Tuesday, September 30, 2008

No Longer If; The Sun Sets

Today’s New York Sun Final Edition, quoting from the front page, “is the final issue.” We are sad. Noticing New York previously reflected on the void that the Sun’s demise would leave: If the Sun Sets, Thursday, September 11, 2008.

Fittingly, if you search the Sun today for the words “eminent domain”, one article comes up (Atlantic Yard Project Suffers a Setback, by Peter Kiefer) which reports on how the legal challenge to the abuse of eminent domain in connection with Atlantic Yards has set back that megaproject. The article quotes Develop Don't Destroy’s Candace Carponter, “. . . the project may not go forward at all.” (If the megaproject doesn’t proceed, there is no doubt that the opportunity will be seized to build, much faster and sooner, a far superior project that does not abuse eminent domain.)

Though this last short article did not make passing comment about how eminent domain abuse drags down the economy while abusing fundamental rights, the Sun during its too-short life provided a superb forum for such points to be made.

The New York Times story today on the closing of the Sun does not mention the Sun’s superior coverage of eminent domain: Losing Money, New York Sun Is to Shut Down, by James Barron.

In memoriam, here is a verse of a poem that seems appropriate:

Setting . . .

Setting here . . .

- - -Setting now. . .

- - - - - Setting tomorrow . . .

The blaze of orange that escapes the horizon . . .

. . . tumbles sharp into my eyes . . .

. . . . . shards cascade mumbly-peg into my gut . . .

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Shorely We Jest: Needed Amusement Musing

I would like to compliment our city Economic Development Corporation officials for what I was slow in realizing is the absolutely brilliant development plan they came up with when studying the situation at Coney Island. (See Noticing New York’s testimony on the subject.)

Plan is Brilliant Because. . .

(Do you think Noticing New York jests when it avows the following?)

For those of you not familiar with it, the plan proposes to take a publicly controlled waterfront shoreline asset (the Coney Island amusement park area) and convert it to a mixture of new housing, commercial space and waterfront public park. The old (historic) asset, the Coney Island amusement park area, would be judged to have outlived any arguable public purpose, benefit or use. Rather than hold on to an outmoded vision, the city would succumb, and acknowledge that the asset is not getting the use intended. They would then decommission the asset, in this case by no longer insisting on the antiquated use of it by the developer who is refusing to use the area in compliance with the existing zoning. (The area is zoned for amusement park use. Joe Sitt of Thor Equities has evicted the amusement operations of Astroland from the area though it doesn’t seem that he truly has a superior alternative amusement-area-compliant activity in mind for the property whose use he is striving to change. Other amusement area acreage is already being held vacant.) In essence, the asset which was formerly envisioned as providing a public benefit for a truly broad range of New Yorkers would be sold off as privatized housing and commercial development with nearby waterfront park and green areas. And, good news, people would move into the area, jobs would be created and property taxes would be paid.

Right Plan, Wrong Place: Right for the Sheridan

Great plan!- But NOT for Coney Island.- How about for the South Bronx and the Sheridan Expressway?

This week I cheered when I saw that the Congress for New Urbanism placed the 1.25 mile Sheridan Expressway, which stretches along the Bronx River, as Number 2 on its just released list of highways most in need of demolition to stimulate investment and good urban economics. (See: CNU Names Top 10 "Freeways Without Futures": Revived Neighborhoods and Waterfronts Ahead. I first caught the story on Streetsblog: America’s Least Wanted Highways, by Ben Fried).

Highway-Burdened Bronx

Tearing down the largely unused and redundant Sheridan would free 28 acres of prime land for waterfront development. Of all the city’s boroughs, the Bronx is by far the most seriously handicapped with slash upon slash of highway cutting through the fabric of the borough’s neighborhoods (a full slasher movie quota and then some). You hardly notice, for instance, the borough’s assets like its abundant parkland (25%, 7000 acres). The Bronx River is the same Bronx River that flows through the New York Botanical Garden and the Bronx Zoo. This past week. the Bronx and its prospects for development got an odd mention on the Stoler Report, Michael Stoler’s forum discussion program on New York’s real estate industry. The guest developers were commenting that there is no longer any stigma attached to living in the outer boroughs, no stigma associated with living in Brooklyn, no stigma living in Queens, and the Bronx. . . Well, there was a pause there. (Stoler programs are available on line.)

