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Where were you? Brooklyn AIA offers belated, underinformed AY solutions

Some of the most sober and trenchant criticism of Atlantic Yards has come from architects, notably Jonathan Cohn in his now on-hiatus Brooklyn Views blog. Now, four years after the project was announced, a letter to the editor published in this week's Brooklyn Paper is the first evidence, as far as I can tell, that the Brooklyn chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA)--or any other AIA chapter--has taken a stance on Atlantic Yards.

Despite attempts to be constructive, the message is underinformed and in some ways misguided.

Can arena be moved?

Under the unfortunately optimistic headline Expert: There is a way to fix Atlantic Yards traffic, I. Donald Weston, chair of the Urban Design Committee of the Brooklyn Chapter of the AIA, first criticizes those questioning arena security issues.

He writes: Your article, “City can’t curb Yards security” (Dec. 8) indicates a lack of understanding by the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods that buildings can be designed today to be far more blast resistant than they used to be, that measures can be taken to keep vehicles from getting too close to a building and, if required by the NYPD, that the stadium can be relocated further away from the street prior to construction.

Yes, buildings can be designed to be blast resistant, but that didn't stop police in Newark from closing streets bordering the new Prudential Center. So the questions are legitimate.

Also, the arena--not a stadium--quite possibly couldn't be relocated further from the street, given the lack of slack in the design. (Note that the outer ring in the rendering represents the arena roof. Click to enlarge.)

Traffic solutions?

Weston continues:
But what still concerns the Brooklyn Chapter of the American Institute of Architects is the adverse impact the stadium will have on the traffic in the area. In hopes of mitigating the additional traffic anticipated when the stadium is in use, the Chapter suggests the following measures:

1. The city should prohibit the Nets arena from providing any off-street parking at the arena site. Instead, the city should provide municipal parking for approximately 1,000 cars at one or several locations in an industrial area in the Brownsville/East New York area, within walking distance of public transportation. This parking would be used on a daily basis for business people driving to work as well as for patrons attending basketball games.

However, on game nights, either the Nets or the Atlantic Yards developer should be required to provide shuttle buses from the remote parking areas to the arena.

While this may be a good idea even without Atlantic Yards, given potential congestion pricing, an offsite parking lot in Brownsville/East New York would mainly accommodate those coming from the east. It's hard to imagine arena-goers from Staten Island or Yonkers driving that far.

The Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) has already determined that there should be more than 1000 spaces for onsite parking, including, in the beginning, at interim surface lots. Had the Brooklyn chapter of the AIA truly felt strongly about this advice, it should have offered it in last year before the ESDC public comment period ended. The state overrides zoning, and the city can't prohibit parking on its own.

There already is a shuttle bus plan involving remote parking to the west, at MetroTech and Long Island College Hospital, as well as park-and-ride lots in Staten Island.

Eliminate parking?

The letter continues:
2. Eliminate parking on all major thoroughfares going to, or coming from, Manhattan during rush hours, and meter all side streets in the area. Enforce existing “Don’t Block the Box” rules at all major intersections.

Any solution inevitably frustrates some constituency; in this case, it's hardly clear that metering side streets would be a better solution than, say, neighborhood parking permits.

More advice

The letter continues:
3. Eliminate parking permits for city employees’ private vehicles to encourage them to take public transportation.

4. Discount bus and subway fares during off hours.

Not bad ideas, but not exactly AY solutions.

Reduced density?

The letter continues:
Of course, the best solution would be to reduce the density of the residential/commercial area in Atlantic Yards. If most of the existing streets would remain as city property, whether open for vehicular traffic or relegated to pedestrian use only, and the same floor area ratio is retained, the total buildable floor area would be reduced by approximately 20 percent, which would substantially reduce traffic.

Atlantic Yards critics have long condemned the superblock plan, but developer Forest City Ratner does not intend to move the Miss Brooklyn skyscraper to leave Fifth Avenue open. And were Pacific Street between Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues retained, well, the project would lose a good chunk of the planned open space.

Had the Brooklyn chapter of AIA submitted these proposals to the ESDC last year, it would've been told why the state didn't think they could work.

Welcome development?

The letter concludes:
The Chapter is very much in favor of bringing a professional basketball team to Brooklyn and developing the rail yard area, but we do not feel that enough thought has been given to the traffic impact of the overall development.

We believe that if our suggestions are adopted it will prevent a traffic disaster from occurring.

The problem is that similar suggestions have already been rejected. In other words, it should be hard to offer those suggestions at this point with a straight face.

Paging Jane Jacobs

On Wednesday, I pointed to a critic of Jane Jacobs, who noted that the urbanist focused her critique on planners, a "relatively powerless group," rather than the developers and government officials with real clout.

Perhaps, but professionals like planners and architects can have some clout, especially when they lead, rather than follow, the public discourse. The New York Metro Chapter of the American Planning Association, to its credit, delivered some sober criticism of the Atlantic Yards plan before the ESDC deadline.

The group stated that AY "raises serious questions of good planning and design, public process, appropriate scale and density, respect for surrounding neighborhood character, and adequate transportation and infrastructure -- all of which deserve careful study and modification."

While constructive criticism may be useful now, or later, organizations of architects, however, sat out the debate when it was most crucial.