Suddenly, momentum is shifting in the Atlantic Yards debate. For months now, Bruce Ratner’s plan to build 17 high-rise towers and a luxury sports arena in Brooklyn has steamed ahead, resistance seemingly futile.
Three events, in quick succession, have changed the game and put the politically connected developer on the defensive.
First, on Tuesday, the New York Times splashed Frank Gehry’s latest designs for Atlantic Yards across the front page. Ratner has long been criticized for the cheap, fortress-like architecture of his other Brooklyn projects. Gehry, the celebrity architect renowned for designing buildings that look like crumpled balls of tinfoil, was brought aboard to neutralize that critique and provide aesthetic cover. Yet, Gehry’s designs did what months of petitioning, protesting and public meetings couldn’t. They got sensible, well-heeled, politically connected Brooklynites pissed off, paying attention and preparing to fight. For neighborhood advocates who have been working diligently to get an apathetic public to pay attention to the travesty underway at Atlantic Yards, Gehry’s architectural models were a gift.
Then, on Wednesday, London won the 2012 Olympics bid. Suddenly, it’s no longer unpatriotic to suggest that a 19,000-seat arena at the traffic-choked intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic might be a bad idea. With the Olympics bid and Manhattan stadium debate finally out of the way, New Yorkers are finally examining Ratner’s Atlantic Yards proposal on its own merits. They’re seeing that the project has little to do with the genuine needs of the communities and city around it. Real estate industry insider Peter Slatin reports that the Atlantic Yards project is being driven not by the requirements of the district nor by a compelling urban vision, but rather by the high price, the $300 million, Ratner paid for the New Jersey Nets basketball franchise. According to Slatin, The project ballooned in size under pressure from Ratner’s co-investors on the Nets, who are increasingly concerned that their investment pay off.
The Ratner plan suffered a third blow on Wednesday when a rival real estate developer submitted a surprise bid for the railyards, just under the MTA’s deadline. The Extell Corporation’s bid adheres to most of the urban design recommendations put forward in the Unity Plan, a development proposal generated through community-based design workshops. Unlike the Ratner plan, Extell’s has no arena, it makes a genuine effort to knit together and fit in to the low-rise neighborhoods around it, and, most important, it requires no eminent domain. Extell isn’t asking the government to seize people’s homes and workplaces.
Granted, the odds of the MTA accepting the Extell bid are slim. You’d think the cash-strapped agency would have put real effort into marketing its valuable property. Yet, from the beginning, the MTA treated the bidding process as a mere formality. The Extell offer materialized only because neighborhood advocates took it upon themselves to send out the MTA’s requests for proposal to scores of developers. Regardless of how the MTA treats it, Extell’s bid is a huge win for the community. Extell legitimizes the Unity Plan by putting real money behind it, the competition keeps the Atlantic Yards story in the news, and that ensures light will shine on the sweetheart dealings, lack of democratic process and disregard for community input that have defined the project up to now.
But let’s get back to Gehry’s gift to the Atlantic Yards opposition, the architectural model and sketches he showed Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff. The designs are so bad they’re almost funny. Gehry calls the 70-story skyscraper at the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush Miss Brooklyn, as in, We’ll sure miss Brooklyn if this crap gets built. The arena itself is barely visible beneath Gehry’s delirious pileup of forms. For Ratner and his political supporters, this is a problem. They’d much rather you focus on the return of professional sports to Brooklyn than pay attention to the 21-acre land grab and mountainous landscape of new skyscrapers. To help you do that, Gehry has wrapped an entire city block with a 10-story tall, glowing Nets billboard, complete with, what I believe is a massive Jason Kidd head looming over Flatbush Avenue. Easter Island’s got nothing on the New Brooklyn.
With skyscrapers jutting up at odd angles, Gehry’s design gives an overall impression of towers simply bursting out of the earth like giant crystal formations. Ouroussoff explains to us little people that the design reflects the energy and vitality of today’s Brooklyn. As usual, the master planners and architectural theorists forget that a city’s energy and vitality is generated on its streets and in its neighborhoods, not by a skyline fraught with visual tension. Gehry’s attempt to create an energetic urban metropolis from scratch ends up looking like the New York New York Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, a cartoon version of a real city. Our city.