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Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park infographics: what's built/what's coming/what's missing, who's responsible, + project FAQ/timeline (pinned post)

"Just like a normal accessible park"? Misleading rhetoric and incomplete information behind the (inadequate) Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park open space

From Pacific Park Brooklyn web site
Let's acknowledge that Thomas Balsley, the landscape architect behind the latest iteration of planned Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park open space, has an impressive record. (Here's an article on his work.)

In Brooklyn, the promised open space will have trees, a sloping lawn, a "main lawn," water features and a dog run, as well as active and passive recreation areas.

We'll see "heritage material" like bluestone paving and cobblestone paving, as well as benches, chairs, and kiosks.

And those renderings of "Pacific Park Brooklyn," in finished state, look pleasant, albeit without any hint of how the 14,000 or so residents of the new towers might monopolize this rather small amount of space--eight acres--before the public gets a shot.

But the presentation of the open space, starting with an "Exclusive" fed to the New York Daily News in which Balsley claimed "we wanted this to look just like a normal accessible park," is cynical and deceptive:
  • This privately managed space won't be a "park," despite the new rhetoric of developer Greenland Forest City Partners, and doesn't resemble any existing park
  • The promised central promenade won't appear for years, and the open space won't be done until at least 2025
  • No renderings of interim phases have been released, though segments of green will nudge up against construction sites for the next decade
  • The "lawn," described in a slide presentation (also at bottom) as a "main lawn," is tiny, little more than one-third an acre
  • The amount of open space is well below the city average for the population around it, and reaches eight acres only because the developers can appropriate three acres of public streets (as architect Jonathan Cohn noted in 2005)
  • The street trees pictured, which look nice and uniform, do not resemble the actual plan
From slide presentation
Bottom line: a primarily private benefit is being spun as a public good.

Not a park

However accessible from the sidewalk via pathways, this "park" seems likely to be inextricable from the towers around it.

By contrast, as the Municipal Art Society warned in 2006, "Genuine public parks—like Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill Park and Fort Greene Park—are bordered by streets." The UNITY plan aimed for more streets.

As Cohn wrote in 2005, "no amount of open views in the interior of a superblock will make the ground plane function like a watched public street."

Consider the open space in vertical--rather than horizontal--layout, at right. Strip away the buildings, and the space resembles a spine with some squiggly vertebrae. That's an odd "park." 

Access will be more limited. The open space, according to the project's Design Guidelines, will be open from 7 am to 8 pm (or sunset, if later) from Oct. 1 through April 30, and from 7 am to 10:30 pm from May 1 through Sept. 30.

By contrast, city parks are typically open far more hours, from 6 am to 1 am.

The Atlantic Yards Design Guidelines allow public events in the open space, on average no more than once a week, and programming of such events may be key to bringing in neighbors (but not too many, right?).  Also, up to half the open space can be used for private events on "not more than twelve non-consecutive days or evenings per year," though not on public holidays.

A conservancy must be established, funded with private money, by the time the first building emerges. The governance includes representatives of the developer, civic groups active in park matters, property owners, and, on an ex officio basis, Community Boards 2, 6, and 8, and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.

If Forest City Ratner's MetroTech Commons is any guide, there will be regulations, like "No Loitering," which are vague and more restrictive than city rules, which ban "loitering for illegal purposes" (such as selling drugs).

When queried in general about the distinction between parks and open space, urban planner Alex Garvin in 2011 said he had no problem with the latter, as long as they're publicly accessible and paid for by those who own them.

"But I don't believe they're a substitute for public parks, they're something else," he said.
Diminished criticism

Some of the most potent critics of the Atlantic Yards/Pacific Parks open space have gone quiet. The Municipal Art Society (MAS) no longer aims to improve Atlantic Yards--last year they gave the developers an award--so they haven't commented on this open space design, which Balsley produced after a master plan from original landscape architect Laurie Olin.

