Skip to main content

An architecture critic (from Newark) looks at the bigger picture

So, in the third review of the new architectural plan for the Atlantic Yards project, after reviews in the Sun and Newsday (hey, where's the Times?), a critic finally looks at the bigger picture, not just the social forces behind the building battle but also whether it's worth it all. In an essay today under the cliched (and 16-towers avoiding) headline An arena grows in Brooklyn, Star-Ledger art/architecture critic Dan Bischoff notably opines that the community "givebacks... seem relatively paltry compared to the scale of the overall project."

Also, he acknowledges skepticism "about whether anything even remotely approaching these models will be built," given architect Frank Gehry's age and the typical fits and starts in an architectural project.

No, Bischoff doesn't try to assess the appropriate scale. He doesn't mention Forest City Ratner's sketchy architectural track record in Brooklyn. And he errs in describing the site as "just one of two or three large parcels of land within the core of New York City available for the kind of imaginative urban reconstruction that so many cities in Europe, China and India have used to modernize their cityscapes in the past two decades." Maybe the 8.3-acre railyard site would qualify, but the rest of the 22-acre site isn't so much available as assembled by a developer with deep pockets and the threat (and likely exercise) of eminent domain.

Still, he's notably not dazzled by Gehry.

It's about celebrity?

Bischoff begins:
Looking at the model for millionaire developer Bruce Ratner's Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, a 17-building development designed around a state-of-the-art arena where the New Jersey Nets hope to move some time between 2010-16, you want to talk about modern architecture: You know, the massing of forms, the use of color, the cantilevered strusses in the arena's vast ceiling, maybe Frank Gehry's affection for cladding buildings with shiny metal surfaces--that sort of thing.
But somehow, it keeps coming out as a story about the uses of celebrity.
To begin with, there's Gehry himself, now 75, a gnomic, grey-haired, pleasantly self-effacing man (at least, that is how he is portrayed in the recently opened movie shot by film director Sydney Pollack, a long-time buddy of the architect, called "Sketches of Frank Gehry"). Gehry is one of those rarities, an architect who has become, by jingo, a celebrity in his own right, largely on the strength of his titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain....
Clearly, Ratner engaged Gehry for this project because he thought the architect's fame would smooth the way for the whole vast and long-troubled project, which faces determined neighborhood opposition.
But that opposition is itself not exactly celebrity-challenged. Part of the Atlantic Yards site abuts the indie movie studios where actor and director Steve Buscemi works, and he is unalterably opposed to the project. Also opposed is Museum of Modern Art photography curator Peter Galassi, who lives in the nabe, along with '80s painting star David Salle and movie stars Heath Ledger and Rosie Perez, who live there too. All of them decry the truly hulking size of the buildings, even in the new design unveiled this month, which shaves some 500,000 square feet off the total of last year's Gehry submission.

Bischoff makes a good point, echoing Kurt Andersen's observation that Bruce Ratner engaged Gehry to win over some of the chattering classes. Still, had Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn not assembled a celebrity-studded advisory board, would the valid criticisms being aired of this project just be ignored?

Only partly designed

Bischoff continues:
The core of Gehry's design -- and, as it happens, the only section of the tripartite design that he has yet to put a great deal of effort into -- is the arena section, at the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues, which Forest City Ratner Companies would like to open in 2010. Gehry proposes to solve the problem of the inevitable neighborhood-killing, forbidding blank curtain walls of an urban arena by essentially hiding the oval behind four high-rise buildings, the most spectacular of which he calls "Miss Brooklyn" because it reminds him of a Brooklyn bride trailing her elaborate train. It is a 650-foot-tall prow of glass and steel that opens at its point as a jagged, glass-encased "urban room," some four or five stories high, that would serve as a principal entrance to the arena. The narrowing wedge of sidewalk where the two avenues come together would be topped by a bleacher-sized set of stone steps that Gehry calls "the biggest stoop in all of Brooklyn."
The site is part of what's called the Atlantic railroad yards, the third largest mass transit hub in the city, where 10 subway lines and the Long Island Railroad come together. The land slopes rather steeply down toward Hudson Bay, and Gehry uses the grade to nestle the arena floor below the top level of the "stoop." That means passersby on the street could peer through the Post-Mod sheaths of glass on the outside of "Miss Brooklyn" to see the glow of the basketball court and its centrally-suspended scoreboard at eye-level, and presumably hear the roar of the crowd.

Bischoff makes a point that has seemed true since the project was unveiled in December 2003--Gehry has put the most work into the arena, the first arena he has ever designed.

The Atlantic railroad yards? Everyone has a problem with nomenclature. The hub is called Atlantic Terminal, the railyards are the Atlantic railyards or the Vanderbilt Yard, and the site as a whole has been dubbed Atlantic Yards by Forest City Ratner.

Questions of scale

After discussing the new Newark arena for the New Jersey Devils, Bischoff continues:
Gehry's plan, though, would trump the Newark arena with towering new construction, much of it residential -- something no arena has yet achieved (would you pay $1 million and up to live over the Meadowlands?)

