Sunday, May 21, 2006

It's The Scale, Stupid

Fifth Avenue Before

Fifth Avenue After

Important aspects of a project are beyond an architect’s control. Most importantly, the architect does not decide the size of the project. The architect does not set the program, and is therefore challenged with configuring a given amount of building on a provided site. So while it’s one thing to go out and defend a project that you have accepted as a challenge, there is a danger in being hoisted by the developer's petard when taking on a project that is seriously flawed in its conception. Has the intransigence of the developer – in continually asserting a program that is so far beyond a reasonable scale - jeopardized the ability to do a project at all? The Gehry renderings will not help sway public opinion, and the informed design community is all too aware of what lurks behind the curtain here.

We were wary to begin with of a developer with a consistent track record of getting the worst work out of good designers. Now
David Caruso in an AP report in Newsday quotes Mr. Gehry: “"What we are trying to do is create a skyline,'' he (Gehry) said, with buildings of different materials and heights, as if they had been developed over time.” As if they had been developed over time! When Frank Gehry is asked to try his hand at post-modern pastiche, it’s the final confirmation that this project is way off track. Why would you want to create new buildings that look “as if” they had been developed over time, when you have real substantial buildings on the site that really have been developed over time? And why would you ask Frank Gehry, of all people, to do that? If you want a fake New York, go to Las Vegas.

Yet the design team has soldered on. In attempting to dismiss critics of the project, Mr. Gehry said: “They should’ve been picketing Henry Ford….there is progress everywhere.” This particular view of progress, in which bigger is always better, and the development of short-term economically tempting models takes precedence over the meaning inherent in the existing built environment, is not shared by us. Though Henry Ford is not one of our heros, and not just for the obvious reasons, we do believe in progress but of a different type. In Brooklyn, we don’t define our urban experience by our relationship to the car. We walk. We take public transit. We bike. And so we experience space differently than those in an automobile culture like L.A. do. Progress, for us, would be recognizing the opportunity to integrate the various transit modes at this site, and design a ground plane for them to coexist, privileging the pedestrian. Mr. Olin claims: “We’re optimists who believe that through our work we ought to make the world better…If you believe in change, there are people who are frightened of it or resist it…The more ambitious the scale, the more daring the project, the more upset some people will always be”. Well, if you were an optimist before Metrotech, if you were an optimist before Atlantic Center, the glass is looking decidedly more empty now. Defining progress as building at an “ambitious scale” just seems so incredibly out of touch.

We don’t believe that making the world “better” requires using public subsidies to bail out the purchase of an NBA team (a team that pays players upwards of $10 million each), build a sports venue for 18 to 20 thousand fans and provide parking for 4,000 cars, so they don’t lose their New Jersey fan base, at one of the most congested intersections in Brooklyn - an existing choke-point for traveling between Brooklyn and Manhattan – on the back of affordable housing and the existing scale of a neighborhood. How does ignoring any guidelines provided by existing zoning, providing no alternative energy ideas, no concept of security, privatizing public streets and calling them the project’s “open space”, and proposing a development that totally circumvents the city’s process for public review make the world better? Let’s think some more about what “better” means. What does “better” have to do with an “ambitious” scale? Where are the limits to this ambition?

Locating density near mass transit is a good idea, but like all good ideas, it has its limits in real world applications. These limits are provided by other facts, such as the fact that we are not building on a tabla rasa Jeffersonian grid with no history or topography. Brooklyn is not a primordial swamp with a bridge to it from Manhattan. There is an existing world at-grade with a history, a scale, and a host of issues, not the least of which is a surface traffic nightmare. The “progressive” “ambitiously scaled” projects of the 1960s failed, not because they were done in the 60’s, but because interventions, at that scale, in existing fabric, were extremely traumatic to the urban morphology. This project (now 8.66 million sf) would be like locating the former World Trade Center towers (only 7.6 million sf combined) plus Madison Square Garden, somewhere near the W.4th Street Transit Hub because of all the trains there. It is so unfathomably beyond the scale of any reasonable intervention.

Finally, the oft-stated canard: “It has to be big, because of the infrastructure costs.” Not true. Many of the infrastructure costs identified by FCRC are merely a result of the proposed scale of the project, not the other way around. Larger loads come from larger projects. Don’t provide venue parking and you won’t have to excavate for it. Don’t close the streets and you won’t have to relocate sewers and utilities. The city will not accept public utilities under private property, because it requires continual maintenance access to water, storm and sewer, gas and electric lines. The need to relocate utilities is caused by closing the streets. Don’t build so dense and the demands on the infrastructure will be less.

What is the appropriate size for development here? We’ve
previously suggested that an FAR of 6 was the intent of the ambitious, progressive, optimistic, and relatively public process of upzoning Brooklyn. An FAR of 6, on an existing site of 825,320 sf (not counting the streets, to make the FAR measure relative to other sites) would result in a total building size of 4,951,920 sf. Don’t provide venue parking, don’t close the streets, provide for intermodal connections, and with significantly reduced infrastructure costs, building under 5 million square feet would be doing the right thing for Brooklyn. And encourage the design team to provide quality design, rather than defend an indefensible program.

