Skip to main content

Will "absurd" process make Atlantic Yards this generation’s Penn Station?

At every public program these days about urbanism, it seems, Atlantic Yards gets a mention, and Wednesday night, at a panel titled "Modernism and the Public Realm" at the Museum of the City of New York, Kent Barwick, president of the Municipal Art Society (MAS), offered a striking prediction.

It was a passing, middle-of-the-night thought, he allowed, but maybe Atlantic Yards “will be, in its way, like Penn Station,” the 1963 demolition of which galvanized New Yorkers to finally achieve a landmarks preservation law. “Maybe the absurdity with which that proceeded will awaken the desire for a more rational process.”

(That begs the question about why Barwick and the MAS have not taken a more confrontational stance toward Atlantic Yards, instead hoping to mend it rather than end it. More on that here.)

Fellow panelist Fred Siegel, an urbanist and author, seconded Barwick’s remarks. They were both responding to a widespread belief that something was wrong with the Atlantic Yards process. The city and state backed the Atlantic Yards project without issuing a request for proposals and conducting community planning. In the approval vote, the Empire State Development Corporation's (ESDC) truncated board took all of 15 minutes to publicly consider the project.

Indeed, while city officials have not said so explicitly, their commitment to improved process, however imperfect, in plans for the West Side yards, the Columbia University expansion, and the Coney Island rezoning, as well as the guidelines in PlaNYC 2030, all suggest some recognition that Atlantic Yards was no model.

Author Glazer’s unease

The evening's guest of honor was eminent sociologist Nathan Glazer, author of the recently-published collection of essays, From a Cause to a Style: Modernist Architecture’s Encounter with the American City, who, when he spoke about the book in April, offered several criticisms of Atlantic Yards.

Though he hadn't planned for it, the collection, Glazer said, emerged at a fortuitous time, when museum exhibits reconsidered Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs and debate over large projects was more intense than it had been in years.

Jacobs’s great contribution, he said, was to defend density and diversity in an era when many looked askance at what they considered crowding and the prevailing professional view was that different functions—housing, retail, etc.—should be separate.

“But, let me point out, the density she defended was almost laughable,” Glazer said, citing the two- to six-story height of buildings in Greenwich Village. That’s not so, given that Jacobs thought tall buildings had their place and supported high density; later in the question-and-answer session, audience member Benjamin Hemric, a keen student of Jacobs’s work, set him straight.

Glazer described the emergence of oversize buildings near 100th Street and Broadway on the Upper West Side (which prompted a rezoning) and expressed a general view that “something has gone wrong.” Noting that the economic conditions in centuries past, rather than urban planning, created Greewich Village, he said, today's economic situation "has changed what is possible.”

Barwick: tools need sharpening

Barwick concurred with Glazer’s lament, saying that a “sense of unease” has been expressed by visitors to the Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York exhibition mounted by the MAS at the Urban Center.

However, Barwick said he was optimistic that the city could absorb growth and develop while maintaining crucial texture. “I think the real lesson of Jane Jacobs isn’t that Hudson Street should be reproduced,” he said, noting that Jacobs’s old neighborhood has “kept its architecture but lost its architecture.”

Rather, the Jacobsian lesson, as applied today regarding projects like the West Side yards or Atlantic Yards, is that citizens "have the power” to use their senses to evaluate what works and what doesn’t. “It’s not that we’ve run out of land," he said. "We haven’t sharpened our tools,” such a zoning and tax incentives.

As for the city’s sometimes-lauded Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), Barwick called it “a complete sham.” Still, he acknowledged that “even ULURP is apparently much too much democracy,” noting that developers prefer the ESDC's streamlined process.

The ESDC, formally the Urban Development Corporation (UDC), was granted the power to override restrictive suburban zoning in the tumultuous 1960s to achieve affordable housing, he noted. “Today the powers of the UDC are used all over the place,” citing the deployment of eminent domain for the New York Times building and its threatened use for Atlantic Yards.