He raises an important point--why exactly would people want to live so close to an arena? He might have acknowledged that the buildings around the planned Brooklyn arena were initially supposed to house offices, before Forest City Ratner traded office space for more lucrative housing.

Bischoff continues:
But that's just the start. If you include the other 13 high-rises proposed for the site, which stretches past four long urban blocks all the way to Vanderbilt Avenue, overall the project would generate 606,000 square feet of office space, 6.79 million square feet of residential space, 247,000 square feet of retail use and seven acres of open space cultivated by Bryant Park designer Laurie Olin. Taken altogether the project clocks in at $3.5 billion.
These secondary buildings would harbor the bulk of the project and march in a double line down the old rail lines toward the bay like plump and stately soldiers. Each would be 20 to 30 stories tall, and for now they are only sketched in by Gehry as square blocks stacked one upon another (with the occasional cube hanging over the one beneath or twisted slightly on its axis, like the way a child stacks his ABC blocks). Gehry also suggests a second iconic high-rise, taller than the rest, sheathed in shiny metal and subtly torqued to give interesting reflection patterns.

Only sketched in? Does Gehry really want to design the whole project, which is what (he says) he's been told to do?

Done deal?

Bischoff writes:
Ratner already controls 90 percent of the site. Momentum seems building toward an approval. There is little doubt that the site is just one of two or three large parcels of land within the core of New York City available for the kind of imaginative urban reconstruction that so many cities in Europe, China and India have used to modernize their cityscapes in the past two decades. New York does increasingly seem to be a quaint, 19th century environment of red brick tenements and '30s skyscrapers. It needs something bold to stay in the game.
But this design looks less like the new Shanghai than the old Eastern Europe, with its enormous high-rise blocks that bring a Le Corbusier geometric fantasy to mind. The givebacks to the community offered by Ratner's concept -- the outsized stoop, the "urban room" (closed four hours every day for clean-up only), 2,250 rental units priced at low- and moderate-income levels (out of 4,500 rentals, and not counting another 2,360 market-rate condos), promises to provide schools, day care, art galleries and health services sites, as well as reserving a sliver of seats in the arena for seniors and neighborhood folks at every Nets game -- seem relatively paltry compared to the scale of the overall project.

Well, his skepticism about the givebacks is welcome, but the environmental review remains in the early stages.

Getting "hairy"

Bischoff's final paragraphs:
Skepticism about whether anything even remotely approaching these models will be built can be forgiven, and not just because of the well-known divigations of the World Trade Center project. Gehry is, as we said, 75 years old -- they're making valedictory movies about him now -- and we can't be sure he will really be around to give his full attention to the completion of the design. Anyway, up to now he has proposed nothing that unifies the vast site, or that imaginatively reconfigures the neighborhood in a way that pleases all the different claimants to its use.
Part of the problem is Gehry's method. He rather famously proceeds in fits in starts, proposing designs, changing them, engaging his (usually) billionaire clients in the sturm und drang of artistic creation. It works great when you're focussed on the relationship between a single client and the architectural genius, but when the client is a thousand people, few of whom have ever wanted to live in an American suburb, it gets hairy. And we do remember the billion-dollar museum plan Gehry unveiled for the Guggenheim a few years back, slated for the East River just off the South Street Seaport. That'll never happen.
Celebrity is as celebrity does.

So, nothing unifies the site or reconfigures the neighborhood? The critic might have assessed the effect of the superblock, or whether the recently-modified view corridors in between buildings would increase site permeability. And he might have pointed out that "the client" is far more than a thousand people, given that the project could include more than 17,000 residents, some 2500 office workers, and a 20,000-seat arena--and some densely-populated nearby neighborhoods surely want a voice in the discussion.

Still, Bischoff's criticism raises a question: How "hairy" is it going to get?


Popular posts from this blog

Barclays Center/Levy Restaurants hit with suit charging discrimination on disability, race; supervisors said to use vicious slurs, pursue retaliation

The Daily News has an article today, Barclays Center hit with $5M suit claiming discrimination against disabled, while the New York Post headlined its article Barclays Center sued over taunting disabled employees.

While that's part of the lawsuit, more prominent are claims of racial discrimination and retaliation, with black employees claiming repeated abuse by white supervisors, preferential treatment toward Hispanic colleagues, and retaliation in response to complaints.

Two individual supervisors, for example, are charged with  referring to black employees as “black motherfucker,” “dumb black bitch,” “black monkey,” “piece of shit” and “nigger.”

Two have referred to an employee blind in one eye as “cyclops,” and “the one-eyed guy,” and an employee with a nose disorder as “the nose guy.”

There's been no official response yet though arena spokesman Barry Baum told the Daily News they, but take “allegations of this kind very seriously” and have "a zero tolerance policy for…

Behind the "empty railyards": 40 years of ATURA, Baruch's plan, and the city's diffidence

To supporters of Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards project, it's a long-awaited plan for long-overlooked land. "The Atlantic Yards area has been available for any developer in America for over 100 years,” declared Borough President Marty Markowitz at a 5/26/05 City Council hearing.

