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New Improved Brooklyn

A glittering skyline, waterfront condos, new jobs, Frank Gehry buildings galore: Brooklyn is on the verge of a makeover even more extreme than you thought, re-creating itself in Manhattan’s image. What’s wrong with this picture?

(Above) Gehry's signature titaniun skin on Bruce Ratner's Atlantic Yards arena. (Below) The Gehry arena's roof garden.  

“We want a new and interesting skyline viewed from the Manhattan side of the East River,” says Amanda Burden, director of the Department of City Planning and chair of the Planning Commission. “An undulating, interesting skyline rather than all towers of the same height, and a lot of space between the towers.”

Burden is talking—and it takes a minute to realize this, even when you’re asking the questions—about Brooklyn, specifically the Williamsburg and Greenpoint waterfronts, an area whose current “skyline” consists of stilled cranes, parked trucks, blocky concrete warehouses, and the Williamsburg Bridge. Brooklyn’s tallest building, the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower, was built in 1929—a banner year for skyscrapers—and has never had a rival. “The mayor and I went and looked at the Williamsburg waterfront the year before he was elected,” says Burden. “There are almost two miles of waterfront, it has been derelict for decades, and it is an enormous opportunity, one, to provide housing and, two, to provide a great waterfront for the people of Brooklyn.”

Burden’s plans, enabled by two lengthy rezoning proposals, could add more than fifteen new towers, 4.5 million square feet of office space, and 8,500 new housing units. The city’s plans would have been enough to herald a major conceptual shift, but then, in October, developer Bruce Ratner of Forest City Ratner announced that he had hired Frank Gehry to design an arena for what will become the Brooklyn Nets over the MTA rail yards at Flatbush and Atlantic avenues. The less-examined portion of Ratner’s plan for the Atlantic rail yards adds residential towers for 4,500 people between Fort Greene and Prospect Heights. Across the street, Ratner is rushing to complete the Atlantic Terminal, a mall that includes a Target in a big box below and 1,500 Bank of New York employees in a tower above.

Two blocks away, the BAM Local Development Corporation has just announced a second Frank Gehry project: The Theatre for a New Audience will be housed, sometime circa 2007, in a building designed by Gehry and echt–New York architect Hugh Hardy. The theater will share a triangular site with a public Visual and Performing Arts Library designed by up-and-coming Mexican architect Enrique Norten.

Smaller developers are repurposing Downtown Brooklyn office buildings into housing, and creating mega-neighborhoods with residential developments between Park Slope and Gowanus, Downtown and Boerum Hill. The piers under the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges will someday be an emerald necklace of parks, Whole Foods is going in at Third Avenue and 3rd Street, Fairway will and Ikea may touch down in Red Hook. And then there’s Coney Island, where some would like to see more sports-themed development around the annually sold-out Cyclones minor-league baseball stadium.

Brooklyn’s development has always followed the skeletal lines of the subways—the artists weren’t the first Lower East Siders to discover the L train; Wall Street workers decamped to Brooklyn Heights long before the twenty years of gentrification that differentiated Park Slope from Fort Greene, and Boerum Hill from Carroll Gardens, in the minds of most New Yorkers. Including cabdrivers. The new development plans are no different, centering on transit hubs at Borough Hall and Atlantic Avenue that are, as any commuter could tell you, already jam-packed.

“Brooklyn is a delicate growing neighborhood,” says Gehry, whose daughter recently bought an apartment—an expensive apartment—in Carroll Gardens. “The arena is like the ostrich swallowing the basketball, it seems like. However, it’s possible to work the edges of it to make it compatible with the neighbors.”

Of course, what the neighbors tend to say about Ratner and his development are far from delicate. Twenty years of skirmishing over gentrification has been subsumed into a larger struggle, one where the mostly white, highly affluent stroller set is for once allied with the rainbow coalition of longtime residents. On one level, this is simply the mother of all NIMBY (not in my backyard) battles—since Gehry’s stadium and its accompanying towers will literally be built in some Brooklynites’ backyards. And Brooklyn’s potent, sometimes cloying nostalgia for the way things were—dese and dose, egg creams and spaldeens—can fuel a knee-jerk rage at any change at all. But now there’s another force at work. In the past five years, Brooklyn has reached a new maturity and self-confidence. Gehry is arriving at a moment when the borough is fashionable, even by Manhattan’s exacting standards. Who wants to live on the Upper West Side when you can live in Park Slope? Who needs the East Village when you can socialize on Smith Street? Ratner and Burden seem to want to raise the borough up, make Brooklyn take a quantum leap, create a new kind of city—one that more closely resembles Manhattan. Which seems wrongheaded to many current residents. The real topic here is, what is Brooklyn?

“Marty, I voted for you, I told my grandkids you were a people person,” said Joy Chatel. Marty is Marty Markowitz, Brooklyn borough president, a villain so well known he goes by only one name. Chatel’s Duffield Street house, home to her and seven of her ten grandchildren, would be condemned under the Downtown Brooklyn plan to make room, possibly, for a twenty-story tower. “How could you do this to us?” Chatel asked, gold beads clicking in her luxuriant mane, one of hundreds of neighbors who turned out in force on February 18 for a public hearing on the plan at Brooklyn Borough Hall.

The neighbors—united, for once, in favor of Brooklyn’s existing economic, social, and racial diversity—overflowed the gilt-edged courtroom and the community room downstairs, where proceedings were projected on a (very high-school) collapsible screen. Marshals kept shooing people out of the doorway. Members of the Prospect Heights Action Coalition passed out STOP EMINENT DOMAIN ABUSE stickers. Platoons of children frolicked, snacked, and napped in the corners.