Monday, May 15, 2006

How Big Is It Now?

Image from

On the Brian Lehrer Show this morning, Jim Stuckey claimed that the FAR of the project is “roughly” 8, and it didn’t sound right. The FAR, or Floor Area Ratio, is a measure of density, calculated by dividing the building area by the site area. The higher the FAR, the more dense the project. And this “roughly 8” is OK, he said, because it is built over 22 acres, a very significant amount of land, as opposed to a smaller site. Why is a higher FAR more acceptable on a larger site than it is on a smaller site? Because the designer has the opportunity to leave more open space? But on this larger site, the “open space”, still so far below city guidelines, includes the streets. So the area that would normally be open streets, providing light and air and views, is now counted as “project open space”, AND added to the denominator of the FAR calculation. Outside of the street area taken from the public, there is no significant open space.

And what about this FAR figure? Once again, lets do the math. The project now is 8.66 million sf, according to the recent
press releases. If you think that the streets are part of the site, and the site is 22 acres (958,320 sf), then the FAR is 8,660,000 divided by 958,320, or 9.0, not “roughly” 8. This is using the developer’s own figures. Why did Mr. Stuckey say 8? To be 8, a project on a real 22 acre site would have to be only 8 x 958,320 = 7,666,560 sf, which is one million sf smaller. Is that their intention? Moreover, as we’ve previously discussed, the site for the purposes of FAR, which is to compare similar sites across the city, should not include the areas that are existing streets. Because other sites across the city do not include existing streets. We’ve shown that the existing site, without the streets, is more like 825,320 sf.

8,700,000 divided by 825,000 is 10.5. So the real FAR, for comparing it to other sites, big or small, is not at all close to 8, it’s roughly 10.5. And this is not counting the fact that an arena occupies a good part of the site, so the FAR on the remaining site is significantly greater. (Note to developer: is our math correct? Are the site dimensions correct? Please provide a dimensioned site plan, and we’ll confirm.).

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

An Amazing Technical Feat of Illusion

Image from FCRCs Web Site

The dioramas at the Museum of Natural History, “amazing technical feats of illusion” are created by seamlessly blending 3D modeling with 2D scenography. In a similar manner, a dissolving slide show of recent renderings for the project blends a depiction of real space with the wall of a building. By glossing over the inconvenient reality of sight lines, and in an attempt to make the landscaped areas seem larger than they could really be, a natural park-like setting replete with waterfalls and forest is superimposed on the base of a proposed tower. These are not two different images, it is one image containing contradictory ideas for the space. A revealing view of conflicting goals: the same space can’t be occupied by both a building and a landscape.

Much has been
written about the unsolicited promotional flyer that the developer distributed in the mail this week. It contains dozens of images of attractive people, and nice photographs of our existing neighborhood, but only two images of the project: a landscape plan and a rendering of the pond. Why show a row of brownstones when the project is a mass of highrises taller and wider than the Williamsburgh Savings Bank? Like the rendering, the brochure is a sop to the neighborhood, masking the true intentions of the project. For those unfamiliar with the design intent, it would be impossible to understand the proposed scale of the development from the information provided. That large green area rendered in plan? Why not come clean with the fact that it would actually be well over 100 feet above the street, on the roof of the basketball arena?

The flyer does begin to flesh out the program for the arena: in addition to basketball, it will host “community events – including school sports, high school and college graduations – and family events such as concerts and circuses “. While we’re actually not looking forward to a giant Madison Square Gardens style venue for concerts in our backyard, not to be accused of NIMBYism we won’t argue with the dire need for more venues for circuses at this intersection. But this isn’t the full program: why no mention of the “
extreme sports” events that were presented to City Council by the developer last year? And about space for school graduation ceremonies: as veterans of the public school system will attest, the challenge for schools is really not where graduations will be held. It’s in preparation for graduations. Wouldn’t a real community masterplan, “thoughtful and visionary – for the Brooklyn we know and love” with a budget of 3.5 billion dollars, be investing in our kids by including a new school?

We have posted
previously about how limited the area of new open space at-grade really is, given the proposed density. The space assumed by taking an existing street and calling it “the project’s open space” does not create more space. It merely transfers the ownership of existing public space to private control. And ultimately, this is not better space than a street. A real street provides real connections to the surrounding area and, by allowing through-circulation integrated with the circulation patterns of the city, ties the life of new buildings to the surrounding communities. By closing the street, the new development isolates itself, both physically and in spirit, from the surrounding areas. Saying it’s connected does not make it connect. An image of a great space does not make a space great. We’re not taken with this illusion, and a glossy brochure showing happy people and existing brownstones is just not enough to get Brooklyn singing Kumbaya around this project.