Will the ‘borough of churches’ become a borough of skyscrapers?
IN 1929, THE WILLIAMSBURGH SAVINGS BANK moved its headquarters to a new 512-foot-high dome-topped skyscraper at the corner of Ashland Place and Hanson Place, near the busy Flatbush Avenue Terminal of the Long Island Railroad. This gem of a skyscraper was Brooklyn’s tallest, though quite modest by Manhattan standards. No one expected that it would remain the tallest for long, or that it would stand for 75 years (and counting) in such isolation, with not another tall building near it. For many years, at least since the Brooklyn Academy of Music opened its new building on Lafayette Avenue in 1908, Brooklynites had expected that this corner of Fort Greene would eventually emerge as the borough’s new downtown.
It didn’t happen. The stock market crash and the Depression were partly responsible. So too were the demographic changes that followed World War II. Since then, this area surrounding the Atlantic Avenue railroad cut has been one of Brooklyn’s problem children. A succession of publicly sponsored efforts has failed to render urbanity out of a chaos of empty spaces that have created a classic example of what Jane Jacobs, in her landmark 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, called “border vacuums.”
Today, all agree that the Atlantic Yards neighborhood cries out for development. The question is what sort of development.
Bruce Ratner has one idea. As we all know by now, the developer plans to build a 20,000-seat Frank Gehry-designed basketball arena for his NBA franchise, the Nets, over the Atlantic rail yards, adjacent to his Atlantic Center and Atlantic Terminal shopping malls. The arena, of course, is to be but a relatively small part of a vast apartment and office complex. One of the buildings will rise higher—by 108 feet—than the nearby Williamsburgh Savings Bank Building. Three other office buildings and thirteen apartment buildings will range in height from 110 to 452 feet in height.
Those who support Ratner’s plan do so out of excitement at the return of a major sports franchise to Brooklyn, admiration for Frank Gehry’s architecture, or a desire to see something—especially something with a little newsworthy pizzazz—grow on that forlorn site. Opponents counter with criticisms of the likely use of eminent domain and concerns about gentrification, the displacement of residents and businesses, and increased traffic in a neighborhood where automobile traffic is already as bad as any to be found in the city.
Pro or con, though, this isn’t really a fight about basketball or traffic or even eminent domain, but a battle over what Brooklyn wants to be.
For Ratner, as for many city officials, the proximity to Manhattan of downtown Brooklyn suggests that it serve as an extension of Manhattan. The September 11 attacks exacerbated an already-existing trend of corporations moving their back-office operations outside of Manhattan. A major beneficiary has been Jersey City, which in just a few years has acquired a high-rise skyline vastly more imposing than that of Brooklyn. But every defection to Jersey City means lost tax revenue to New York. Why, city officials ask, can’t these offices go to Brooklyn? (Perhaps critics who charge that the city and private developers wish to “Manhattanize” Brooklyn should instead be speaking of its “Jersey City-ization.”)
So it is with other development proposals or prospects that have made Brooklyn the hottest urban development location in the United States. The Bloomberg administration supports the redevelopment of the Greenpoint and Williamsburg waterfronts with high-rise luxury housing and waterfront esplanades. It also backed the rezoning of the heart of downtown Brooklyn so that office skyscrapers can be built to appeal, like those of nearby MetroTech Center, to Manhattan corporations that might otherwise shift operations to New Jersey or some other place outside the city. And Fourth Avenue, on the edge of increasingly chic Park Slope, has recently been rezoned for high-rise apartment construction.
In essence, the administration, to satisfy the city’s hunger for additional housing and office space, wants to give developers license to radically transform vast swaths of Brooklyn. The resulting construction would replace the borough’s European-scale skyline—in many areas still punctuated by Victorian-era church spires—with walls of high-rise buildings.
One can readily understand why the city promotes such a vision for Brooklyn. But one must also understand why some of us feel that these rezoning and rebuilding schemes may in fact destroy the ways in which Brooklyn might most benefit the city as a whole.
Recent decades have seen many old Brooklyn neighborhoods rise from the brink of doom. In many cities—indeed in parts of Brooklyn—post-World War II urban disinvestment by lending institutions led to widespread neighborhood decay followed by massive programs of government-sponsored demolition and rebuilding in accord with the most advanced ideas of the putative experts in government and academia. Two areas in or near downtown Brooklyn succumbed to these fashionable notions of “urban renewal.” Much of downtown Fulton Street and other streets yielded to the vast open space and high-rises of Cadman Plaza. And the Atlantic Yards themselves are within the large Atlantic Terminal Urban Renewal Area. The city displaced the old Fort Greene Meat Market and the handsome old Flatbush Avenue Terminal of the Long Island Railroad so as to create a blank slate for prodigious new building in the area, contributing to the void we see today.
Yet radiating out from the downtown core are neighborhoods of a type that in other cities fell to “urban renewal” but that in Brooklyn were spared. Neighborhoods like Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Fort Greene, Boerum Hill, and Park Slope made it intact through the 1950s when they were most imperiled by government-sponsored rebuilding. They also for many years were spared the attentions of private developers, who at the time had no interest in Brooklyn. And they benefited from “historic district” designation by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. These splendidly intact 19th-century neighborhoods’ physical attractiveness made them ripe for gentrification, and their revival has been an urban success story of national import.
The irony is that by being spared rebuilding, these neighborhoods have flourished. As a result, they have attracted the interest of developers, who not only had nothing to do with the neighborhoods’ revival, but whose prior lack of interest actually helped them to flourish in the first place.
TODAY, PRIVATE DEVELOPERS are zeroing in on the peripheries of the historic districts and on neighborhoods that have as yet been undesignated. Atlantic Yards is an excellent case in point, as it straddles the boundaries of several beautiful 19th-century neighborhoods that have become boiling-hot real-estate markets.
Clearly, the Atlantic Yards area needs development. The proposals on the table, however, beg the question of whether Brooklyn’s urban success stories have taught us anything at all, or just paved the way for thoughtless mega-development. Jane Jacobs coined the phrase “cataclysmic money.” Disinvestment is bad. So is over-investment. And it seems that in some parts of Brooklyn we may be going from the one to the other.
Brooklyn neighborhoods have succeeded because they retain a scale and a style from an age when city development reached a stage of optimal habitability. Such neighborhoods are exceedingly hard to find in urban America today. These Brooklyn neighborhoods are not only a New York treasure but a national treasure of preserved, human-scale places. Developing their interstices with mega-projects like the Atlantic Yards proposal would destroy the scale of neighborhoods that would, as a result, be edged and hemmed by phalanxes of outsize buildings. Only the crudest short-term cost accounting could possibly justify playing so fast and loose with these treasures of comely urban form.
Yet at the same time, we do need to improve these intervals between neighborhoods and do away with the border vacuums. Incremental redevelopment, of a more modest scale, may lack luster in this age in which many architects and planners have swung back from the influence of Jane Jacobs to reembrace the values of an earlier generation that venerated Le Corbusier and his notions of towers and open spaces sweeping aside the shopworn vestiges of earlier periods of urban development. But for many, incremental redevelopment seems appropriate in Brooklyn—which has fought back from the brink to provide models for urban America, not of vast projects of wholesale transformation, but of rehabilitation and the tender loving care of the sorts of neighborhoods and places that we spent so many years trying to destroy.
Francis Morrone writes the “About New York” column for The New York Sun. He is the author of An Architectural Guidebook to Brooklyn and co-author, with Judith Stonehill, of Brooklyn: A Journey Through the City of Dreams.