Thursday, February 22, 2007

“I think space on streets is actually useless space”

Photo from BrooklynSpeaks
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?

Monday, February 19, 2007

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?