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On a Jane's Walk around Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park, "form follows finance" and a reminder of public-private tension

It's always interesting and challenging to discuss Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park on a walking tour, especially when participants bring quite varied amounts of history--regarding Brooklyn, and/or the project--to the table.

So, with more than 30 people to lead around during my Jane's Walk tour Friday, I had to hit some high points. “Atlantic Yards is a never-say-never project" was the most important of the four mantras I periodically use.

After all, the project has gone through significant changes, in ownership, name, program, designers, and timing.

Outside the Barclays Center. Photo: Eric Richmond
I also redeployed a couple of phrases well known to urbanists. I suggested that the phrase "form follows function"--that style should reflect purpose--might be more wisely replaced by the phrase "form follows finance," the title of a book by Carol Willis, also the founder of the Skyscraper Museum.

After all, the lack of finance may mean the absence of form, as in delayed buildings. For example, while it may be tempting to site a new school in a new tower, if that tower is delayed--664 Pacific was announced in December 2015, but hasn't launched--so too is that school.

There was so much to talk about--ownership changes, building plans, affordable housing--that I didn't even get to mention Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov or the real reason for the arena's green roof or the claimed legacy of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

What's not there

Every time I walk around, I'm reminded how some changes still seem inchoate. After all, planned retail spaces on the arena's Atlantic Avenue side closed years ago, and retail spaces on the Flatbush side have fluctuated, with two seemingly empty: one was used as a showroom for the 550 Vanderbilt condo building, and another was once--no more?--branded with WPIX.

Across the street, the former Triangle Sports building--a key wedge at Flatbush Avenue, Fifth Avenue, and Dean Street--still awaits a function, after six years.

And arena crowds, however disruptive at times, are smaller than once expected because the arena shrank when Frank Gehry's design was swapped for one by Ellerbe Becket, then modified by SHoP, and the once-expected fans of the New Jersey Nets failed to follow their re-branded team. (Most disruptive are concerts and children's events that bring drivers.)

Open space plan, by Thomas Balsley
Pacific Park?

Given that fractional amounts of open space are now open, we walked (respectfully) through the public space around the 535 Carlton tower, which is B14--the westernmost building on the southeast block.

It's pleasant enough for residents, sure. But it's hardly an amenity for "Brooklyn" or even for the neighborhood.

The promised full eight acres of open space may be a decade off, since it relies on a yet-to-be-built deck over the Vanderbilt Yard, and the transformation of demapped Pacific Street into green space.

Private and public turf


Proceeding along Dean Street east from Flatbush Avenue, I sought a spot where a group of that size could quietly gather, away from the sidewalk. So we turned left onto the brick pavement which leads to the Dean Street doors to the Barclays Center.

Moments later, an arena security guard asked us if we had a permit to be there, and shooed us away, to the sidewalk, which is public property.

He wasn't wrong--arena operators can eject people who don't have tickets--but the strict policing of that boundary contrasts enormously with the arena's historic deployment of, and encroachment on, public space.

After all, vehicles in the arena's loading dock have stuck out on the sidewalk. Other arena-related vehicles have parked in lanes adjacent to the arena on Dean Street, Flatbush Avenue, and Atlantic Avenue, despite No Standing rules. (Not to mention all the encroachments on public space during construction.)

And the semi-public space of the arena plaza--the accidental plaza--is of course branded as Resorts World Casino NYC Plaza and used not just for arena attendees to gather but to hold press conferences and market souvenirs.


Multiple views of 550 Vanderbilt

Of the towers constructed so far, only the only condo building, 550 Vanderbilt, stands out architecturally, to my eyes. The two towers around the arena (461 Dean, 38 Sixth) have less context to respond to, so they don't easily play off the arena and some colored segments seem odd.

The use of brick in 535 Carlton does reflect something of the surrounding neighborhood, but the concrete (?) counterpoints look a bit cheap, unlike the classier 550 Vanderbilt, which has cast concrete and custom brick designed by CookFox.

That said, a post-tour drink at a cafe a few blocks away confirmed that, no, 550 Vanderbilt does not look as modestly-scaled as in the advertisement at right--nor does the adjacent three-story brick building seem as relatively large. (Nor, of course, is the tower an "oasis" over Brooklyn, as one tweet proposed, because it's the project's second shortest building.)

And, as I told the group, it's hard for me to look at 550 Vanderbilt and ignore the maneuvering by developer Greenland Forest City Partners to save buyers some $50 million in taxes by linking the building with the affordable 535 Carlton in one "project" sharing a zoning lot.

And that, of course, boosts sales, since buyers can devote more of their monthly payment to a mortgage.
Graphic by Ben Keel

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