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Not quite public: FCR plans private events at Urban Room & AY open space

A significant part of the open space promised for the Atlantic Yards project would be a soaring, 120-foot, glass-walled Urban Room at the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues. According to the General Project Plan released by the Empire State Development Corporation:
An Urban Room connected to the Arena will serve as a significant public amenity by accommodating the major flows of people to and from the transit center during the day and night, serving as a direct subway entrance to the Arena and allowing for a variety of public uses and programmed events throughout the year.

But the Urban Room would be "publicly-accessible open space," not public space, and Forest City Ratner (FCR) plans to close the space once a month for private events. Similarly, even though seven landscaped acres planned for the eastern portion of the project has been billed by the developer as "publicly accessible open space that everyone can enjoy," new documents released show that FCR would reserve half of that open space for private events once a month.

It's not unusual for private events to be held in privately-managed open space; even public parks are used periodically for such events. Still, Forest City Ratner hasn't exactly disclosed its plans in its public statements. The promised Atlantic Yards open space would be "for the entire community of Brooklyn to enjoy," as the developer said in a flier two years ago.

Previous pattern

There's a pattern here. Last fall we learned that the promised public park on the roof of the Brooklyn Arena was to become private open space for residents of the buildings around the arena, despite Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz's protestations. (Forest City Ratner cited logistical and security concerns.)

More recently, we learned of a key distinction between the promised AY open space and public parks. As has been noted by architect Jonathan Cohn and the Brooklyn Papers, the hours for the open space would be limited, from 7 am until 8 pm or sunset (whichever is later) for seven months, and until 10:30 pm from May to September. By contrast, the New York City Parks Department sets open hours from 6 am to 1 am.

Urban Room rules

The plans for the Urban Room and open space are revealed in the Draft Design Guidelines that are part of the General Project Plan.

While the Urban Room would be open to the public from 7 am to 10 pm daily, at minimum, the guidelines (p. 24) give the developer some slack:
the Developer shall be entitled to close the Urban Room for security reasons on a temporary basis and shall additionally have the right to close the Urban Room, not more than 12 times in any calendar year for private events, provided that no such closing shall occur on any national holiday and notice of which shall be posted... Access to the transit connection shall be maintained during any such private events.

Perhaps the Urban Room would be a site for VIP parties, since the Nets, like many sports teams, are trying ever-harder to maximize revenue. Nets President Brett Yormark recently created 16 "Hollywood seats" that sell for over six figures for the season.

Open, not always public

Regarding the open space, the guidelines (p. 44) allow for 12 private events a year, covering up to 3.5 of the 7 acres of open space:
Developer shall have the right to temporarily close the open space, or any part thereof, to the extent necessary to address a safety concern, and shall have the further right to close a portion of the open space not exceeding 50% of the open space area, on not more than twelve non-consecutive days or evenings per year for private events, provided that any such private closings shall not take place on public holidays. Developer shall post notice of any such closing... and shall maintain access to the portions of the publicly accessible open space not used for such event to the extent practicable.

To the extent practicable? Does that mean that the 50% of the open space not used for the private events might be closed as well, for security or staging?

What kind of private event might Forest City Ratner hold? A gathering for Nets season ticketholders? A picnic for staffers from the company's several locations? A celebration of the Community Benefits Agreement? Or perhaps something in connection with an event at the Brooklyn Arena?

Public events, too

And it looks like Forest City Ratner may be holding public events weekly. The guidelines say (p. 44):
Developer shall be entitled to hold public events within the open space at Developer’s option, provided that such events shall not occur on average more than once a week. For purposes of this Section 8(a), "public events" shall mean events to which the general public is invited.

These could be concerts, as are held by the Brooklyn Academy of Music at FCR's MetroTech complex in the summer, or other gatherings. (Synergy alert: Bruce Ratner formerly chaired the BAM board and remains a member.)

But there's a larger question. Would others be able to hold public events? There's not requirement for a private developer to offer the same access that the city Parks Department provides. After all, as the photo above shows, the open space at MetroTech is highly regulated.

Patterns elsewhere

I asked Andy Wiley-Schwartz, VP at the Project for Public Spaces (PPS), about precedents for such open space. He observed, "Even when the space is public, when an outside management group programs and secures it, they have great leeway to close or limit use. Look at Bryant Park, which is probably the 'best' example of a public park whose use has been limited and 'privatized' because of an independent management organization."

Indeed, in a 9/16/00 op-ed for the New York Times headlined Paradise Lost, Again, PPS president Fred Kent bemoaned the decision to sublet Bryant Park's center lawn to commercial entities for private events, like a fashion show and circus, for much of the fall and winter,

On the other hand, as Wiley-Schwartz observed, nonprofit groups managing Prospect Park and Central Park have worked quite well.

A more direct precedent for the planned open space at Atlantic Yards might be other privately-owned public space, such as Rockefeller Center.

While it is "managed as a public space for the most part, it can and sometimes is 'privatized' for an event, but most events are open to the public (like the orchid show) even if not all are free," Wiley-Schwartz observed. "However, Rockefeller Center can limit vending and other activity to its heart's content."

Urban Room key

Wiley-Schwartz called the Urban Room "the most important public space in the plan, because it will have the most people in it. And it has a subway entrance. And they have agreed to keep the subway entrance open all the time. You’d hope that there would be public things of interest, like the Christmas market at Grand Central, so it would be programmed in a way that would make it a destination."

Limits on programming

Schwartz said the pattern of programming was more important than the fact that space might be used for private events. Because the main open space would border residential buildings, that limits programming, he said, making it difficult to schedule night events like movies and concerts.

(Actually, an early-evening concert series is held in Stuyvesant Oval, part of Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town, which is, curiously enough, described as an 80-acre private park, not "publicly-accessible open space." The Municipal Art Society has warned:
Forest City Ratner proposes a seven-acre “publicly accessible” open space, but the reality is that the space will serve as a private backyard for residential skyscrapers, like Stuyvesant Town in Manhattan.)

The importance of management

"Events are good, programming is good, management is good," Wiley-Schwartz said. "All those things make a public space a stronger attraction and less securitized. We can look at the design all we want, but the design doesn’t matter as much as the programming and management… If they really energize it, it’ll be a lot more successful and accessible."

Wiley-Schwartz observed that the amount of open space is far less than city guidelines suggest for the new population, even though the ESDC's Draft Environmental Impact Statement says that's not a problem: "We all know we’re underparked, and just to say that there’s nothing there [now] and they're keeping that ratio intact, that’s not OK."

Past pledges

Just as the use of "friendly condemnations" was not anticipated in previous documents regarding eminent domain, the privatization of public space had not been hinted at previously.

On the Atlantic Yards web site, which debuted earlier this year, the developer promises:
As part of the development, FCRC will transform portions of the exposed rail yards into publicly accessible open space that everyone can enjoy.

(Note that a significant portion of the open space would be built not over the railyards but by taking Pacific Street.)

A Forest City Ratner brochure sent to Brooklynites in May also gave no hint of any privatization possibilities, saying that the "open space will be available to all." (Click to enlarge.)

However, it seems that the open space might not always be for all to enjoy, but also for the developer to deploy.