Communities, Barwick acknowledged, “should not be allowed to decide by themselves” the fate of development plans. “But to not pay attention to them is absurd.” Then he came to his point about Atlantic Yards as this generation's Penn Station.

Later, he gave his personal take on a replacement for ULURP: “you ought to put the emphasis on building consensus at the beginning rather than assessing environmental impact at the end.” One good example, he said, is the mayor’s PlaNYC 2030. (The MAS is working on a neighborhood 2030 project in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Flatbush.)

Siegel: AY a boondoggle

After seconding Barwick, Siegel, an urbanist with a center-right bent, attacked Atlantic Yards as a subsidy boondoggle. Brooklyn, he pointed out, is going through an economic boom. “In the midst of this, what is the compelling economic logic for Atlantic Yards?” he said, citing $700 million in subsidies. (Actually, the amount of direct subsidies would be $305 million, but the total in tax breaks, discounted land, and other benefits surely exceeds $700 million.)

Siegel briefly returned to the precipitating issue, Glazer’s book, suggesting that “modernism, in a dense urban setting, tends to capsize everything around it.” (Here's his review.) It seemed like a swipe at Frank Gehry's Atlantic Yards design.

More pessimistic than Barwick, Siegel suggested that Atlantic Yards is “really about what happened to the political culture of New York.” It’s not that there isn’t a well-reasoned opposition to Atlantic Yards, he said. “There isn’t a civic culture to stop it.”

The opposition to the West Side Stadium, he pointed out, was spearheaded not by good-government groups but by the Dolan family, owners of deep-pocketed Cablevision, who saw their Madison Square Garden threatened.

He allowed that Atlantic Yards developer “Bruce Ratner has done some good things,” suggesting that the subsidies for MetroTech were well-targeted in a time when Brooklyn needed development. (Others disagree.) Now, however, he suggested that developers gain sway by buying out community groups and promising affordable housing. He noted Ratner’s friendliness with former Gov. George Pataki and friendly relationship with current Gov. Eliot Spitzer.

Siegel was skeptical that the city’s growth is organic, instead pointing to a “transient population” of Europeans taking advantage of a weak dollar to invest in Manhattan apartments, part of what he called “Bloomberg’s idea of the luxury city.”

In closing, he returned to Atlantic Yards, which he declared not a product of modernism, economic growth, or housing demand. “It is purely and simply a product of the mayor’s politics.”

Looking forward

Moderator Hilary Ballon, lead curator of the Moses exhibits, tried to look at the future, asking how to preserve the vitality of the city amid current economic forces. Glazer acknowledged he was stumped, calling it “odd” that the real estate economy is so fundamental to the city rather than a “primary economy” of producing things for the world.

Barwick pointed to Bloomberg, who has said the city needs to be transformed because it might lose its financial services industry to London, which is much closer to Asian markets. While Barwick said that thesis should be considered, Siegel called it “bizarre.” Financial services regulation, rather than the transformation of the city, threaten Wall Street, he said. “What would I do? Not add any new regulation.”

Civic culture in cyberspace?

Siegel returned to an earlier theme: activist civic groups like the Citizens Union no longer have the profile they had 30 years ago. “If you don’t have a vibrant civic culture, I’m afraid I’m not optimistic.” (Note the Citizens Union's cautious response to Atlantic Yards last December, calling for delay but distancing itself from project opponents.)

Barwick responded that he was more optimistic, given that “all this new media” in Brooklyn is part of “a rebirth of activism…. It may not be over.” (He didn’t provide examples, but Atlantic Yards is, as noted by the New York Times in April 2006, the first development where opposition and responses have emerged significantly in cyberspace.)

Ballon returned to a theme she expressed at a panel November 6, the challenge of transcending the interest of the neighborhood and seeing the city as a whole—a challenge this panel didn't quite address.

Modernism & Jacobs

From the audience, commentator Hemric suggested that the anti-Jacobsian culprit is not tall buildings—he pointed to Rockefeller Center as a successful example of density and diversity—but modern architecture that doesn’t accommodate diverse uses.

