Saturday, January 20, 2007

Learning from New Haven

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.”

Perhaps it just wasn’t grand enough.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

A Herd of Trojan Horses

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.