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New Improved Brooklyn

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Enrique Norten's BAM library: "A missing tooth," says the architect.  

For Gehry, the project is a challenge and a privilege. “I studied city planning and all that when I was younger and never really got a chance to do stuff like this,” says Gehry. The challenge is the tight urban site. “The only arena that’s like it is Madison Square Garden, but we’re even going to be tighter, where the arena part is going to be tighter into the architecture of the buildings around it. And we’re hoping that the buildings around it are going to be beautiful.”

Gehry’s ostrich-swallowing-a-Spalding metaphor (in fact, the old Spalding factory at Sixth Avenue and Pacific Street will be demolished to make way for the Ratner arena) now makes more sense: the court is the ovoid core of the project, to be seen bulging through the metallic feathers that animate the streetscape, and extending upward into office towers and residential buildings. In the published renderings, the egg is glass, ringed with walkways that spiral up to a rooftop piazza, open to the public.

The other portion of the plan—the two eastern blocks that will be built as residential enclaves—gives its landscape architect, Laurie Olin, more room to maneuver. “Frank and I both feel that it is really important to be able to walk in off the street and find these open spaces, to have the sense that you’re still in New York but gone to something new and different,” says Olin, no household name but the designer of Bryant and Battery Park City’s parks.

“It won’t be like a forest, but there will be these groves of trees,” Olin says. “I have proposed two major clearings, one of which has a sunny mound in it, one of which has a large water event. There’s this yearning we all have in the middle of cities to have something soft and have some grass.”

It is this desire for groves and lawns, a true escape, that pushed the architects to ask for the closing of Pacific Street, and the creation of what looks very like a sixties superblock. Olin dismisses this criticism—“We’re not going to build thirties towers in a greensward. We’ve learned in the last 30 years about seeing and being seen”—a paraphrase of “eyes on the street,” one of urban theorist Jane Jacobs’s most valuable insights.

The most contentious issue is the displacement, via eminent domain, of the 200 to 400 people who live and work on and between Pacific and Dean streets. Ratner says he has to condemn these blocks of brownstones, condominiums, and small businesses, because the arena won’t fit any other way. Bender says the market has been given enough time to repurpose the old bakeries, the mini storage centers.

‘‘I can’t blow my own horn, but I’m going to do my best to make it beautiful,’’ Gehry says. ‘‘I don’t usually do schlock.’’

“I can’t blow my own horn, but I am going to do my best to make it beautiful,” says Gehry with a modest chuckle. “I don’t usually do schlocky stuff. I’m not going to start now.” Gehry and his associates have already begun holding videoconferences with members of the affected community, and the design is evolving from the publicized model. “It’s a shifting plan because they have community meetings. They call and say, We’re going to leave this building and that building and What if this happens? and What if that happens? We do a lot of what ifs, and ands, and buts.”

Like the Downtown Plan’s rendering of Willoughby Street as a second Rockefeller Center, Ratner’s idea of residential towers—however elegant—seems airlifted in from the other bank. “It’s a Battery Park City,” says City Councilwoman Letitia James, who represents Fort Greene as a member of the Working Families Party. She, practically alone among the better-known Brooklyn politicians (Marty, Chuck), has vehemently opposed Ratner’s plan, speaking against the arena, against eminent-domain abuse, for affordable housing, for jobs for Brooklynites. The Atlantic Yards plan is largely out of the city’s hands, on state-owned land, funded by a private developer. But it could have as great an impact, and as many towers, as the Downtown Plan: home to the Brooklyn Nets, 2.1 million square feet of office space, 4,500 housing units, and 300,000 square feet of retail space. The tallest projected tower, at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush, would top out at 620 feet—108 feet higher than the Williamsburgh Savings Bank building.

Poised, attractive, and by now something of a local folk heroine, James is quickly able to work up a rhetorical head of steam. “Our tallest building is the Williamsburgh bank building, and now you are going to destroy that? You want to build luxury housing in the middle of a working-class community? Why? Because of our proximity to a transportation hub, because of our proximity to Manhattan. This is really to appeal to Manhattan, to appeal to commuters. This has nothing to do with Brooklyn.”

James’s, and her constituents’, issues aren’t attractive: eminent domain, traffic, asthma, housing, parks. They are the nitty-gritty of urban life, uncloaked by the glamour of professional sports or globe-trotting architects.

Tucked into the back of a social-service agency, James’s district office doesn’t even have a view of the back side of the Atlantic Center, much less the parks on the future arena site. Her barred windows look across a set of bare backyards. No pictures on the walls. Not even a flower on the desk. “The No. 1 issue throughout the city of New York is the crisis in affordable housing,” says James. “There are these ten acres of land available, and I would like to provide for the needs of my constituents. I’d like to see an expansion of Atlantic Commons”—three-story rowhouses, inexpensively built, between South Oxford and Cumberland streets. “I’d like to build more townhouses, I’d like to build some more rental units and some more commercial and retail units. Something which is more in character with the community.”

Battery Park City, of course, is a project Amanda Burden cites as proof that she knows how to create a neighborhood. Renderings of Williamsburg’s future on the City Planning Website bear a strong resemblance to BPC. But to many, particularly the architecturally savvy, BPC is an image of an evil to be avoided at all costs—antiseptic, overpriced, homogenous, all that is not Brooklyn. Despite the Dodgers nostalgia that suffused early sports-section coverage of Ratner’s arena proposal, few that I talked to expressed any desire to see a Nets game—or the Ice Capades, which partisans often mention as an additional attraction. What locals are interested in is what Ratner’s plan could do for the neighborhood, adding parks, solving a dangerous traffic pattern. For Brooklynites, the project’s grandeur seems beside the point.

While Ratner and Burden’s glossy dreams for Brooklyn seem borrowed from elsewhere, David Walentas bases his vision of the future on what has happened in his own development life cycle. Twenty years ago, he looked at the hulking warehouses and factories between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges and thought, Someday this is where people will want to live. Over the past five years, his bet has finally paid off, and Dumbo has become a sort of Tribeca East. Current Williamsburg condo development pays close attention to the Dumbo model—adaptive reuse, with an emphasis on views and artsiness (however contrived)—and spaces for living, not working. But as his work there has wound down, Walentas has turned his investment eye to Downtown Brooklyn.


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