Barwick suggested that it wasn’t the fault of architecture but instead “how the building’s financed,” given that anchor tenants control the fate of the building. The city, he said, could do more to define how retail space works.

Ballon, in closing, acknowledged that her moderator’s role restrained herself from defending modernist architects, since she believes they were championing certain urban values.

In her American Prospect review of Glazer’s book, Ballon noted how Glazer observes that New York has failed to plan for crucial infrastructural improvements and offers some hope:
But a new wind is blowing in New York. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his planning team of Daniel Doctoroff and Amanda Burden have resurrected the public face of planning and infrastructure with an initiative called PlaNYC 2030. Although the political system does not reward long-term projects, New York may be on the threshold of a turnaround. And if that effort can succeed in New York, there may well be new receptivity elsewhere to Glazer's plea to revitalize planning and his desire to "unleash the productive forces, but then govern them by a larger sense of the public and common good."

If so, will Atlantic Yards be seen as a turning point?


  1. As usual, your report is a nicely detailed, pretty accurate summary of the event!

    Given that the stated topic was modernism, I think it's interesting that this event turned into such an Atlantic Yards bashfest! (And this is especially interesting as it included participants from across the political spectrum, not just liberals -- as usually seems to be the case at such events.) As the evening progressed, I was thinking to myself, "Norman must certainly be pleased at the way this event is going!"

    Some comments:

    1) I especially like Fred Siegel's anti-Atlantic Yards comments since they seemed to be a good articulation of my own feelings about Atlantic Yards. While I'm not sure Fred Siegel would agree with my entire thesis (although he might), my feeling, briefly stated, is that the problem with Atlantic Yards isn't too little planning and community participation but too much planning and community participation (e.g., eminent domain, direct and indirect public subsidies, community benefits agreements, etc.) As Fred Siegel seemed to be saying, or at least to be implying, if it weren't for planning and gov't involvement there wouldn't be any Atlantic Yards -- because Atlantic Yards does not make sense in a true market environment (without eminent domain, direct and indirect subsidies, etc.)

    But I also agree with the critics of MetroTech and disagree with Siegel (who surprised me) when he suggested that MetroTech was an exception, an instance where planning, subsidies, etc. were helpful rather than unnecessary or harmful -- and that it was a Ratner good deed. (By the way, for New Yorkers of a certain age -- and I think Siegel might be that age -- Ratner does indeed have some legitimate good deeds to his credit. Believe it or not, he was at one time a very good Commissioner of Consumer Affairs [under Ed Koch?])!

    2) If I had been a panelist, rather than just a questioner from the audience, I would have elaborated on my comments regarding the role I believe modernism plays in devitalizing cities. While I recognize that there is a grain of truth to what Barwick said about how the financing of modern office buildings has affected their design (e.g., prime tenants, and thus developers, don't want street level retail, etc.), I think it is only a grain. It seems to me that prime tenants (and thus developers) don't want street level retail BECAUSE they have been "brainwashed" by modernists. Modernist ideology devalues commerce in favor of architectural statements (that glorify architects), and modernists have convinced (via museum exhibitions, articles in Sunday supplements, etc.) the general public (corporate executives, etc.) to go along.

    Furthermore, the modernists have managed to institutionize their love for architectural statements and disdain for commerce in the New York City zoning code which, as a result, discourages "old-fashioned" street-level retail, and street vitality, because it instead provides lucrative bonuses for modernist "plazas" and, in effect, the design-centric, "starchitect"-designed signature buildings to go with them.

    For those who have read Tom Wolfe's "From Bauhaus to Our House," I think this effect of modernism on the city's streetscape that I forward is yet another manifestation of the elitist, anti-capitalist, "design" community-centric ideology of "modernism" that is a focal point of that book.

    Two brief examples to illustrate my thesis and answer Barwick's comments:

    Modernism has had the same effect on the design of apartment houses, which are not financed the same way as office buildings.

    Look at the pre-modernist Woolworth Tower. Here is an office building that was built as a signature building for a single tenant, and this building has plenty of street level retail. Woolworth financed the building itself, so it could do anything it pleased, but this was before the ideology of modernism had taken hold.


