One of the city’s most-respected urban planning organizations weighed in on Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards last week, saying it simply “does not work” for Brooklyn.
Municipal Art Society President Kent Barwick offered that assessment before a packed house of 500 people at the Hanson Place Central United Methodist Church on June 15 — a mildly stinging rejection of Ratner’s 17-skyscraper, 8.7-million-square-foot arena and commercial development in low-rise Prospect Heights.
“I know the headline writers want something stronger, but we’ve reached the conclusion that [Atlantic Yards] does not work,” Barwick said. “That doesn’t mean that it could not work, but as currently designed, it does not.”
Barwick said the Society assessed Atlantic Yards using five “design criteria”: does it “respect the existing neighborhoods”; does it “eliminate streets”; does it “create a real public park”; does it “promote lively streets”; and does it “choke” traffic.
By those criteria, Atlantic Yards earned a score of 1 out of 5, according to architect and planner John West, who gave the Society’s PowerPoint presentation.
Some community members complained that by evaluating Atlantic Yards at all, the Society was hoping to tailor it rather than kill it outright.
But West’s presentation began ominously — showing that Atlantic Yards’ 8.7 million square feet is the equivalent of “three Empire State Buildings, 23 Williamsburgh Savings Bank buildings, or 2,200 brownstones — which is roughly the entire population of Prospect Heights.”
There was an audible gasp when he made the comparison.
West said the first step towards “respecting the neighborhoods” would be for Ratner to redesign Atlantic Yards so its skyscrapers do not “block the clock” — the celebrated four-sided timepiece atop the landmark Williamsburgh Savings Bank building near the intersection of Flatbush and Fourth avenues.
Currently, Ratner’s plan calls for a 62-story building — nicknamed “Miss Brooklyn” by its architect Frank Gehry — one block south.
West said Ratner’s building could exist there — and not “block the clock” — if the Gehry-designed basketball arena was shifted to the east and Miss Brooklyn set back further from Flatbush Avenue.
Secondly, West called for Ratner to not close off some streets, such as Fifth Avenue between Flatbush and Atlantic avenues (which would be near center court) and Pacific Street between Carlton and Vanderbilt Avenues — a demapping that Ratner says is essential for the creation of his project’s seven acres of green space.
Perhaps, but West also assailed that “public” park as not public at all.
“Parks need to be bordered by streets, not surrounded by buildings,” he said, likening the Ratner design to the central green space of Stuyvesant Town, a Manhattan development where large residential buildings inhibit, rather than encourage, public use of the “park.”
West did say that Ratner was making positive strides towards creating a lively streetscape. Near the arena, for example, Gehry has drawn in cafes, stores and other businesses that encourage pedestrian traffic.
But West cautioned that designs don’t always equal reality, showing a photo of Ratner’s Atlantic Center Mall, which has neither doors nor windows on the Fort Greene side.
On his last point — traffic — West just sighed and said that the car-clogged intersection may simply not be able to handle any new development.
Forest City Ratner Vice President James Stuckey — who attended West’s press preview, but did not stick around for the community forum — said he appreciated the Municipal Art Society presentation.
“We are in full agreement with three of their five design principles right off the bat,” Stuckey said. “Our open space will be public and the streets will be lively. This is not a project for big box retail.”
Stuckey added, “We agree [with the Municipal Art Society] on the need for a transportation plan that works,” Stuckey said.
But he insisted that demapping Pacific Street between Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues was essential for landscape architect Laurie Olin’s greenspace design.
“If we take out that one street, we can design a park that will save 1.8 million gallons of water a year,” Stuckey said, referring to Olin’s retaining ponds.
“If Pacific Street remains open, that’s 1.8 million gallons a year going into the Gowanus Canal.”
Overall, Stuckey disagreed that the project “does not work.”
“The Society said there were five design principles and that they can’t simply be reduced to a magic number of density,” he said. “But the Society also has the advantage of not having to look at the economics of the project. We have $1 billion in site costs. And it will take $50 million for environmental remediation of the [open space] site.”
Opponents of the project cheered the society’s overall conclusion, but were not ready to concede the main point: that Atlantic Yards is “the” plan.
“My problem is with the Society’s world view,” said Daniel Goldstein, a spokesman for Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn. “We don’t think that because Forest City Ratner has proposed something, it should be the framework for starting a conversation about what’s best for the area. This plan can still be rejected and a better one created.”