BrooklynSpeaks, the mend-it-don't-end-it coalition spawned by MAS, has become far more positive about the project after pushing the developer last year to build the promised affordable housing by 2025, ten years ahead of the previous "outside date," and agreeing not to sue. 

That's progress, but the agreement contains serious flaws, notably the inability to specify the actual affordability, which in the next two building skews toward households with six-figure incomes, and the limited nature of new oversight.

But the Brooklyn Paper chose a BrooklynSpeaks rep as the single community member to comment on the open space:
“Going forward I’m most interested in seeing how well the open space at Atlantic Yards can integrate with the rest of the community,” said Gib Veconi, a member of the activist group BrooklynSpeaks, which works to keep Forest City accountable to neighbors. “The vision is a nice vision, and hopefully it will be fulfilled in a way that the project originally intended, which was to integrate and link with the surrounding neighborho­ods.”
Hold on--the original intention?

In 2006, BrooklynSpeaks echoed MAS, warning that open space behind building "is likely to feel more like a private backyard than a public park." BrooklynSpeaks even produced the helpful graphic below left, extracting the squiggly green space.

BrooklynSpeaks, 2006. Note that now almost all the
open space will be publicly accessible. Only a very
small amount will be limited to condo residents

"The sponsors of BrooklynSpeaks believes that public open space should not only be publicly accessible, but be mapped as public parkland and designed to feel public," the coalition stated at the time. "One way that this can be accomplished is to plan open space adjacent to public streets, as is the case with nearly every successful public park in Brooklyn and New York City."

That request is no longer operative. (And keep in mind there's no open space to serve the towers around the arena and Site 5, though the arena green roof was originally supposed to be open to the public.)

It's hardly clear how much the interior retail planned between the Pacific Street promenade and Atlantic Avenue--see slide below right--will be used.

If residents' doors are on Dean Street or Atlantic Avenue, they may take that shorter route to transportation.

Diminishing open space

The "park" rhetoric, along with the renaming, is particularly audacious, given that the amount of open space per person in the area would actually go down.

For residential populations, the city median open space ratio is 1.5 acres per 1,000 residents, while the Department of City Planning sets an open space ratio planning goal of 2.5 acres per 1,000 residents, which is typically not reached.

But if Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park adds 14,000 residents, just meeting the median would mean 21 acres of open space, not 8. To meet the planning goal, an amazing 35 acres would be needed.

Wrote Gotham Gazette's Anne Schwartz in 2006, when there were seven acres (now 8) and 6,800 apartments (now 6,430) planned:
On face value, the amount of open space is respectable. It constitutes almost a third of the project's 22-acre site. But because the towers would have so many residents -- with a projected 15,000 to 18,000 residents, it would become the densest census tract in the country -- the area within a half-mile radius would actually end up with a lower ratio of public space per resident that it has now, .28 acres per 1,000 residents. The percentage of active recreational space would drop to .15 acres. The already fully booked sports fields in Prospect Park and elsewhere in the area would not be able to absorb the overload.
Compare that to Battery Park City, which also has about a third of its 92 acres of residential and commercial development set aside as parks and fields. When completely built, it will have about 14,000 residents, so the ratio of parkland per 1,000 residents meets the city's goal of 2.5.
At Battery Park City, much of the parkland was put in before construction of the buildings.
Also, even the limited amount of open space is diminished by the loss of streets. As architect Cohn pointed out in 2005, the open space goal is:
relative to the city's existing pattern of streets and blocks, where the streets provide additional open space that is not counted in the ratio. If we didn't have streets, the requirement for open space would be much greater, so we can't count the street area when comparing the amount of open space required by a project to the city standard that assumes 70' wide streets every 200 feet.
Instead, the developers subtracted three acres of streets to make the open space, leading to a net gain of 5 acres (4 when Cohn was writing), despite the addition of some 14,000 people.

No comparison, but Stuy Town?