Because the Bronx is so sorely challenged, people do not quickly find and recognize the value of Bronx neighborhoods as they are doing all over Brooklyn. Tearing down the Sheridan Expressway is one of the most obvious quick fixes available to start making things a lot better. Sustainable South Bronx advocates the demolition, pointing out that removing the highway will have all the benefits ostensibly attributable to the city’s Coney Island plan, plus it will reunite South Bronx neighborhoods and start using a previously unused waterfront: These last two benefits especially are things the Coney Island plan does not provide.

A City Bereft of Sites to Develop?

When questionable real estate projects are pushed in this city, the argument is often made that the city is bereft of suitable alternative sites for development. The tantalizing availability of these 28 acres of Sheridan Expressway land challenges that myth. Noticing New York is aware of all sorts of sites that stand ready to be developed across the city. It is just a question of better direction of resources. In Coney Island itself there are so many opportunities for development that the idea of sacrificing the historic amusement park areas for not very many acres of development is unjustifiably senseless. (Without most New Yorkers being aware of what is happening, the city is working in tandem with a developer-owner to whittle Coney Island into non-existence (see maps). Most recently, our city officials’ unfortunate best judgment is that if it is between preserving a greatly diminished 16 or 9 acres for amusement use, that sliver difference of 7 acres ought to be shifted over to the ever more hefty “develop-it” side of the ledger. Meanwhile, the developability of many acres of Coney NOT comprising the public’s historic seaside amusement park will be ignored.)

The Coney Island development plan is a lousy plan for Coney Island but a great plan if you just transplant, tweak and adapt it a little for the South Bronx. So let’s take the plan on the road and take on the road.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Weighing Scale

This will provide links to two valuable resources to consider how the scale of the Atlantic Yards megadevelopment doesn’t fit in with the scale of surrounding Brooklyn.

The two resources are the Municipal Art Society’s “Atlantic Yards or Atlantic Lots” slide show and the Environmental Simulation Center’s Atlantic Yards plug-in for the Google Earth program.

MAS Renderings

I was reminded how valuable one of these resources was when I attended the Municipal Art Society’s Inside View: MAS Work in Progress on Monday night. The evening was intended to afford a “behind-the-scenes look at MAS projects and programs.”

The full-screen projection at the front of the room did a lot to remind me how effective MAS’s slide show of visuals “Atlantic Yards or Atlantic Lots” at MAS’s specially set up atlanticlots.com website is at showing the proposed project in the context of the scale of the healthy Brooklyn neighborhoods which it will devastate. As is also the purpose of that site, the slide show also depicts the vast scale of depredation that will be brought about (in the form of parking lots?) if condemnations and demolition of existing Brooklyn are allowed to proceed given that no near-term rebuilding is likely. (The New York Post, among others, reported on the presentation and the concern that there will be little or no rebuilding for years. - See: the Future's 'Blight' Nightmare Vision of B'klyn Arena, By Rich Calder, May 5, 2008- While the Post story incorporates some of the graphics, you have not seen them to full effect unless you go to the MAS site.)

Understanding scale in context is more important than imagining what the style of design an urban project might be. In fact, in terms of end result, a good urban living environment probably depends more on good massing of the density in the built environment than on prettifying building skins.

The MAS renderings do not try to recreate the distracting Gehry/Ratner abstractions and thereby do a superior job of suggesting what the contextual density and extreme mass of this project would be. For instance, in the MAS renderings, surrounding Brooklyn is crisply visible: Each doorway, window frame, existing tree and passing car window provides scale while the stand-ins for the mass of the proposed Atlantic Yards megaproject also has scale-setting windows and floors clearly indicated. The rendering is matter-of-fact-neutral right down to a very restrained daytime depiction of the 15-story animated sign that will be illuminated at night. It dispenses with the slathered-on dazzle of the developer-sponsored sales pitch. (These pitches make me think of the faux-sparkle stars sometime pasted on top of winning “smiles.”)

