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Critic Morrone: urban quality of Brooklyn at stake

Historian and an architecture critic Francis Morrone, speaking to an audience in Brooklyn Heights as part of a 3/23/06 forum on the Atlantic Yards project, declared that "nowhere is the urban quality of Brooklyn so at stake as at the Atlantic Yards" and called for community vigilance toward inappropriate development. He also warned that architect Frank Gehry's "disjunctive esthetic" was inappropriate for the site. [I wasn't at the meeting, sponsored by Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, but I listened to a tape.]

His comments echoed the thoughtful criticism he wrote last year for the Spring 2005 issue of the new magazine The Brooklynite, in an article titled Vanishing Vistas: Will the “borough of churches” become a borough of skyscrapers?.

Morrone said he wasn't well-qualified to talk about the political, economic, and legal issues, but said the controversy wasn't primarily about eminent domain, or traffic patterns: "It's about what Brooklyn wants to be....It's inevitably about what Manhattan wants Brooklyn to be. The Bloomberg administration looks at Brooklyn and fantasizes about Jersey City. In just a few years, Jersey City has acquired a skyline vastly more imposing than that of Brooklyn."

"Some people speak of the Manhattanization of Brooklyn. I think it's more correct to speak of the Jersey City-ization of Brooklyn," he said, suggesting that city officials seek to attract the offices moving to Jersey City. (Indeed, that has been true, but the Atlantic Yards project, which once promised 2 million square feet of office space, now would see that cut by more than two-thirds.)

"City officials don't get, don't begin to get, and don't want to get that what Brooklyn that what Brooklynites have made of Brooklyn over the last 20 or 30 years represents the single thing that New York City as a whole should be proud of," Morrone continued. "The painstaking reclamation, with not one iota of assistance from big developers, of neighborhoods that not very long ago were beyond physical or economic redemption."

Worthy of respect

Morrone reminded Brooklynites that the 19th century row house neighborhoods "have no rival in the U.S. and surprisingly few rivals in Europe. To put it as it should be put, these Brooklyn neighborhoods constitute a national treasure as great as the Grand Canyon. And I hope you wouldn't let Bruce Ratner build one of his mega-developments right next to the Grand Canyon."

The challenge, however, is that "the interstices among the landmarked neighborhoods" are unprotected.

Brooklyn scale?

"New Yorkers are blessed to have five boroughs," Morrone said, "each with a unique and remarkable character... Manhattan, with its skyline and tall buildings... but we are blessed also to have Brooklyn, with its low-rise scale and skyline punctuated by church spires and... the Williamsburgh Savings Bank building, the exception that proves the rule. How lovely the building: 512 feet in height, it wouldn't even register on the skyline of Manhattan, but towers mightily over the 'borough of homes and churches.'" (That phrase was coined by the Brooklyn Eagle.)

"All of this would be lost if the Atlantic Yards were to be redeveloped in the way currently envisioned by Forest City Ratner. The continuity and scale would be lost. The Williamsburg Savings Bank building would no longer be the exception that proves the rule. These yards are the crucial pivot of Brownstone Brooklyn. How they are developed will have everything to do with whether this Brooklyn shall remain as a truly great urban environment, or be reduced to a heap of baubles."


Morrone pointed out that growth has prompted inappropriate development throughout Brooklyn. The rezoning in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, he said, will allow buildings of "a truly shocking scale," efforts to preserve landmarks like the Austin-Nichols warehouse [a landmarking decision was overturned by City Council, influenced by City Council member David Yassky] "have met with shockingly cynical dismissals by our politicians," and "gaudy McMansions" plague several neighborhoods like Gravesend and Midwood and Manhattan Beach.

"But nowhere is the urban quality of Brooklyn so at stake as at the Atlantic Yards," Morrone said. ""A further point before I conclude my rant. Bruce Ratner hired Frank Gehry in a transparent attempt to curry favor with the fashionable opinions of Manhattanites...with all due respect to the culture mavens... his works, whatever their virtues may be, are desperately ill-suited to a central site in downtown Brownstone Brooklyn."

Back to the future

Morrone suggested that city leaders and developers have forgotten Brooklyn's virtues: "Make no mistake. The politicians and the developers are getting away with a lot of what they're getting away with because elite cultural opinion has momentarily grown bored with ideas like preservation and human scale. Let us be vigilant that the tragic disfigurement of the Brooklyn Museum not be merely a foretaste of what's in store for Brooklyn as a whole."

"Ultimately, though, it is not about culture, it is about civilization. It's about such things as how we manage change in our environment," he said.

Earlier echoes

Morrone, in his lecture, didn't offer an alternative, but in his article argued for more modest efforts:
Only the crudest short-term cost accounting could possibly justify playing so fast and loose with these treasures of comely urban form.
Incremental redevelopment, of a more modest scale, may lack luster in this age in which many architects and planners have swung back from the influence of Jane Jacobs to reembrace the values of an earlier generation that venerated Le Corbusier and his notions of towers and open spaces sweeping aside the shopworn vestiges of earlier periods of urban development. But for many, incremental redevelopment seems appropriate in Brooklyn—which has fought back from the brink to provide models for urban America, not of vast projects of wholesale transformation, but of rehabilitation and the tender loving care of the sorts of neighborhoods and places that we spent so many years trying to destroy.

That leaves the question of what incremental development means, especially at a site near mass transit: ten stories rather than 40? 12? 20? And it raises questions about how the city can solve its housing shortage. Should increased density be built in other parts of Brooklyn? In other boroughs?

These may not be Morrone's questions to answer--he didn't mention the community-developed UNITY plan for the MTA's Vanderbilt Yard or the Extell bid. But his voice is an important one in the ongoing debate about the appropriate scale for this site and project.