If the Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park open space won't resemble a real public park, what might be a comparison? Queried at a recent Community Update meeting, Balsley couldn't offer an analogue.

Thomas Balsley, via ArchPaper
In response to a question, he agreed it might in some ways resemble Stuyvesant Town in Manhattan, but would appear be far more public, without the "guards and gates and fences" that act as a deterrent.

It may well improve on that model. But Stuyvesant Town and paired Peter Cooper Village are far greener. Consider the statistics.

The complex is comprised of 110 buildings and 11,231 units over 80 acres, with only 25%  of the area occupied by buildings. Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park will have more than half the total number of units (6430), with 14 of 22 acres--nearly 64%--occupied by buildings.

(Actually, if you subtract the arena block and Site 5--currently occupied by Modell's and P.C. Richard--the percentage of buildings surrounded by open space goes below 50%. But residents and workers in those other buildings are also supposed to use the Atlantic Yards open space.)

There is another commonality: aiming to attract well-off new residents, Stuyvesant Town's new owners, as I wrote in 2007, rebranded the privately managed, publicly accessible open space as a "park."

Will circulation work?

As seen in the schematic at right right, four new pathways are planned between the Pacific Street promenade and Atlantic Avenue, along with the perimeter streets at Sixth, Carlton, and Vanderbilt Avenues. But it's not clear how well they'll work.

Three, not four, of those pathways match up with streets in Fort Greene, but only two of them are punctuated by traffic lights. There is no light at South Oxford Street, which comes immediately to the east of Sixth Avenue/South Portland Avenue, though there is one at Cumberland Street to the east.

Just east of Carlton Avenue, the pathway at Atlantic does not match up with a Fort Greene street. The next pathway does line up with Clermont Avenue, where there is a traffic light.

As of now, there's no effective median for people to wait on Atlantic, though officials say some changes are planned.

Self-serving renderings

It's common for architects to produce misleading or incomplete renderings as part of the marketing scheme for a major development. Such renderings, as then-New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff pointed out in 2008, produce a "distorted picture of reality" that "stifles what is supposed to be an open, democratic process."

The same goes for landscape architects. After all, only three renderings of the open space have been released, which is far too few to understand the full project. Moreover, those released to the Daily News lacked the mini-schematic--at top right in slides below--that helps decode the locations.

The images cut off the buildings. For example, the schematic below, looking east to 550 Vanderbilt, suggests there could be three towers, but that's hardly clear in the rendering.

The view below, looking south from Atlantic Avenue, does not acknowledge the large towers to the right and left of the perspective.

The perspective below, toward the main lawn, does not appear to be coming from a pedestrian on the street but rather a resident within the B9 tower--or maybe just standing in front.

Cues for the Main Lawn

Despite the lack of direct comparisons, the landscape architects suggest inspirations. But that fudges the difference between this open space and the more expansive parks highlighted.

The .33-acre "Main Lawn," according to a slide, takes cues from:
  • Bryant Park in Manhattan (9.6 acres), 
  • Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park in Tampa (with a Great Lawn that is .93 acre plus a sloped lawn that is .47 acre), facing the water, not buildings
  • Teardrop Park in Manhattan (1.8 acres, between four buildings in Battery Park City, 201 to 235 feet), rather than two buildings in Brooklyn 184 feet (B14) and 283 feet (B8)
  • and Westshore Park in Baltimore, also facing the water, not buildings (.46 acre, or 20,000 square feet)
But the Main Lawn, Forest City acknowledged at the meeting, would be not much more than one-third of an acre (as noted in state documents). Balsley called it "a nice large lawn" though, when asked for specifics about size, replied, "You got me on that."

More aggressive "park" rhetoric

From Forest City Ratner flier, 2004
Forest City Ratner has gotten far more aggressive in its rhetoric regarding the green space.

Early in the project's history, the developer regularly used the term "open space," such as in the promotional fliers sent to Brooklynites, excerpted at right.