Charles Gargano, chairman of the Empire State Development Corporation, mused on 11/15/05 to WNYC's Brian Lehrer, “Isn’t it interesting that these railyards have sat for decades and decades and decades, and no one has done a thing about them.” Forest City Ratner spokesman Joe DePlasco, in a 12/19/04 New York Times article ("In a War of Words, One Has the Power to Wound") described the railyards as "an empty scar dividing the community."

But why exactly has the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Vanderbilt Yard never been developed? Do public officials have some responsibility?

At a hearing yesterday of the Brooklyn Borough Board Atlantic Yards Committee, Kate Suisma…

Barclays Center event June 11 to protest plans to expand Israeli draft; questions about logistics

At right is a photo of a poster spotted in Hasidic Williamsburg right. Clearly there's an event scheduled at the Barclays Center aimed at the Haredi Jewish community (strict Orthodox Jews who reject secular culture), but the lack of English text makes it cryptic.

The website explains, Protest Against Israeli Draft of Bnei Yeshiva Rescheduled for Barclays Center:
A large asifa to protest the drafting of bnei yeshiva in Eretz Yisroel into the Israeli army that had been set to take place this month will instead be held on Sunday, 17 Sivan/June 11, at the Barclays Center in Downtown Brooklyn, NY. So attendees at a big gathering will protest an apparent change of policy that will make it much more difficult for traditional Orthodox Jewish students--both Hasidic (who follow a rebbe) and non-Hasidic (who don't)--to get deferments from the draft. Comments on the Yeshiva World website explain some of the debate.

The logistical questions

What's unclear is how large the ev…

Atlanta's Atlantic Yards moves ahead

First mentioned in April, the Atlantic Yards project in Atlanta is moving ahead--and has the potential to nudge Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn further down in Google searches.

According to a 5/30/17 press release, Hines and Invesco Real Estate Announce T3 West Midtown and Atlantic Yards:
Hines, the international real estate firm, and Invesco Real Estate, a global real estate investment manager, today announced a joint venture on behalf of one of Invesco Real Estate’s institutional clients to develop two progressive office projects in Atlanta totalling 700,000 square feet. T3 West Midtown will be a 200,000-square-foot heavy timber office development and Atlantic Yards will consist of 500,000 square feet of progressive office space in two buildings. Both projects are located on sites within Atlantic Station in the flourishing Midtown submarket.
Hines will work with Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture (HPA) as the design architect for both T3 West Midtown and Atlantic Yards. DLR Group will be t…

Not quite the pattern: Greenland selling development sites, not completed condos

Real Estate Weekly, reporting on trends in Chinese investment in New York City, on 11/18/15 quoted Jim Costello, a senior vice president at research firm Real Capital Analytics:
“They’re typically building high-end condos, build it and sell it. Capital return is in a few years. That’s something that is ingrained in the companies that have been coming here because that’s how they’ve grown in the last 35 years. It’s always been a development game for them. So they’re just repeating their business model here,” he said. When I read that last November, I didn't think it necessarily applied to Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park, now 70% owned (outside of the Barclays Center and B2 modular apartment tower), by the Greenland Group, owned significantly by the Shanghai government.
A majority of the buildings will be rentals, some 100% market, some 100% affordable, and several--the last several built--are supposed to be 50% market/50% subsidized. (See tentative timetable below.)

Selling development …

Forest City acknowledges unspecified delays in Pacific Park, cites $300 million "impairment" in project value; what about affordable housing pledge?

Updated Monday Nov. 7 am: Note follow-up coverage of stock price drop and investor conference call and pending questions.

Pacific Park Brooklyn is seriously delayed, Forest City Realty Trust said yesterday in a news release, which further acknowledged that the project has caused a $300 million impairment, or write-down of the asset, as the expected revenues no longer exceed the carrying cost.

The Cleveland-based developer, parent of Brooklyn-based Forest City Ratner, which is a 30% investor in Pacific Park along with 70% partner/overseer Greenland USA, blamed the "significant impairment" on an oversupply of market-rate apartments, the uncertain fate of the 421-a tax break, and a continued increase in construction costs.

While the delay essentially confirms the obvious, given that two major buildings have not launched despite plans to do so, it raises significant questions about the future of the project, including:
if market-rate construction is delayed, will the affordable h…

"There is no alternative": DM Glen on de Blasio's affordable housing strategy

As I've written, Mayor Bill de Blasio sure knows how to steer and spin coverage of his affordable housing initiatives.

Indeed, his latest announcement, claiming significant progress, came with a pre-press release op-ed in the New York Daily News and then a friendly photo-op press conference with an understandably grateful--and very lucky--winner of an affordable housing lottery.

To me, though, the most significant quote came from Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen, who, as the Wall Street Journal reported:
said public housing had been “starved” of federal support for years now, leaving the city with fewer ways of creating affordable housing. “Are we relying too heavily on the private sector?” she said. “There is no alternative.” Though Glen was using what she surely sees as a common-sense phrase, it recalls the slogan of a politician with whom I doubt de Blasio identifies: former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a Conservative who believed in free markets.

It suggests the limits to …