Sunday, April 30, 2006

There’s A (Private) Beach Under The Street

Image from FCRC's website

Coincidentally, we paid respect to Jane Jacobs in a recent post (“Good Streets/Bad Streets”), just before she died. But her death made us wonder at how current events have developed from a previous era. In 1968, as students in Paris ripped up paving stones and hurled them at the police, one of the rallying cries was “sous le pave: la plage” (under the pavement: the beach). The public beach - the epitomy of undesignated non-utilitarian optimistic space - was the opposite of the street, an historic relic of an oppressive and cynical society based on private property.

In Brooklyn, the idea of taking a street to build a beach reveals a less optimistic view. The beach chairs shown in the latest renderings, sitting on what is now Pacific Street, are illustrated to support the taking of existing public streets and small parcels to make a huge assemblage of private property, and building towers in a park. What is the pressing need to develop at this scale? Why not let market forces continue to develop the properties, adhering to established criteria for height and bulk (commonly known as zoning)? Because there’s an opportunity to make the numbers work to construct the basketball arena that can’t pay for itself. For the developer, the arena is the excuse for the density. For the politicians, it’s the other way around. Either way, this pile-on opportunism results in yet another dysfunctional plan. Like Atlantic Center, the urban plan was not developed by designers, but by developers and politicians.

Perhaps, as a suburban office park, the rendering’s depiction of open space would be believable. (No dogs and no kids off-leash. No balls, no bikes, no schools. No street!) But as an urban model for real mixed-use, it’s just not realistic. Pretty drawings do not convince us that you can build more dense than mid-town Manhattan, include an 18 or 20 thousand seat arena, and yet maintain a one-to-one relationship with nature for individuals sitting on beach chairs. On-grade, in open space, in the middle of 8.7 million sf of new construction. Anything can be drawn. But ultimately, judged as a vision of the public good and aspirations for a better world, this defense of this economic model for aggregating public space is deeply cynical.

today’s Times, Nicolai Ouroussoff looks for ways to criticize Jane Jacobs, largely by attacking the straw-man New Urbanists. It takes guts to write about the “beauty” of Los Angeles caused by the freeways, and to idealize the former World Trade Center plaza. But to suggest that SoHo is really just the same as the superblock misses the concept of how scale matters. And to criticize Ms. Jacobs because “she could not see that the same freeway that isolated her beloved, working-class North End from downtown Boston also protected it from gentrification” is a pretty strange defense of the Robert Moses mindset. Looking for beneficial unintended consequences of this bad idea is like pointing out that the redeeming quality of bad schools is that their students won’t have to worry about paying higher income taxes if/when they get jobs.

Why remember the ‘60’s? In 1963,
Pennsylvania Station was demolished to build Madison Square Garden. According to A.J. Greenough, Pennsylvania Railroad President at the time, the idea was to “transform the area from a static uneconomic burden on the railroad into a viable commercial and recreational center of benefit to the entire West Thirty-fourth Street neighborhood and the public at large”. Never mind that this demolition instigated the origin of the city’s Landmarks Commission, due to the efforts of Ms. Jacobs and others. We now know how the arena at Madison Square Garden “transformed” the local West Thirty-fourth street neighborhood. We’ve learned from our mistakes, and we don’t deserve the same fate here.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

What Public Process?

Image from Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy

Nicholas Confessore wrote a piece in the Times recently about bloggers’ public postings on the project. Norman Oder, on the Atlantic Yards Report, and others have responded. How is the project being informed by public discussion? On FCRC’s web site, in a section called Public Process, it is claimed that:

“In addition to numerous meetings FCRC has held with community organizations, local leaders and elected officials, the general public had the opportunity to participate at the Public Scoping meeting held by ESDC on October 18, 2005. The public submitted comments on the Draft Scope of Analysis which explains in detail the environmental issues that will be analyzed in the DEIS”

So we have been informed that the public review process has begun, because in addition to private meetings, there was a public meeting for the Draft Scope of Analysis for the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). (A record of the “numerous” private meetings would be helpful, because behind the blogging issue is a general sense that the information is not getting through.) Let’s be clear about what that meeting for the “general public” was. The meeting was not a discussion about the project. The stated purpose of the meeting was to receive comments on the proposed scope of a proposed study of the project’s impact, as narrowly defined as that is by the state’s EIS process. Ironically, the EIS does not include issues of sustainable design, security, or other critical design issues; the EIS is not even a full discussion of the project’s impact. While the scope of the study was discussed, the specific impact of the project on the local area was not the subject of the meeting. Again, the discussion was supposed to be only about the scope of a study, which is quite different from a discussion about the project itself. A real discussion about the project would address the process, the financing, the schedule, and the idea of what this project means for Brooklyn.

Why does this matter? A successful design must ultimately synthesize all the constraints on the site and program in a way that appears seamless. To do that, the design team, including the funding parties, must fully understand the issues as perceived by all stakeholders. And a successful design must be seen to understand them by reaching out to the local communities, not just to self-appointed representatives. This is not “design by committee”, but a necessary recognition that there is important information in people’s opinions that should inform the design. We don’t need more public meetings to talk about the scope of a study. We do need real public discussions about the site, the program, the design, and the process.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Good Streets, Bad Streets

5th Avenue Looking North


FCR's Proposal for the Area Currently Known as Pacific Street

“A city sidewalk by itself is nothing. It is an abstraction. It means something only in conjunction with the building and other uses that border it…streets and their sidewalks, the main public places of a city, are its most vital organs”.

Jane Jacobs

Monday, April 03, 2006

Interim Surface Parking

Meadowlands Parking Lot

The Meadowlands site claims that there is currently parking for 4,000 cars in the immediate arena area, only 200 cars more than the 3,800 proposed for this site.

One change in the Final Scope is the admission that an unspecified amount of “interim surface parking” on the eastern part of the project site will be constructed during Phase I. (P.14). This “use” of the site could be in-place for some time. While the Phase I analysis year is 2010 and Phase II is 2016, schedules for large projects are notorious for being accurate only at the moment they are proposed.