Then again, Forest City grandiosely promised that the green space--then only six acres--would be "for the entire Brooklyn community to enjoy."

Even today, the project's Twitter account typically uses the term #openspace. So does the web site for the 550 Vanderbilt condo building.
From Forest City Ratner flier, 2004

But when the project was renamed Pacific Park Brooklyn last August, the new joint venture Greenland Forest City Partners stated they had "selected Thomas Balsley Associates to design the public park which will be known as Pacific Park."

Now the Pacific Park web site, and the information fed to the Daily News, used the term "park."

(I wondered in 2007 whether the Atlantic Yards developer would take a cue from Stuy Town and deem the open space a "park." Indeed, back then, Bruce Ratner was exclaiming, "We're going to have parks here!")

The Daily News, which is business partners with the developer as sponsor of the Daily News Plaza at the Barclays Center, reflected the rhetoric with no skepticism, writing:
Pacific Park, the namesake park of real estate giant Forest City Ratner's enormous Prospect Heights mega-development....finally unveiled a masterplan and renderings of the 8-acre park...
The long, meandering park... The first phase of the park...But the park is much more than just a backyard for the residents of new luxury towers, Balsley said.
“Everyone agreed that we wanted this to look just like a normal accessible park that you would see elsewhere in the city,” he told the News
Explaining the project

The landscape architects' goals, Balsley explained at the recent meeting, are to "create a cohesive, continuous and inviting open space with a range of uses and activities," provide open space links from north to south, and create an open space sheltered from Atlantic Avenue traffic while promoting public access and use.

According to a composite solar study, he said, the sunniest places are along the Pacific street corridor, mostly to the north side. Indeed, there are significant shadows on the part of the open space below Pacific Street.

The Pacific Street corridor, he said, is a central organizing element, along a primary promenade, which is not merely a sidewalk. "Along its length, between Carlton and Vanderbilt, in the roadbed of Pacific Street, we're proposing it be converted to a wonderful ribbon lawn," he said.

Where's the phasing?

Balsley acknowledged that "this project is not all being built tomorrow," but said the parcels all have to work individually, and the concept "has to hold together through all that phasing."

Original landscape architect Laurie Olin, in the Design Guidelines (scroll near bottom), provided multiple panels illustrating the potential phasing. So, I asked at the public meeting, will Greenland Forest City release a new phased set of diagrams?

"We'll see," responded Forest City Ratner executive Ashley Cotton, which didn't sound that encouraging.

She did note that the widest part of Pacific Street that will be taken for the open space, "is related to construction of the railyard" and includes utilities, so will not be available for open space soon.

Indeed, as Prospect Heights-based design writer Andrew Blum--who said he wants the space to be good--stated on Twitter, "To my eye, the expansiveness in the renderings (if it exists at all) isn't coming until the decking is built."

As shown in the slide above right, designers liken the width of the promenade to that of the Brooklyn Heights Promenade and the High Line's green space. Then again, the crowded High Line is not a great place to linger, and the Promenade is set back from residences to the east and has nothing directly to the west, as a highway and streets are below.

Given that density being built on the southeast block of the project site first, "knowing how those pedestrians are going to move through the course of construction would be very helpful," resident Peter Krashes observed at the meeting.

Asked if the open space around the first two towers, B11 and B14, would be permanent or temporary, Balsley said most would permanent, but part near the next development site "might be a little bit temporary."

"This project has always been criticized as an island," said Krashes, adding that "open space can function to integrate the corridors." However, there were "virtually no views of the buildings under way" from the perspective of the nearest neighbors, he said. "We no idea what B11 [at Carlton Avenue and Dean Street] looks like from the Dean Street side."

"Urban lanterns"

Balsley said designers have "proposed a series of what we call urban lanterns," structures like shelters or gazebos that can be used as a kiosks or to house ventilation for the platform over the railyard below.

"Some can incorporate ventilation devices but look like these wonderful pieces of 'parkitecture,'" he said.

