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New Improved Brooklyn

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The proposed Willoughby Square Park.  

Chatel is one voice in what is becoming an increasingly organized multicultural army opposed to the city’s and Ratner’s plans for many of the same reasons. At first they were just angry, confused, questioning. But recently they have begun to articulate their own vision of the future of Brooklyn, building on its history—that of the hundred-year-old brownstone and that of the three-year-old boutique. A group of Prospect Heights residents has hired Norman Siegel, former head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, to represent them; City Councilwoman Letitia James sponsored a neighborhood-planning workshop; a coalition of Greenpoint-Williamsburg groups is going toe-to-toe, and chart-to-chart, with City Planning to preserve industry and open new parks. Every week there’s a meeting, a rally, a fund-raising concert.

“Tourists come over the Brooklyn Bridge to see historic neighborhoods, not glass-and-steel construction,” said Cathy Wassylenko, a member of Community Board 2. There’s a sob in her voice as she rattles off a list of structures, including an 1860 clapboard rowhouse, that would be replaced by towers in the rezoning.

“Why should we destroy small businesses that have proven their loyalty to Brooklyn and replace them with corporations whose loyalty to Brooklyn is as large as the subsidies they receive?” asked one impassioned man, shaking in his gold-buttoned blazer.

But residents, the city says, are refusing to see the greater good; in the post-9/11 era, the boroughs need to play their part in what is delicately referred to as “business-continuity planning.”

“When you look across the Hudson River, you can see all the jobs that should have been in New York City,” says Amanda Burden. “Downtown Brooklyn has every advantage and is completely underzoned right now for development.”

By increasing the possible heights on several city blocks, and assembling large land parcels that include the lot on which Chatel’s house sits, City Planning hopes to create sites for four new towers, of 18 to 40 stories each. Its goals are to knit MetroTech, Ratner’s earlier, much reviled project, on Adams, to the bustling retail corridor along Fulton Mall, creating a tall, tight Downtown business district and to connect this new, improved Downtown to Boerum Hill and Cobble Hill.

Residential expansion will go on the east side of Flatbush Avenue, replacing a ragged, albeit popular strip of auto-body shops, car washes, and Kennedy Fried Chicken outlets. “Flatbush Avenue needs to be a gateway to Brooklyn,” says Burden. “When you come off either one of the bridges, you should say, Wow, this is where we want to be.

By focusing on all those jobs in New Jersey, City Planning may be aiming too high and too bland; one alternate vision for the borough builds on the trove of boutique owners, writers, and architects who wouldn’t mind moving operations out of their apartments. A garment district of sorts has already sprung up above Bridge Street’s row of fabric stores; Sandra Paez, owner of the Smith Street boutique Frida’s Closet, has an atelier on Lawrence where she sews her own designs plus the odd custom gown for Brooklyn’s many brides. Thousands of artsy professionals have flocked to Brooklyn, rehabbing their brownstones as a form of creative expression—why couldn’t there be a D&D building in Downtown Brooklyn?

One positive development to come out of the plan’s public-review process is a focus on preserving the architecture of Downtown Brooklyn—the Landmarks commission and City Planning are now looking at a dozen prospects along Fulton Mall, which, if preserved, could become artist live-work spaces or small offices. Burden is all for preservation—luckily, none of the potential landmarks are on development sites—but she sees this refurbishment as one part of creating a 24/7 urban texture. “We’re not Houston,” she says. “We are a city that walks. We love the mixture, the vitality of the old and the new, the intimate, the large, the small, and the medium.”

Frank Gehry’s arena is Bruce Ratner’s glittering gift to Brooklyn’s intelligentsia. Since Bilbao, Gehry has levitated out of the architecture ghetto to become an American aesthetic hero, a god with feet of titanium. “Having a Frank Gehry–designed arena in Downtown Brooklyn will put Brooklyn on the map globally,” says Burden. “We know how great Brooklyn is; now everyone will know how great it is.”

“Bringing in Frank Gehry to do everything, that’s huge,” says Bruce Bender, a Forest City Ratner executive vice-president, a born-and-bred Brooklynite, lately of Peter Vallone’s office, who lives in Park Slope. “He could have gotten away with picking another architect, but he wanted it to be very special.”

Of course, many of the neighbors see Gehry as window-dressing, a beautiful distraction, a Trojan horse for Ratner and his cookie-cutter condos and big-box stores. To say that Ratner is not a figure most would entrust with Brooklyn’s aesthetic future would be an understatement. MetroTech is inarguably bland and deserted after five and on the weekends. His Atlantic Center mall is worthy of a Mike Davis inner-city architecture rant.

“The biggest complaint about this,” Bender says, gesturing across Atlantic Avenue at the sunken rail yards, “is that they don’t want it to be that,” pointing to Ratner’s hated Atlantic Center—a tan box with sidewalk-side retail on no sides, zero interior amenities, and long, hot institutional hallways between the few popular stores: Pathmark, Old Navy, Party City. “Bruce is very focused on upgrading Atlantic Center to the standards of Atlantic Terminal.”

Atlantic Terminal is an improvement: It is brick, or, at least, brick-faced, and its squat office tower is self-effacing. The architect, Hugh Hardy of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer, has even given the whole a ballpark entrance: a white, semi-circular pavilion that pops out toward the intersection of Flatbush and Fourth Avenue. Hardy is a classic choice, and will be collaborating with Gehry in the next block, but he is best known to Brooklyn as the designer of the borough’s second most reviled building, the rick-rack-sided twelve-plex on Court Street in Brooklyn Heights, a pile of misplaced giant Christmas gifts.


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