Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Not THAT Michael White

Yes, my name is Michael White and yes, I am a lawyer and urban planner.

I am not the Michael E. White who is a lawyer and urban planner who litigated on behalf of the residents of Concord Village who challenged the construction of the new federal courthouse on Cadman Plaza East and Tillary Street (one side is on Adams Street) concerned that the building was overly tall.

Personally, I am an admirer of the new federal courthouse. I think the building, designed by Cesar Pelli & Associates and H L W International, contributes beautifully to the design of urban fabric around it and is fabulous to look at. I don’t think it is too tall and I would be happy if it were taller.

It was supposed to be taller. Lawyer and urban planner Michael White, the other one who is not me, prevented that.

I’ve met the other Michael White and he is a nice, intelligent fellow. I don’t mind sharing a name with him or either of our professions. When I met him, I was with the government and we were interviewing the firm to which he belonged at the time, Jaspan Schlesinger Hoffman LLP, considering it for a panel of firms to work for our state agencies. Mr. White afterwards moved on to become the Executive Director of the Long Island Regional Planning Board.

When I met Mr. White I mentioned the lawsuit that had resulted in a shorter courthouse and asked how well the firm’s cases were doing with the federal judges in the Eastern District. That was sort of a lawyer’s joke.

Plans for a taller courthouse were scaled back in 1998 when delays were followed by escalations in constructions costs. That caused the building to be scaled back to 14 stories from the 18 originally planned. (See the New York Times story “U.S. Courthouse Plan in Brooklyn Is Cut Back” By Joseph P. Fried, December 29, 1998.) This brought the height down to 250 feet high, rather than the 300 feet.

Delays were occasioned when the representatives of Concord Village, the apartment complex across the street, challenged the federaal General Services Administration's environmental-impact report for the $371 million courthouse project, asserting that it was flawed. The representatives of the 2,000 residents of Concord Village said the project would drastically worsen traffic and air pollution in downtown Brooklyn and called for the report to be redone. They lost, but, as Michael White (not me) explained, the delays probably had the effect intended.

Concord Village provides homes but it is low on my list when it comes to urban design. I like the courthouse design a lot better and I don’t detect any detriment to the residents of Concord Village because it was built. To me it seems a good neighbor that I would appreciate as adding value. If it had been a few extra floors as previously contemplated, I think it would still have been so.

Cesar Pelli & Associates also provided a splendid design for the World Financial Center in Battery Park City that wears well even though its neo-modern style is no longer current. I think the courthouse is just as good or better.

The courthouse is far better than an alternative that was defeated. Before its design was commissioned, it had been proposed to construct additional courthouse space across the street. It was proposed to build a 22-story courthouse through the middle of the Victorian post office building. As reported in the Times, “Residents and preservationists had protested that the tower would add to traffic congestion and break the mood of the post office's whimsical Romanesque Revival towers, turrets, dormers and arches.” (See “Neighborhood Report: Brooklyn Civic Center; New Plan for Old Post Office” By Michael Cooper, October 1, 1995)

Building the courthouse shorter reportedly means that the designers cut back on the room for future growth for the court's caseload and its staff. I certainly hope that, when future growth is considered, plans to construct in the middle of the post office building are not ever resurrected.

An article in the Brooklyn Eagle describes the plans for the courthouse as “star-crossed” and goes into a bribery scandal involving the general contractor. It reminds us that “A proposal to build it in the Atlantic Center, over the LIRR station, was rejected by federal judges who made it privately clear that this was too far away from the center of things in Downtown Brooklyn.” Tell that to Bruce Ratner the next time he misrepresents Atlantic Yards (which he wants to build more han 4 times as tall!) as being “in Downtown Brooklyn!” (See: Federal Courthouse Project Hits A Snag; New Contractor Sought by Dennis Holt, 03-05-2004)

That same Brooklyn Eagle article tells us “One of Sen. Patrick Moynihan’s last acts was to attend the 2000 ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new building. Though physically frail, he gave a stirring speech on the value of public works, a sentiment rarely heard these days, and declared that this building would be memorable.” As many know, I am strongly advocating that we fittingly remember Daniel Patrick Moynihan by putting our resources into Moynihan Station, a “public work” like the courthouse rather than diverting them into Atlantic Yards. Atlantic Yards is not only NOT a “public work,” it represents something Moynihan fought against in his time. It was Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who, in 1986, sponsored the insightful law that bans the use of tax-exempt bonds to finance sports stadiums and arenas which Bruce Ratner now seeks to circumvent.

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