How many vent stacks would there be, and how large? Officials didn't know. "Everything is a placeholder until we actually get real information from the Long Island Rail Road," Forest City executive Jane Marshall said.

Rediscovering heritage--from a "blighted" rail yard

Balsley, who's responsible for the impressive Gantry Plaza State Park in Long Island City, which incorporates gantries used to transfer rail cars from barges, has a somewhat similar idea for the Pacific Park open space. (Note that Gantry Plaza is bordered by the water and a street.)

"We believe we should uncover the historical heritage of this place, wherever we work," he said at the meeting, "so the community can take pride with what might have taken place before. 

"In this case, we think, even though the rail lines are something we look at as a sunken rail line and we just hate it," Balsley continued, "but in fact that rail line was a very important element in building the economy and the growth of Brooklyn. And so we think it should be uncovered and celebrated in a kind of a graphic corridor telling about the history of the rail and the significance it has to this community. So we’re incorporating that into the park concept."

However sincere, that seemed a bit tone-deaf. The sunken railyard remains an active, functioning piece of the regional transit infrastructure, not a museum piece.

Also, for the purposes of furthering eminent domain, it was deemed blighted, though a lawyer for community groups fighting Atlantic Yards observed in 2006, "I’m not sure it qualifies as blight; it’s an active use by the MTA and LIRR… There’s been no effort by any state or city authority for at least the last 30 years to develop it. It could also be considered an asset."

Now, apparently, it's heritage.

Other detail: lighting, just one basketball court, dog runs coming late

Balsley noted that the "light levels will be the same as for any other city open space," with lower pedestrian light poles for pathways and higher poles around larger spaces, such as the lawn.

The open space will include "a dog run, play areas... a basketball court," he said. "All add up to a recipe for a vibrant, successful, urban open space."

Well, yes, and no. How can a single basketball court, marked #14 in the schematic below and placed outside the B5 tower near Sixth Avenue, serve the entire project, especially since a school is planned for the B15 tower, which won't have any open space, across the street?

Won't residents instead be inundating the Dean Playground a block away?

"This is really conceived as 21st century urban park, not a turn of the century Olmstedian" one, Balsley said, contrasting the concept with that of Prospect Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.

Dog runs, he said, are "just as important as play areas," since they're "places where people meet each other" and are used every day. "We always know there are people going to be in the park, with the right intentions."

Note that the two dog runs, marked #13 on the schematic above, are attached to the B6 and B7 towers over the railyard, between Sixth and Carlton Avenues. According to a tentative plan released by Greenland Forest City (below), those towers are not due until 2025 and 2021, respectively.

Clarifications on terms, and fantasy trees

At the meeting, Veconi asked Balsley to clarify some terms in the schematic, including retail terrace, amenity terrace, and maisonette court.

The landscape architect said a retail terrace would include tables and seating outside a ground-level retail space, but would not be limited to cafe customers. An amenity terrace would be a place to sit near the amenity space of the building.

As for a maisonette court, Balsley admitted ignorance--"I'll have to call my office"--but Forest City's Marshall said that was "a very limited amount of private open space." It's clearly assigned to some very expensive condos.

Veconi noted that there was no visualization of the planned "gateway portals," and warned that the notion "tends to reinforce the boundaries of this park."

"I think it's a bad choice of words," Balsley acknowledged. (He was referring to "gateway portals," not "park," though some at the meeting criticized the use of that word, too.)

"I do think it's in everybody's interest not to have it read that it's separated from the community around it," Veconi continued, circling slightly back toward the original BrooklynSpeaks criticism.

It was also pointed out that the diagram took more than a few liberties: the trees illustrated on the east side of Vanderbilt Avenue are not part of the project, and trees cannot be planted on the Sixth Avenue Bridge, at the far west of the image.

"We don't know where the street trees can go," Marshall acknowledged. "The [rail]yard is still being built... The platform is being designed. That includes utilities, connections that would affect street tree locations."