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Can the Design Guidelines suffice in the absence of arena renderings? ESDC/FCR say yes, but look at the evidence

One of the major messages from last Wednesday's informational meeting on Atlantic Yards was this: It's OK to have a public hearing and approval process for the project without arena renderings because "rigorous Design Guidelines" are public.

In fact, ESDC Senior Counsel Steve Matlin pronounced the phrase "Design Guidelines" five times in a single paragraph and Forest City Ratner Executive VP MaryAnne Gilmartin also clung to the phrase.

The only problem: the Design Guidelines regarding the arena, as detailed below, are quite general, with the major distinctive factor a requirement that there be transparency from the street. In other words, as long as people along Flatbush Avenue can see into the arena bowl, the architects have a lot of leeway.

Unlike with residential or commercial buildings, an architect explained to me, it's impossible to make design guidelines specific enough for an arena, because much about an arena can't be delineated until it's designed. For some buildings, he said, design guidelines aren't the answer.

After all, consider the differences (from top) between Frank Gehry's renderings from 2003 and 2008, and then the "placeholder" rendering this year from new arena designer Ellerbe Becket. They may all offer transparency, but they look quite different. 

(The Design Guidelines, which are attributed to the ESDC, were written in large part by architect Frank Gehry's office, as I wrote in November 2006.)

The question

As shown in the video below, moderator Craig Hammerman, District Manager of Community Board 6, read a long question, which he summarized: “I think the essence of the question here is: why are the renderings and other information regarding the project not being made available before next week’s public hearing?”

Matlin responded, “Well, I think, as MaryAnne mentioned before, the design of the arena is evolving. We have Design Guidelines in place--those Design Guidelines were made public--and those Design Guidelines remain unchanged. We are also, along with the city, constantly reviewing the design, and we will make sure that the design is suitable for the project. But the important, I think, factor is: there are Design Guidelines, those Design Guidelines are public, and the new design of the arena will comply with those guidelines.”

The Urban Room

(Video shot by Jonathan Barkey; edited by Norman Oder)

CB 6 Chairman Richard Bashner followed up to ask about the “public entrance,” an apparent reference to the Urban Room, as well as “any other general design features.” He asked if any formerly public spaces would no longer be public.

Gilmartin responded that the Urban Room would be built when the B1 office building is built; until then, there would be an “urban plaza with many of the elements that were contemplated in the Urban Room,” including a new transit entrance, retail, and a grand arena entrance, and “generous outdoor space, which will be space available to and belonging to the public.”

(Belonging to the public? The plan has never been to have public park space but rather publicly-available space that is controlled by a nonprofit entity.)

Back to the Design Guidelines

Gilmartin continued: “I think the best guidance as to what the arena design might look like is to look at the Design Guidelines and understand that the transparency from the street into the bowl itself, some of the features about the arena that you found in the earlier Frank Gehry design will be maintained and honored in the design we will show the public as soon as we possibly can, but it looks like it will be, again, September-October, and so I think that’s the best way to sort of think about it.”

“But none of the spaces that were previously public spaces in nature have been changed into private spaces,” she continued. “None of the transparency goals and objectives of the arena design itself have been changed. None of the locations of the entrances of the arena have been changed. All of that will be honored in the alternate design.”

The ESDC’s Darren Bloch followed up: “If I could just add one thing to that--one of the parts of that question is: how could we as ESDC contemplate this without some--y’know, some of the visuals there, the renderings. And part of that is that, as MaryAnne and Steve said, there are fairly rigorous Design Guidelines in place, that are already part of the plan, and that gives us a certain degree of comfort that a lot of that’s already been contemplated. So that allows us to go forward with some degree of confidence of what we’re going to see.”

Looking at the Design Guidelines

The Design Guidelines are part of the Modified General Project Plan issued in 2006.

There are Envelope Plan Diagrams and Envelope Isometrics for all the buildings--except the arena--in Part 2 and Part 3 of the Design Guidelines.

As the architect commented to me, the absence of detail regarding the arena in the Design Guidelines is not an effort at deception; it's simply a recognition of the difficulty in designing such a special-purpose building.

In Part 1 of the Design Guidelines states:
i. Arena
A. Located in center of Arena Block, bounded by Buildings 1- and the Urban Room.
B. Principal entrances to the Arena shall be located through the Urban Room and on Atlantic Avenue and Dean Street.

