Ideas About The Proposed Atlantic Yards Project
in Prospect Heights
Saturday, March 24, 2007
How Green Is Demolition?
Forest City Ratner put out a press release last week announcing the pending demolition of the Ward Bakery, as if this would somehow be good for the environment. This historic building is one of the most significant architectural buildings on the site, and should be recycled and reused as a component in the overall development. But instead, it is being demolished to make an enormous at-grade parking lot that will be in place for decades, according to the designers.
So how is the demolition of this important building good for the environment? Turns out that since “at least 75% of the demolition debris is expected to be recycled”, the demolition is good news, helping the overall project qualify for LEED certification. LEED certification is one measure of sustainable and environmentally sensitive design. According to Mr. Ratner, the developers are “seeking out every possible way to make Atlantic Yards as eco-friendly and environmentally responsible as possible”.
Oh c’mon. Demolishing this building to make a giant parking lot is as “eco-friendly” as driving a Hummer to the supermarket to buy air-freighted “organic” food. Besides running counter to well-known concepts of embedded energy, as explained in Norman Oder’s blog recently, confusing demolition with a sustainable strategy is very clearly counter to the intent of the LEED guidelines.
LEED assigns points for various green initiatives in a project, and awards levels of certification according to how many points a project obtains. The Atlantic Yards project, according to the press release, is apparently trying for a “Certified” level, which is obtained by achieving 26 to 32 LEED points. The next level, Silver, had been mentioned earlier, but requires projects to achieve 33 to 38 points. Gold is awarded for 39 to 51 points, and Platinum for 52 to 69 points. Not surprisingly, a “Certified” level is very easily obtained by most projects. The City’s Local Law 86, signed by Mayor Bloomberg on October 3rd, 2005, requires all projects with any City funding with an estimated construction cost of over $2 million to design for a Silver level, as a minimum.
One way to increase the number of LEED points available to the project would be by maintaining existing buildings in place. The LEED rating system is far from perfect, but it is very explicit in encouraging the reuse of buildings in place, rather than expending energy to take them apart. According to the LEED guidelines for Credits MR 1.1, 1.2, and 1.3, the intent of these credits is to “Extend the life cycle of existing building stock, conserve resources, retain cultural resources, reduce waste and reduce environmental impacts of new buildings as they relate to materials manufacturing and transport.” If the project was really as “eco-friendly and environmentally responsible as possible”, it would reuse the significant existing buildings.
The cat’s out of the bag, our suspicions have been confirmed. Why does the plan for Atlantic Yards call for Pacific Street to be closed between Vanderbilt and Carlton? In yesterday’s Observer, Matthew Schuerman has a revealing interview with Laurie Olin, the landscape architect for the project. “Mr. Olin admits that the site plan was put together to establish the parameters of the project—the ratio of open to built space—to go through the approval process.”
So the designers have finally come clean and admitted that the plan is not about making a great space, and not about what’s best for the city. As the project team looked for opportunities to increase the ratio of open space to built space in order to make the project seem smaller that it really is, it found a tricky strategy: rather than decrease the built space, the site can be “expanded” by taking the area of the streets. By demapping the streets and counting them as open space, the project’s ratio of open to built space looks better - as a number. According to the designer whose name is on the plans, the taking of streets really is about making the numbers look good. Never mind that the space will no longer be public space, and - according to the EIS – the space will now not even be accessible to the public for good parts of the day. (Presumably the details of how to keep people out of this so-called “publicly accessible space” / gated community - a high fence? a private security detail? - will be released at some point.)
Even so, this strategy could not have been fully realized without real antipathy towards the urban environment. Now we know how the designers really feel about Brooklyn streets. “I think space on streets is actually useless space”. Maybe it’s OK for a landscape architect to say that, landscape architects are typically not called upon to be urban designers; their purvue is typically limited to laying out areas dedicated for landscape. But, at Atlantic Yards, according to Mr. Schuerman, some might think the landscape architect was “brought in to compensate for Mr. Gehry’s reputed lack of urban-design skills”, and the landscape architect has spent his time laboring to shape the buildings into “catcher mitts”, a scope of work somewhat beyond a typical landscape architect’s.
“I think space on streets is actually useless space”. Yes, it is useless to the developer, he can’t charge for it, or take credit for it in his calculations. But it isn’t useless to the city, which uses streets to run utilities, buses, service vehicles, patrol and emergency vehicles. It’s not useless to the adjacent communities, which use streets, mediated in Brownstone Brooklyn by stoops- as the first opening out of private space. It is shared recreation space, it is transition space, it is transit space used to get from A to B and along the way meet neighbors and observe strangers. It is the epitome of what Christopher Alexander has called a semilattice: An environment in which several different systems can overlap. If the city recognizes that “The public realm in New York is primarily composed of streets and sidewalks”, why are we letting this project close the streets?
