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?


Blogger Some Guy In Brooklyn said...

Brilliant, insightful as always, Jon...but as someone commented to me, if reason, sound planning principles and common sense were factors in Atlantic Yards we wouldn't be where we are now.

11:08 AM  

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