The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2011

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JUL-AUG 2011 Issue

UNITY: A desperate plea for adult supervision

In New York City nothing symbolizes the hangover experienced from the real estate frenzy of the aughts better than the debacle that is the Atlantic Yards. Critics have long believed that Forest City Ratner Chairman and CEO Bruce Ratner’s high-flying promises of jobs, starchitecuture, affordable housing, high-rises, and sports were cynically calculated to sell his intention to control the rail yards at Atlantic Avenue. And they were, but it would seem that Atlantic Yards is faltering not because Ratner never believed his promises, but because he blindly believed too many of them.

Over the last eight years, the promises evaporated. The community groups supporting the project were largely astro-turf, not grassroots. (Recently bankrupt ACORN was a notable exception.) The community benefits agreement—promising jobs and affordable housing—that these groups signed onto with the developer was a public relations ploy and had no real structures of oversight or enforcement. Original project architect Frank Gehry, brought in to allay understandable fears that Forest City Ratner would continue to build ugly in Brooklyn, was dumped in favor of cheaper styling.

On June 15, a group of about 100 Brooklynites concerned about the progress—or non-progress—of the Atlantic Yards project gathered at the Commons in Boerum Hill to reconsider the community-driven UNITY plan. “Broken promises litter the Atlantic Yards project,” says Councilwoman Tish James. At this point, in addition to the Barclays Center, only one tower will be built anytime in the near future.

If the Hoyt-Schermerhorn Urban Renewal Area or the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area near the Williamsburg Bridge in Manhattan can be a guide, the surface parking of Forest City Ratner’s stalled vision could remain an eyesore for decades to come. Meanwhile, many homes and businesses—including Daniel Goldstein’s condo building on a now non-existent block of Pacific Street—that were taken by eminent domain have already been torn down. Amidst the disarray, many still hope to create UNITY.

Unveiled in 2005, then revised in 2007, UNITY (which stands for the somewhat unwieldy “Understanding, Imagining, and Transforming the Yards”) has been an alternative vision for the rail yards from the Ratner plan. Those gathered at the June meeting were mostly Brooklyn residents from the neighborhoods that surround the arena—Prospect Heights, Fort Greene, Boerum Hill, and Park Slope. They were by and large affiliated with BrooklynSpeaks and Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, two coalitions that arose in opposition and concern for Forest City Ratner’s then-proposal.

Speaking at the meeting, City Council representatives Letitia James and Brad Lander, former DDDB spokesperson Daniel Goldstein, and UNITY architects Marshall Brown and Ronald Shiffman charged the gathered long-time and recent Atlantic Yards fighters. Their goal, as Councilwoman James puts it, is “to reignite the conversation and reclaim what is left of the footprint” east of the already rising Barclays Center. Forest City Ratner intends to warehouse the blocks from Sixth to Vanderbilt Avenues as parking lots until they can turn a profit as high-rise condominiums and office buildings.

The original UNITY plan developed from values and principles culled from a 2004 forum held in the basement of Hanson Place Central United Methodist Church in Fort Greene. As Marshall Brown said at the unveiling of the original plan and reiterated at the Commons, “It’s not about the arena.” The original core values, like connecting the surrounding neighborhoods; smaller scale, true public spaces; and improving mass transit are underscored by the desire for an open and transparent planning process with accountability to elected representatives and the community. This last aspect is something that even Forest City Ratner’s supporters admit was lacking with Atlantic Yards.

In the eyes of Brown and his colleagues, UNITY is about the community gaining leverage in developments proposed for our neighborhoods. Proponents of this alternative vision hope that they can rescue the blocks where Forest City is not building with a multi-developer plan that divides the site into much smaller lots. Ronald Shiffman hopes that what comes from the UNITY discussions is a “vision that is strong enough to compete” with the entrenched and approved Atlantic Yards.

The new UNITY plan—which will come out of the recommendations of the various committees formed at the meeting—will differ from its predecessors since it comes after the evictions and demolitions and will need to contend with the reality of a basketball arena next door. But it will likely inherit not only the values of the earlier plans, but also many of the original features.