Gehry/Ratner Renderings

The MAS site links to the Gehry/Ratner renderings which are worthless for getting a sense of scale; they are quite the opposite of the helpful MAS renderings:

1.) They scrupulously obliterate (into a black void) the surrounding neighborhood (foreshadowing a more literal obliteration to come?),

2.) These days they only depict a fraction of the project,

3.) No one knows what the project is right now and Gehry has been fooling around with substitute frivolutions

4.) Gehry’s sculptural-paperweight school of architecture is devoid of scale-establishing elements partly because it does not dialogue in terms of the human use or purpose.

One wonders why the New York Times is so enamored of showing Gehry/Ratner renderings when communicating “factually” about Atlantic Yards.

A Bleary Gehry Neighborhood?

(In reference to Gehry’s scaleless and contextless sculptural-paperweight school of architecture, Noticing New York is looking forward to seeing or presenting renderings of a whole neighborhood consisting of nothing but streetfuls of Gehry-created buildings: Atlantic Yards (maybe both versions, the original Ms. Brooklyn next to the discarded pizza boxes replacing her), the Disney Center, the Bard College performance hall, MIT’s leaky drunken robots, the West Side’s dirty iceberg, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks hockey rink, Bilbao, etc. All lined up it would surely look like a Macy’s gift-wrapping counter headache. - Something to work on.)

Scale is Tough to Appreciate

Scale is tough. Human beings are truly hard put to imagine scale. Renderings are an essential but unreliable tool, especially when manipulated. There is nothing like experiencing reality. When friends move into a new apartment I tell them to hold off buying furniture until after they move in. I suggest that for a while they live using boxes to represent furniture to get a sense of how everything will fit. Proportion is everything. Afterwards you can measure and choose style. An acquaintance of mine followed another course. While renovating a new apartment he was going to move into he bought a complete set of furniture. When it arrived, it didn’t fit. Although it measured as if it was going to fit, as a matter of really living with it and moving around the apartment it didn’t fit at all.

I have often suggested that a number of our politicians have signed on the to the Atlantic Yards megadevelopment without actually appreciating what it truly is (see: Tuesday, August 19, 2008, Dear Mr. Bloomberg, . . . . . the Harm and the Foul) If Bloomberg ever gets the Atlantic Yards he signed onto he is likely to find himself in a position similar to to my acquaintance with the oversized couches- not exactly the same situation though; oversized couches can be tossed.

Anything that provides a sense of scale in advance is a valuable tool.

Environmental Simulation Center Modeling

Another valuable tool for studying the scale of Atlantic Yards is the Environmental Simulation Center's plug-in Atlantic Yards modeling for Google Earth. Not everyone knows this is an available tool for studying Atlantic Yards and it is probably worth reminding even those who do. I haven’t seen people writing about it recently. (See the ESC’s introduction to the excellent modeling it did.)

If you are unfamiliar with the basic Google Earth program you have to try it out. It is an absolute joy and a terrific amount of fun. It is like being able to fly anywhere in the world. The program, which does not take much in the way of computer resources, can be loaded free onto just about any computer of recent vintage. I load it as part of the basic set-up for any computer I am working with. You'll need to load it in order to use the Environmental Simulation Center’s plug-in Atlantic Yards modeling as I am suggesting here. (Once Google Earth is installed and the plug-in is downloaded, just click on the plug-in to launch Google Earth and the simulated modeling. Once you have installed Google Earth I think you will find using it fairly self-explanatory and it provides tips to help you along.)

There are many images on the web of the Atlantic Yards density that are derived from the Environmental Simulation Center’s simulating program. What you have seen before may involve some repetition of some standard-issue, most frequently available images. It cannot compete with actually using the Google Earth program to swoosh and navigate around the project and neighborhood, including familiar reference points like the neighboring Williamsburg Savings Bank building or nearby brownstones. You can generate you own images from an infinite number of perspectives.

