomas Barry, whose OPerA Studio Architecture produced The Garden in the Machine, which places open space in the air:
The OPerA scheme reconciles these shifts ​ in scale through the use of three definition planes. A ground floor plane varies to create storefront retail spaces, community facilities and public spaces; a second plane slopes gently from the low-rise buildings of Prospect Heights to midrise height at Atlantic Avenue; a third plane slopes from the center of the site to the Northwest Corner where it meets the Barclays Center and Atlantic Terminal Mall to define the roofline of four residential towers. The tops of these planes are public green spaces which are varied to provide areas for different activities. Connecting these planes and the green space to the ground are a series of garden paths which carve along the exterior of the structures. Residential units and common spaces open onto the garden paths to create a porous connective urban fabric.
Flexible City

Flexible City, by Matthias Altwicker and Farzana Gandhi, looks daunting but has open space at ground level (which raises questions about access to sun):
In a climate shaped by rapid economic turnover, ubiquitous high-rise, high-density, superblock developments fail to acknowledge change over time: a change in use, a change in infrastructural needs, and a change in built context and environment. This alternative proposal for Atlantic Yards embraces the developer’s outsized program as a challenge to offer a new model for urban development at this scale - one that is programmatically, infrastructurally, and contextually flexible to the forces that define its long-standing value. Value is defined by both its relevance in the community as well as its resulting profitability. Flexibility is achieved through a complete separation of inhabitable volume and infrastructure.

​Through this separation, each element is allowed to operate at full potential. Various re-use scenarios and contextual relationships can be optimized while also offering new typologies and scales of open space. Volumes move freely across the site and plug into its infrastructural wrapper at core locations. 8 story volumes, constructed as 4 double height floors, can be programmed with housing, commercial, or manufacturing space. Single story plates lie above and below each program volume and double as public indoor / outdoor space and green zones. The potential misalignments between volumes effectively doubles the square footage for both green infrastructure and public space.
Vertical Lots

Amoia Cody Architecture produced Vertical Lots, which continues the street grid as internal passages but leaves the entry pathways from Atlantic Avenue covered:
Our idea is to create a set of buildings that despite being quite large fit into their context. The title “Vertical Lots” is referential to the typical lots that dominate the traditional brownstone townhouse developments that surround the Atlantic Yards. These old buildings were originally developed as one and two family townhomes, each with its own private rear yard, set within a courtyard block. Our project seeks to emulate this prototypical development, but in a vertical arrangement within a courtyard block.

The typical horizontal lot townhouse of 4 stories is comprised of 1, 2, 3 or 4 families + a rear yard. Each floor in these vertical lots has 1, 2, 3 or 4 families + a terrace “yard”. These terraces are 1, 2, 3 or 4 stories and are carved from the vertical mass reducing bulk and developing a landscape in the sky, the vertical lots. The towers are set on an angle to match the street context of Fort Greene. The base of the courtyard block is on the grid of Prospect Heights. The big scale of Atlantic Avenue permits large scale towers, but small scale Dean Street does not. The buildings along Dean Street are no more than 6 stories matching the tallest buildings along Dean Street. The towers vary in height to a maximum of 50 stories. This height matches the tallest of the buildings now under construction around Barclays. The skewed angle of the tower permits sight lines to continue along the streets in Fort Greene and reduces the bulk when viewing from Prospect Heights.
Quilted City

Joshua Zinder Architecture and Design produced Quilted City, which ambitiously moves the rail terminal:
Quilted City acts to unify the neighborhoods which bound the Atlantic Rail yards with the insertion of layered urban, public space in the center of the site, creating an active, open, and varied environment for the surrounding neighborhoods. This is done by understanding and responding to the size and scale of its immediate context, by creating new green space and breezeways for all residents, and by relocating the Atlantic Terminal for the LIRR and subway to the west end of the site. 
The buildings of Quilted City are arranged in layers, the first of which defines the edge of the bounding blocks and mirrors the height of the buildings along Pacific and Dean streets. A variety of commercial activities would occur at ground level and extend down to the concourse and tracks below, while the floors above are devoted to residences. As you move into the site, individual residential buildings of larger scales are placed in various locations, helping to mold a series of public spaces within the site. The largest of these public spaces, matching in size with Times Square, aligns itself axially with the Barclay’s Arena and the proposed location of the Atlantic Terminal. The terminal was relocated to the development in order to animate the internal green space, to give it a constant source of life and movement...
10 Blocks

David Cunningham Architecture Planning produced 10 Blocks, which offers a wee bit of an intervention outside the site north of Atlantic Avenue:
Atlantic Yards is an opportunity. Rather than impose new structures on the site, we have chosen to make repairs to the city that already surrounds this crossroads. We begin Fort Greene Park to the north and Prospect Park to the south. Both parks have contributed to the distribution of fresh water to the citizens of Brooklyn. A 6.5 Acre linear public space styled as a reservoir is proposed to bond these two solitary hills into a single network. Moving down the slopes from each park, we encounter two distinct brownstone neighborhoods. Fort Greene features blocks with their long axis oriented north-south and primary streets running east-west. In Prospect Heights, the long face of the blocks are oriented loosely east-west with major streets arranged on an approximate north-south axis.
To bind the two districts together, their underlying grids are combined, creating a group of nine blocks where previously there were only three. By introducing new buildings on both sides of Atlantic Avenue and refashioning the roadway as a functioning valley, a traffic artery is converted to a parkway. By collecting, filtering and storing storm water, Atlantic Valley aims to provide relief to the overtaxed nearby Gowanus Canal. Finally there is the matter of the program. The brief calls for 4.3 million square feet of new housing (4,300 new units). To avoid overwhelming the adjacent brownstone neighborhoods, project density is redistributed in three ways. First, the average gross square footage is reduced from 1,000 s.f. per apartment to 850 s.f. Second, program is transferred to Block 1, which was originally assigned to phase 1. Third, a series of seven new sites on the north side of Atlantic Avenue are incorporated into the project footprint.

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