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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

wonderful post, thank you.

4:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read the Ouroussoff article and while I think he was a bit out of line dismissing Jane Jacobs, he did remind us not to deify her and her ideals. I have mixed feelings on the proposed Ratnerville in Downtown Brooklyn (OK, Prospect Heights, but it's not that far). On the one hand it's way too big, on the other, the neighborhood needs a good shot in the arm (maybe not from such gentrified superblocks, but these are the deals that come through that cover up real neighborhood killers like exposed rail yards and their blocks of contiguous fences) and with its proximity to so many forms of mass transportation it seems a logical place for high density zoning.
I feel that isolated patches of high density zoning in a low to medium density city such as Brooklyn enable the preservation of the larger city to maintain its character. New York City should continue to grow in order to stay healthy and vital; to dismiss large scale developments in areas that can be served by multiple existing subway lines and the LIRR creates the need for more low to medium density building in less appropriate, more car/bus friendly areas.

9:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Being a native Brooklynite, my eyes are filled with tears at the thought of this massively, ill-planned project that will not bring us any good.

The creation of jobs being promised are just minimum wage positions selling hot dogs at the stadium or cashiers at the GAP. All substatial positions will be filled through corporate ranks. The whole project is just filled with lies. The large corporations who move in will transplant their current employees from Manhattan.

This project will be change downtown Brooklyn to an area filled with garbage, hookers, pimps, ticket-scalpers, and drug dealing. That's what surrounds MSG today.

This will be the beginning of the end of the Brooklyn I grew up with and I'm seriously thinking of leaving New York. It's just too sad for me!

1:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sometime people are to near sighted to know what is good for them. The Arena WILL improve Brooklyn WHEN it is built!

2:00 PM  

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