Post a Comment

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…

No, security guards can't ban photos. Questions remain about visibility of ID/sticker system.

The bi-monthly Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Community Update meeting June 14, held at 55 Hanson Place, addressed multiple issues, including delays in the project, a new detente with project neighbors,concerns about traffic congestion, upcoming sewer work and demolitions, and an explanation of how high winds caused debris to fly off the under-construction 38 Sixth Avenue building. I'll have more coverage.
Security issues came up several times at the meeting.
Wayne Bailey, a resident who regularly takes photos and videos (that I often use) of construction/operations issues that impact residents, asked representatives of Tishman Construction if the security guard at the sites they're building works for them.
After Tishman Senior VP Eric Reid said yes, Bailey asked why a guard told him not to shoot video of the site, even though he was on a public street.

"I will address it with principals for that security firm," Reid said.
Forest City Ratner executive Ashley Cotton, the …

Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park graphic: what's built/what might be coming + FAQ (post-dated pinned post)

This graphic, posted in February 2018, is post-dated to stay at the top of the blog. It will be updated as announced configurations change and buildings launch. Note the unbuilt B1 and the proposed--but not yet approved--shift in bulk to the unbuilt Site 5.

The August 2014 tentative configurations proposed by developer Greenland Forest City Partners will change. The project is already well behind that tentative timetable.

How many people are expected?

Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park has a projected 6,430 apartments housing 2.1 persons per unit (as per Chapter 4 of the 2006 Final Environmental Impact Statement), which would mean 13,503 new residents, with 1,890 among them in low-income affordable rentals, and 2,835 in moderate- and middle-income affordable rentals.

That leaves 8,778 people in market-rate rentals and condos, though let's call it 8,358 after subtracting 420 who may live in 200 promised below-market condos. So that's 5,145 in below-market units, though many of them won…

The passing of David Sheets, Dean Street renter, former Freddy's bartender, eminent domain plaintiff, and singular personality

David Sheets, longtime Dean Street renter, Freddy's bartender, eminent domain plaintiff, and singular personality, died 1/17/18 in HCA Greenview Hospital in Bowling Green, KY. He was 56.

There are obituary notices in the Bowling Green Daily News and the Wichita Eagle, which state:
He was born in Wichita, KS where he attended public Schools and Wichita State University. He lived for many years in Brooklyn, NY, and was employed as a legal assistant. David's hobby was cartography and had an avid interest in Mass Transit Systems of the world. David was predeceased by his father, Kenneth E. Sheets. He is survived by his mother, Wilma Smith, step-brother, Billy Ray Smith and his wife, Jane all of Bowling Green; step-sister, Ellen Smith Alexander and her husband, Jerry of Bella Vista, AR; several cousins and step-nieces and step-nephews also survive. Memorial Services will be on Monday, January 22, 2018 at 1:00 pm with visitation from 10:00 am to 1:00 pm Monday at Johnson-Vaughn-Phe…

Some skepticism on Belmont hockey deal: lease value seems far below Aqueduct racino; unclear (but large?) cost for LIRR service

As I wrote for The Bridge 12/20/1, The Islanders Say Bye to Brooklyn, But Where Next?, the press conference announcing a new arena at Belmont Park for the New York Islanders was "long on pomp... but short on specifics."

Notably, a lease valued at $40 million "upfront to lease up to 43 acres over 49 years... seems like a good deal on rent for the state-controlled property." Also, the Long Island Rail Road will expand service to Belmont.

That indicates public support for an arena widely described as "privately financed," but how much? We don't know yet, but some more details--or at least questions--have emerged.

An Aqueduct comparable?

Well, we don't know what the other bid was, and there aren't exactly parcels that large offering direct comparables.

But consider: Genting New York LLC in September 2010 was granted a franchise to operate a video lottery terminal under a 30 year lease on 67 acres at Aqueduct Park (as noted by Gov. Andrew Cuomo).


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…