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Pete Hamill suggests violation of Brooklyn scale animates the AY opposition, but there's much more

Native Brooklynite and author Pete Hamill returns to the South Slope for New York Magazine's 40th anniversary issue, in a piece headlined Brooklyn Revisited, and eventually touches on Atlantic Yards.

However, because he's only a casual observer of the Atlantic Yards fight, I think he misses a key point: much of the opposition to and criticism of Atlantic Yards goes beyond issues of scale.

Brooklyn vs. Manhattan

In the last segment of the piece, Hamill writes:
One constant in New York is the velocity of change. Attempts at freezing time here always fail. New York is too big, dense, various, too full of collisions large and small, artistic and commercial, too full of energy, desire and ambition, to ever remain the way it was. New York is not a museum disguised as a city. It’s not Venice.

But in Brooklyn, the visitor, whether native son or total stranger, can experience a very special sense of beauty. Much of it derives from a simple fact: Manhattan is a vertical city, and Brooklyn is horizontal....

The reason: the soaring scale of most Manhattan buildings blocks the light. But Brooklyn is still the wide, low borough of light, bouncing off the harbor and the ocean (out by Coney Island), a place of big skies, a place where you can see weather, not simply defend against it.

Scale and AY

He continues:
And when the scale has been violated, by apartment houses or housing projects, two things are always lost: a sense of community, and beauty. The big Stalinesque apartment houses now rising on Fourth Avenue seem like faceless transients from Area Code 800. An apartment house, after all, is rarely a community. But above all, they violate any sense of Brooklyn scale. That is why much of the opposition to the Atlantic Yards project is so bitter. Brooklyn is not Frank Gehry. It’s Edward Hopper.

The scale of AY

Still, the eight- or ten- or 12-story apartment houses along Fourth Avenue are considerably smaller than the buildings--20, 30, 40, and 50+ stories--planned for Atlantic Yards. (Heck, the arena itself would be 150 feet tall, or 15 stories. At right, the view from Dean Street east of Sixth Avenue, as portrayed in the Atlantic Yards Final Environmental Impact Statement, though the two towers clad in light brown no longer appear in Frank Gehry's latest renderings, which encompass only Phase 1.)

Accepting scale

While I'd agree that a good part of the Atlantic Yards opposition initially was driven by scale issues, many Atlantic Yards opponents have endorsed the alternative UNITY plan, which evolved from mid-rise (five to ten or 12 stories) to high-rise, especially after the rival Extell proposal, based on the first iteration of the plan, included larger buildings than initially contemplated.

So, there is an acceptance, however belated, of the truism that density belongs along boulevards that can handle it, especially near transit, at least as long as New York City is growing. (Have the past week's events changed that equation?) And there's also an acceptance that allowing increased development rights, within limits, is a reasonable trade-off for subsidized housing.

In the past, Forest City Ratner and other Atlantic Yards boosters have been able to charge, not without foundation, that Atlantic Yards opponents oppose change leading to significantly increased scale and density.

It's about transparency

An updated analysis of the Atlantic Yards opposition would acknowledge that it's driven less by a violation of scale than a violation of process, the bypass of democratic accountability, leaving four underinformed political appointees on the board of the Empire State Development Corporation 15 minutes to approve the project, without the local input that would've been required in the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP).

That's why the Municipal Art Society's Kent Barwick, a relatively mild opponent, has suggested Atlantic Yards might become "this generation's Penn Station," which would "awaken the desire for a more rational process.” And that's why Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, a relentless opponent, has hammered away at AY from multiple angles.

There's facade of process, but an absence of substance; an apparently lawsuit-proof record of 22,000+ pages dutifully chronicles the environmental review, but the consultant paid millions for the task neglected to include any analysis of market trends that might have complicated the blight claims, despite a contract that seemed to request such an analysis.

And, as with developer Forest City Ratner's pledges to open the arena in 2006 and each year following, and in the continuing parade of deceptive promotional fliers (example at right), the public has been lied to, again and again and again and again.

I suspect that motivates the Atlantic Yards opposition. I know it motivates my journalistic vigilance.


  1. I agree that unprecedented scale is not the only reason why so many of us including DDDB hammer away at this megadevelopment “from multiple angles.” Among other things in an exceptionally long list, the megadevelopment is also ill-conceived, destructive, blighting, grasping and greedy (shuts down streets, avenues and sidewalks), badly-designed, eminent-domain-abusing, subsidy-stealing, landmark-demolishing, unjustifiably-expensive, non-transparent, public-purposeless, and corrupt.

    But scale is part of it. Atlantic Yards Report has excellent resources to look at the issue of scale and I suggest the following is also worth looking at in that regard: Weighing Scale at

    Michael D. D. White
    Noticing New York


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