The most prominent of these is partitioning of the development site. UNITY proposes splitting the footprint into smaller lots that can be bid upon and developed—using the core community values—by different developers. This will allow texture and diversity of use and scale instead of massiveness and uniformity. Because the development cost on the smaller lots will be less, it also mitigates much of the risk that Forest City Ratner is experiencing. UNITY also calls for a network of parks that has the side benefit of creating natural locations to put new transit entrances to the Atlantic Avenue Long Island Railroad and subway station throughout the development. And the plan also extends the street grid of neighboring Fort Greene, creating new blocks where stores can open and people can walk in contrast to the super-blocks of the Ratner plan.

Lastly, UNITY hopes to reintroduce affordable housing to the site. Although the New York Times reported that Forest City Ratner was going to build a 34-story modular pre-fabricated tower structurally untested at that height—on the railyards site, most of the developer’s recent discussions have been to construct the promised units in East New York, over 20 avenues east of Prospect Heights.

In her remarks at the June meeting, James pointed to the “graft, corruption, staged rallies, and investigations,” surrounding approval of Atlantic Yards but laments that “our government turned a blind eye to all of it.” And it is true. Very few politicians, reporters, or even folks in the general public cared about any of this. The Ratner plan—its rigged process included—had glitz and chutzpah. The original Frank Gehry designs were a cartoonish travesty from an aesthetic point of view, but they embraced in a radical way the excess that our city both loves and loathes. The original Atlantic Yards, with its “urban room,” “Miss Brooklyn” tower, and massive scale, was unashamedly pitched for its brashness, professional sports, glamorous ugliness, that it was totally over-the-top, and completely unnecessary. These seeming detractors were the very points that got politicians like Borough President Marty Markowitz and rapper Jay-Z to get excited tossing their hat in Ratner’s ring. It was an unreal plan, but it sold a dream that many people—including the developer—bought. 

UNITY, by contrast, is much more grounded in reality. It is steeped in common sense, accountability, and community values. Both the initial plan and its revision are understated, responsible, and able to more easily respond to changing needs in the community as well as mitigate economic exposure. It resembles the spiffy, modern urban renewal projects in the Netherlands or Sweden that one might see reviewed on PBS with a pleasant voice speaking of the neighborhood’s virtues over scenes of lovely Dutch couples biking along precious paths lined with pleasant shrubs. UNITY lacks the gambler’s rush of Ratner’s Atlantic Yards—the double-down mentality apparently required to build in New York City.

But this too is part of UNITY’s critique. When Atlantic Yards was being pressed forward as a “done deal,” the huge gaps in Forest City Ratner’s credibility were ignored because the story the developer told was so pretty. No one took responsibility to take a serious look at the viability of the project because everyone was having too much fun fantasizing about this crazy and huge new skyline smack in the middle of Brooklyn. (Apparently, tale-spinning is still very much in vogue, as Ratner told the Times that his basketball arena will also serve as a “little bit ironic” fine arts performance space for BAM). Maybe, UNITY’s supporters claim, this is not a particularly mature or responsible way to envision development in the nation’s largest city. Perhaps at some point in the process, there should be some adults in the room, preferably members of the community where building is proposed. As City Councilmember Brad Lander said at the meeting, “there is a hunger for different visions” of how our neighborhoods are shaped.

UNITY is not sexy—although its previous renderings are certainly attractive. It involves committees meeting, articulating visions, haggling over the details, taking seriously the viewpoints of existing stakeholders and striving to be accountable to them throughout a tedious implementation and approval process. As architect Ron Shiffman puts it, the goal is to “develop an open and equitable process of planning that can be a model” for how to build in New York City in the 21st century. It is a real plan.

This alternative model lacks the mania of politicians shooting baskets with NBA mascots, buildings with silly back-stories, and hip-hop stars as frontmen, but it also avoids the come-down of eminent domain, humongous parking lots dividing neighborhoods, and a ho-hum arena. The only problem is that the UNITY plan is not how things are done in New York. Those gathered at the Commons hope that the coming election cycle will bring more politicians with the hunger Lander speaks of, but the future is unclear.

For the time being, Brooklyn is left—head throbbing—stuck in the unfulfilled unreality of a developer’s idealism. A neighborhood was wiped out in order to make way for a basketball arena and some parking lots.


Brian J. Carreira

BRIAN CARREIRA is a writer living in Prospect Lefferts Gardens. You can follow him on Twitter @BrianCarreira.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2011

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