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Changes to open space guidelines seem welcome, but the process was less than transparent

Within the past two months, there have been relatively minor--and generally praised--bureaucratic changes in the Open Space Design Guidelines, which govern the the open space within Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park.

The changes, which reflect more contemporary ideas about park design and less pavement, include:
  • the maximum amount of backless seating will increase to 35% from 25%
  • a passive viewing pond of .3 acre will be replaced by water gardens and other distributed features
  • acreage consumed by walkways will decline from 4.62 acres to 3.65 acres, allowing maximum planted areas to grow to 3.5 acres from 2.6 acres
  • canopy trees will be removed from the main lawn to allow an unobstructed focal point
But the way it was accomplished was less than transparent.

An advisory vote at the 7/28/15 meeting of the Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation (AY CDC) led to approval at the 8/20/15 meeting of the Empire State Development (ESD) board, which was left with a somewhat misleading impression that the guidelines themselves had been discussed with the neighborhood.

The AY CDC discussion

At the AY CDC meeting, landscape architect Thomas Balsley described the open space plans, which differed little from the previous presentation released in June, except for one slide, below right, that details plans for lighting. (Here are the AY CDC Board materials.)

The other main difference was that it became clear that the changes would have to be approved by ESD.

(Note that, despite public criticism, Balsley did not eliminate the fanciful trees--on bridges, across Vanderbilt Avenue--from the updated presentation. See screenshot at top right.)

Balsley said "we see Pacific Park as a center of confluence" in a larger context, saying it "makes no sense to create ballfields when there are ballfields blocks away." (Then again, they're only adding one basketball court for some 14,000 people!)

The open space will be built in phases, he said, describing it as "an archipelago... a series of landscape islands, or park fragments, that all come together into... a very vibrant, composite urban park."

The water feature has become more interactive, and "urban lanterns" can serve as lighting. The changes, he said, derived in part from overly rigid past guidelines based on public open spaces in Manhattan, where "they looked for more pavement and less green."

Were the changes based on budget?

No, said Forest City Ratner executive Ashley Cotton, it was a question of design. When questioned, she would not reveal the budget for the open space.

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No one commented about the low ratio of open space to the new population, but board member Liz Harris (state Assistant Secretary for Food and Agriculture, lives in Fort Greene) was enthusiastic, praising the flexibility: "I'm really impressed with this design. I think it is really smart and responsive to what has become a very protracted and difficult project."

Why reduce the number of benches with backs, asked board member Linda Reardon.

"It's an instinctive thing," Balsley responded. "We find that there should be a wide variety of seating opportunities in a space.... a bench tells you need to sit this way."

Asked about the vision for "interpretative rail," recognizing the railyard history, Balsley said "it's not much beyond the concept... it could be poetry in the pavement... it could be a ribbon of light, has poetry in the glass."

Did the cost of maintenance shape the design?

"We know generally what our budget range is, what our maintenance capability is," Balsley responded. "This is not the High Line. This is a very humble park that's powerful in its form and its use.. but it's not a fragile little piece that requires a lot of replacement. It's really solid, and rugged... It comes from the reality of our maintenance capability."

Cotton noted that "to be clear, we use park alternately [with] privately owned, publicly accessible open space." It operatives with "a lot of parks rules," but not park jurisdiction and staff (or, I'd add, hours).

Will the space close? While there are closed hours, there are no gates. "Practicality rules the day," Cotton said, indicating that residents cutting through after hours to go home, " that's certainly, as we govern this body, the kind of accommodation we would use as a practical matter."

How long will Balsley be on the project?

"I'm more than happy tonight to sign a long term contract," the landscape architect said with a chuckle. "I have no guarantee I'll be in Phase 6 or 7... I think the concept is so strong that it can survive a change in captains [if necessary]."

Can the space accommodate the 600 planned trees? Yes, said Balsley, extrapolating from testing on segments.

At what point will enough open space be built where the design vocabulary becomes clear?

"We're going to see it with B11 and B14," the first two towers on the southeast block, Balsley said. "We won't see the promenade... but the general palette."

Resident Peter Krashes asked what the state anticipates as the likely construction sequence. He didn't get an answer, though the open space phasing plan presented to directors--but not publicly discussed at the meeting--provided a clue.

At the ESD meeting

At the ESD meeting last month (video), AY CDC Executive Director Tobi Jaiyesimi described the proposed changes and noted that, after receiving public comment, the AY CDC board voted to recommend adoption of the guidelines.

"Over the course of the last nine years, the idea of an urban open space has changed and evolved," she said. "So these amendments… allow for the developer to create a more contemporary, modern, up to date plan to reflect the needs of those in the community."

Asked Derrick Cephas, who was chairing the meeting, "Can you kind of describe generally the level of public involvement, community involvement in the process that we went through to come up with these changes?"

"Sure," responded Jaiyesimi. "So there was a Community Update meeting held on June 24, 2015, when the developer made this presentation to members of the public. Comment and input was taken. I guess—if I should back up, the design guidelines, which kind of dictate and guide how the developer came to the plan that we’re discussing now, came with the idea of allowing more open interaction with the space that can be enjoyable to the community."

(Emphasis added)

"So on June 24, there was a community meeting that was held," she continued. "Members of the public were allowed to review the materials, allowed to give input and ask questions. And then the developer took that and made the necessary considerations, in their presentation to the AY CDC, which then recommended to ESD directors to approve the proposed modifications."

"So it was a collaborative, back and forth--?" asked Cephas.

"I wouldn’t say collaborative, in terms of putting together the actual design, but there was an opportunity for the public to comment and give input into the presentation that was given," Jaiyesimi responded. The measure passed with no further board discussion.

The board could have been left with the impression that the need to amend the Open Space Design Guidelines was made clear at the Community Update meeting, where public input was invited. That issue was not raised, however, but rather came up clearly at the AY CDC meeting. (I raised this with ESD, but didn't get a response.)

So there wasn't really community involvement in the process to come up with changes in the Design Guidelines. There was community comment on the new designs, but not the measure before the AY CDC and later the ESD board.

In this case, the impact was likely not significant. But what happens if and when more controversial changes emerge?

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