Will Atlantic Yards Preclude the One Seat Ride to JFK?
The AY plan superimposed on the released rail link study (South is up)
While no one seems to know exactly how to find the holy grail of Lower Manhattan development - the one seat ride to JFK airport (or, as some say, the commuter rail link from Long Island to Lower Manhattan) – there is no shortage of ideas. Post 9/11, the link has been seen by many as a critical component to the region’s growth, and there has been strong support for the idea from both the city and state. In a press-release in May, 2004, Governor Pataki said: “It is projected that the rail link will result in an increased economic output of $6 to 8 billion annually, generated in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, and as much as $9 to $12 billion in the region as a whole”. And one thing that all likely plans have in common is a rail by-pass at the LIRR Atlantic Terminal. Will this opportunity be precluded by the current plans for Atlantic Yards?
We have no reason to believe that the current plan for Atlantic Yards is making any provision for the rail link. The MTA’s belated Request for Proposals for the disposition of Vanderbilt Yard indicated that the only operational issues that need to be considered are to provide additional storage; it made no mention of accommodating a possible future rail link. And in the Memorandum of Understanding between Forest City Ratner and the MTA, the required ongoing operational functions of Vanderbilt Yard are listed, but there is no mention of intent to provide for a future rail link. The only mention of the rail link in the EIS came in responses to questions, which basically state that the link was not studied since it will have its own EIS (Responses 29, 13-42). In other words, whatever will happen is of no concern to this project. (Sort of like the bad old days when the streets get ripped up for one project, repaved, then ripped up the next week by another city agency. Paid for by guess-who. Only here we’re talking billions.)
The plans for the rail link from Long Island to Lower Manhattan have a long, well-known history. Now, after studying dozens of alternatives over several years, the City and State have narrowed the realistic options down to two. And according to recent reports, a new Congress is likely to approve funding for it. According to the June 2005 scoping documents for the rail link, “Both alternatives, in order to access Lower Manhattan, break out of the LIRR Atlantic Branch tunnel east of the LIRR/NYCT Atlantic Terminal”, ie, somewhere near or at Vanderbilt Yard. According to the posted engineering study, it appears that a spur off the existing LIRR right-of-way would slope down and under the existing Vanderbilt Yard, in the footprint of the proposed arena and adjacent towers. There is no excuse for the Atlantic Yards project to preclude the link project.
And here’s the thing: If the purpose and need of the Atlantic Yards project is that it will be so great for the region, so great that we should ignore the local neighborhood whining about density and such, why is there no transportation plan associated with it? While we’re rediscovering Robert Moses, let’s recognize what it was about big plans that helped the development of the region: Robert Moses realized that transportation was key. He opposed creating a venue event that would stop-up the flow of traffic in this area. Why don’t we have a real intermodal project that orchestrates the trains, bus facilities, taxi stands and bicycles and yes, a possible rail link from Lower Manhattan to Long Island and JFK? Isn't there an opportunity to locate a state-of-the-art station here? Instead we have a plan to locate a plug of 3800 cars in an existing bottleneck.
Now that it looks more likely that a new congress will approve funding for a new rail link to Lower Manhattan, shouldn’t someone be asking how the current plans for the Atlantic Yards project will impact this link?
The New Haven Veterans Memorial Coliseum was demolished this morning. According to Jennifer Medina, writing in yesterday’s Times, “The decision to destroy the Coliseum reflects a shift in philosophy on urban planning, with Mayor John DeStefano Jr. choosing to focus on arts, education and small retail buildings rather than on large-scale public spaces. “I think we are taking an approach that is smarter about what works in building a city,” Mr. DeStefano said. Some people still like the idea of big projects, he said, “but successful urban life gets woven from lots of small things, not one grand gesture.” Talking about the Coliseum, he added, “This was a particularly grand gesture for its time.”
And in a review of the track record for other arenas, Medina notes: “Bridgeport built its 10,000-seat stadium in 2001. While performers like James Taylor and Andrea Bocelli have drawn large crowds, there is little evidence that the stadium has boosted other downtown business.”
