For those of us who try to resist conspiracy theory’s undertow, the March 21 news that all parts of Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project but the arena are “stalled” was a definite blow. No “Miss Brooklyn,” the mixed-use tower set to be the tallest in Brooklyn. No residential towers, containing 6000 market-rate and middle- and low-income affordable condominiums and rentals. And no new, lower-rise neighborhood organized around an eight-acre Olin Partnership-designed park. Instead, Brooklyn might just get the kind of sitting-duck arena that has failed so often in urban settings (see Madison Square Garden, soon-to-be demolished until the same economic crunch that stalled Atlantic Yards did the same to the Moynihan-Penn Station redevelopment).
Opponents of the Atlantic Yards project always said Frank Gehry’s involvement, the community benefits agreement and the promise of affordable housing were window-dressing for a land grab for the New Jersey Nets (the arena’s tenant). Each offered a cynical ploy to block criticism from various constituencies in the adjacent neighborhoods of Park Slope, Prospect Heights and Fort Greene. The upper middle class would be dazzled by the promise of titanium, the middle class by the promise of apartments, the working class by the promise of jobs.
Most cynical of all, perhaps, was the persistent renaming (by Forest City, and then city and state officials) of the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues “Downtown Brooklyn,” making the presence of a 600-foot office and hotel tower sound only natural. The new nomenclature suggested the location was the equivalent of midtown or Wall Street, when in reality the context is four-story townhouses, FCR’s cheap, depressing malls and the always out-scale Williamsburgh Bank Tower. An arena might have been better located in real downtown Brooklyn, where FCR’s Metrotech is dead in the evenings, rather than in an enclave of housing and offices that had to be built from scratch.
But the new nomenclature caught on, spurring other, swifter moving developments that bumped up the relative height of the area before FCR even started. It cast a pall over Prospect Heights real estate, as prospective buyers considered living next to a ten-year construction site. And building demolitions created pockets of the blight FCR claimed was already there. Even if AY, even if the arena, never happens, Ratner and Gehry already changed Brooklyn.
Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff’s analysis of the situation, published the same day, included his switching of sides on Atlantic Yards from pro to con, and a belated call for Gehry to do the right thing and walk away. But surely Gehry knew exactly how he was being used by the developer in the first place, as do many of the starchitects now deployed around the world. Bilbao made him a brand, and the idea that the hand of the master would be seen across the rail yards build-out (construction was originally scheduled to run through 2016) was absurd. Ratner reeled him in with the promise of his first large-scale urban planning project, a step beyond the urban interventions around the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. If he backs out now it will be because he’s not interested in designing just an arena, not because of the bait-and-switch. In truth, the project now is similar to the concert hall: a largely windowless duck at a prominent intersection that could use a little pixie dust, both architectural and urban.
But in truth, Brooklyn never needed an arena, just as it never needed Miss Brooklyn. The idea of the Nets was always sold as a return to the glory days of the Dodgers, when Brooklyn had a big enough presence to have its own team (never mind the sport). But that thinking, enabled by Borough President Marty Markowitz’s belief that anything named Brooklyn is a good thing, was based on a false sense of Brooklyn’s inferiority complex. The real story in 2004 when this all began, was that Brooklyn had already begun to think of itself as an alternative to Manhattan rather than a comedown and had been redeveloping itself, for better and for worse, in all kinds of smaller scale and more organic ways. The slow demise of a project that was always too big for Brooklyn, and yet is no better urbanism at its current shrunken scale than it was to start, makes one first wish for a time machine. Ouroussoff raises the possibility that FCR may just sell off chunks of the property. If there could be a new look at the zoning under the city’s aegis — reduced scale, mixed uses — this might in fact be a blessing in disguise. But that, again, would require a suspension of cynicism.