Permitted Uses
i. Arena: Arena (including support areas), entertainment, and retail (which term shall include eating and drinking establishments.

f. Materials
iv. Arena. The street walls of the Arena along Flatbush Avenue and Atlantic Avenue shall include glass elements, including a continuous glazed area with a minimum width of 125 feet and a minimum surface area of 7500 square feet, such glazed area to commence at the height of the Arena concourse level. The street walls of ground floor retail uses located along and opening on to the street shall be glazed for a minimum of 70% of such street wall to a height of twelve feet, provided that no glazing shall be required for the sidewalk market along Atlantic Avenue described in Clause (g)(i) below.

It addresses streetscape:
Ground Floor Uses; Streetscape
i. The Atlantic Avenue and Flatbush Avenue ground floor street frontages of the Arena Block shall incorporate a variety of retail and pedestrian based activities, including retail space accessible to the street and pedestrian seating areas. Not less than 40% of the Atlantic Avenue, 15% of the Flatbush Avenue street frontages, shall be devoted to retail uses, which may include eating and drinking establishments. The Atlantic Avenue retail requirement shall include retail use in front of the Arena volume which may include a sidewalk market opening on the street, provided that the market shall not occupy more than 180 linear feet of the Atlantic Avenue frontage. The Flatbush Avenue Street frontage shall incorporate a sitting area with a minimum length of 150 feet of which 40% may be in conjunction with an adjoining retail use.

It also deals with signage:
C. Arena. Signage shall be permitted on the Arena street wall consistent with the following controls:
1. Maximum Surface Area: 100% of the Arena Signage Zone
2. Maximum Height: 40 feet
3. Transparent Signage: Signage in the Arena Signage Zone shall be constructed so that it is sufficiently transparent to make activity within the building and the interior architecture visible to passersby, and the surrounding exterior architecture and activity is visible to people on the interior.
Ground Floor Retail. In addition and notwithstanding the above controls, signage for ground floor retail shall be permitted as follows:
a. Surface Area. Signage for each ground floor establishment shall be limited to the lesser of (x) 150 square feet and (y) 3 times the linear frontage of the street wall of such retail establishment.
b. Illumination. Fixed illumination shall be permitted for such signage.
c. Height. Signage for ground floor retail establishments shall be limited to a maximum height of 25 feet above the adjoining grade.

The guidelines also discuss height:
V. Arena Block
Height, Setback, Envelope, and Architectural Controls – Individual Buildings
a. Arena
i. Maximum Building Height: 150 feet
ii. Setbacks: The Arena may rise without setback to the maximum building height.
iii. Architectural Controls: The Arena fa├žade shall include transparent elements in the Atlantic Avenue and Flatbush Avenue street walls allowing for views into the arena concourse from the adjoining sidewalks.

DCP comments in 2006

A 9/27/06 letter from the City Planning Commission stated:
Under the Design Guidelines, the arena block, located between Atlantic Avenue, Flatbush Avenue and Sixth Avenue, will be designed with a new, state-of-the-art arena as its centerpiece, surrounded by four towers. Building 1’s distinctive architectural profile will contain an exterior clad in sculptural panels of glass and metal, and provide a distinct visual relationship with the Williamsburgh Savings Bank to the west. Height limits are established for each tower as well as detailed envelope controls. The arena’s design will include maximum glazing to allow views into the arena’s circulation space and the “arena bowl”, emphasizing the importance of its location. The Urban Room will be located at the apex of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues, enhancing the project’s iconic status and providing direct links to the mass transit hub below ground. The Design Guidelines for the arena block also include provisions governing the streetscape that will enhance the pedestrian environment by providing widened sidewalks, specifying the locations of ground-floor retail and encouraging the maximum amount of retail and glazing possible. The Design Guidelines also provide for arena event-related signage which will activate the Arena block facades in specified zones along Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues with illuminated non-advertising signs. Signage along Dean Street and Sixth Avenue will be limited to local neighborhood retail signage.

The Commission notes that the ESDC and the developers, in consultation with DCP staff, continue to refine the streetscape provisions of the Design Guidelines to better ensure that the ground floors of the Project would be active and vibrant. On the Arena Block, these changes have ensured that a maximum amount of retail will be provided. They include a 180-foot “sidewalk market” along Atlantic Avenue, and requirements that 70 percent of the ground floor along the Sixth Avenue frontage, and 30 percent of the Dean Street frontage be devoted to retail. In addition, a minimum of 70 percent glazing requirement up to a height of 12 feet would apply to all of the ground floor retail uses, except the sidewalk retail market. Increased glazing will also be required for the area of the Arena above the concourse level.

(Emphases added)

So DCP mentioned windows and retail. That doesn't give us much to work with.