A full house at the Center for Architecture watched Brooklyn Matters
Brooklyn Matters, a new documentary film about the project at Atlantic Yards by Isabel Hill, was screened on Thursday evening at the Center for Architecture. It’s an object lesson on how to game the system to push through enormous projects. Yet, for those already familiar with the project and had witnessed first-hand the attempts at intimidation in the public EIS forums, this second viewing of those events may carry a somewhat more poignant note. While we were aggravated by the histrionics at the forums, the film serves to dilute the emotions, presenting the events more dispassionately, and allows them to be understood in a wider context. It does provide the sense of how the real overwhelming need for affordable housing in Brooklyn can be maneuvered into a political influence, and used to expedite the approval of a project without ever weighing the overall costs against the overall benefits. Julia Vitullo-Martin put it most succinctly: “The truth is today, if you’re a developer with a bad project, a large bad project that shouldn’t be built…The smart thing to do is say, ‘Y’know what, I’m going to provide you with some really good affordable housing.' So affordable housing is the Trojan Horse these days on big bad projects that shouldn’t get done.” While Acorn had the experience and knowledge to attempt to negotiate real benefits for a real constituency – a point driven home by Bertha Lewis when she explains how their team of accountants and lawyers faced-off against the developers’ and worked hard to negotiate an agreement; other constituencies had even less leverage. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the newly minted labor organization supported by FCR also supports the project. But while no one can argue with the need for jobs, the efficiency of job production with this program is extremely cynical. And why haven’t any pre-existing, non-special-interest community groups that represent the local residential and business communities, such as the Community Boards, had the chance to do the hard work?
What is not addressed in the film is how there has been no outreach on design issues; the architecture of the project is also a Trojan Horse. The promise of a major project in New York City by Frank Gehry has been enormously successful in muting potential opposition by the cultural "elite". But the project only looks like a gift because it’s wrapped by Frank Gehry; the architecture masks a slew of problems. As the panel discussion after the film made clear, architects and planners know this project is not being pursued correctly. Comments that Mr. Gehry himself has made (here and here: he was uncomfortable with this scale…thought others should be involved…it felt better to leave some of the existing buildings) indicate that he knows what all the other architects and planners who have followed this process know: the design of any project of this scale on this site should follow a publicly transparent, iterative process, a process in which planning comes before urban design, and urban design comes before architecture.
Here we go again. You can’t stop progress, so the plan for closing streets and building the most dense 22 acres in New York City, including a 20,000 seat arena and 3,800 parking spaces in an area surrounded by Brownstones, at one of the most congested intersections in Brooklyn is actually fine. Why? Because it’s progress. Sound familiar?
Jonathan Liu recently wrote in N + 1 Magazine: “The authenticity of a place as volatile and heterodox as Brooklyn, and New York in general, lies in incongruity, the disorienting juxtaposition of century-old brownstones and Gehry’s warped, twisting towers. …to reject Gehry on the basis of “context,” seems a disavowal of the progress of urban life itself.”
Well, here’s some breaking news: the so-called “progress” of urban life has not been a history of unequivocal success. Left to their own devices, the forces of business expedience in urban areas have often overwhelmed quality of life issues, the possibilities for meaning inherent in existing structures, and the potential that existing structures have for adaptive reuse. To define New York's sense of place as based on ”incongruity” and “disorienting” is an exceptionally superficial read. While a range of scales is part of the urban form here, our urban morphology is better defined by walkable streets, public open space, and coexisting mixed-use forms where no one factor overwhelms the others. Architects - visionary, progressive or otherwise - don’t make real streets; they merely contribute to their success or their demise. And while an “architecture of nostalgia” may not claim to make urban history, the history of urban form is not defined by any style of architecture, but by these streets.
So now Mr. Liu suggests that Mr. Letham and Mr. Ratner retire to some presumably smoke-free room to hash out their differences and arrive at a suitable design for the site. He writes: “Mr. Lethem and the opposition could steer the city toward any number of them (other options for the site) if they held their collective nose and negotiated directly with the developer” or, easier yet, “engage in the process and ask Frank Gehry, a fellow artist, for better. It may not be as engorging as obstructionism, but it is at least the stuff history is made of”. Thanks for the history lesson Mr. Liu, it actually is news to us that the history of urban form in the city is really a reflection of concerned individuals negotiating directly with developers and their architects. And here we thought all this time that that there was some means of bringing public pressure to bear to do the right thing through the institutions of the press, the political systems, and the courts.
We do want progress in Brooklyn, and we should know how to get it right: there is such a thing as a design process that could bring us the development we deserve. It typically begins with planning. Perhaps Mr. Liu could speak with the development team about that?