Like the MAS renderings, the Environmental Simulation Center modeling is good in that they concentrate in context on the actual mass and density that needs to be considered, while stripping away distracting glitz. The Environmental Simulation Center modeling is not perfect; it was generated a while ago and doesn’t reflect some of the slight size changes for the project that have been recently discussed. On the other hand it is not certain that this is relevant since it is far from clear that any of our government officials are in the habit of making Forest City Ratner commit to anything, and since nobody really knows what is going on with this project which is obviously in a state of flux. The Environmental Simulation Center modeling also allows you to examine for comparison the much more sensible density and massing alternatives that were offered by the Extel proposal, the Pacific Plan (Slide 36) and the first version of the community’s UNITY Plan.

In looking at the simulation I find it useful to click on Google’s built-in simulation of the buildings in the area though its data is not yet complete or fully up–to-date: there is no simulation data for buildings east of a certain point near the project and the last Ratner mall near Felix Street is not shown as built. I keep coming back to the Williamsburg Savings Bank building as a comparative size reference.

Renderings Can Lie

Renderings can lie. If you know what you are doing, a telephoto lens aspect can make buildings in the foreground appear comparatively smaller. Conversely, coming closer and using a wide-angle lens aspect will cause buildings in the foreground to grow. Then, of course, there is how pictures get cropped. So a person interested in slanting a depiction decides which buildings are going to be in the foreground and which in background, depending on what they want to show and then they have at it. Gehry did do his own set of renderings of Atlantic Yards in the “context” of the surrounding neighborhoods. This may no longer be available directly through Ratner but the fact that they were highly manipulated was covered by No Land Grab. The strange tilt to the Williamsburg Savings Bank building is a definite “tell” for the monkey business that was being practiced. The fun of the Google Earth ESC simulations is that you can go in and look at the project from any and all perspectives. Although you can zoom closer or farther away, Google Earth always usees one fixed camera-lens-equivalent.

Future Perfect's Simulation

There have been other simulations of what experiencing the Atlantic Yards might be like, such as the interactive “Future Perfect” (by Ed Purver and Chris Croft) which used video projections on a wall in a room in which you would walk around. That was a useful exercise but I particularly recommend the tools MAS and ESC provide.

A Digression: Precepts of Eminent Domain Abuse and MAS

Digressing briefly to mention something important. At the Monday night MAS evening event it was mentioned that MAS has not yet sorted out a set of principles it can offer to distinguish defensible eminent domain from eminent domain abuse. I think the task is well within reach. MAS has provided multiple excellent forums in which people have taken the opportunity to discuss questions in this regard. I think one only needs to start with the most basic precepts on the subject and build from there.

MAS has also provided many excellent forums wherein Atlantic Yards has been discussed, including its abuse of eminent domain and its economic damage to the city. Contributing to awareness and discussion, the first page of the recently revamped MAS website prominently incorporated a link to its Atlantic Yards features until just recently (just after the link for Moynihan Station, the new Pennsylvania Station). It was updated this week just after I started writing this post. For what you previously were able to reach more directly, go to the page for Atlantic Lots coverage or the page for accumulated MAS coverage of Atlantic Yards. MAS is also a part of the Brooklyn Speaks coalition which has a direct and prominent link to Atlanticlots.com.

Perspective on a Green Borough

One last thing, and one more aid for understanding Atlantic Yards totally inappropriate scale; the new MAS annual report has, as its last page, an aerial photograph of Brooklyn. That photo brings to life what people often remark is so striking about Brooklyn when they fly over it. Brooklyn is not only the Borough of Churches with a forest of steeples: Brooklyn is a borough of startling green that looks almost like a park. (The photo is also used by MAS on their “contact us” page.) In the middle of the MAS photo is the Vanderbilt rail yards site where Ratner proposes his devastation. It is sobering perspective worth focusing in on.

(Click on any picture in this post to see it enlarged.)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Getting out your squeegees! A quick reference

New York Magazine frequently runs good features offering a handle on trends in New York real estate and urban design.

Offered for your reference and mulling over is Glass Stampede, by Justin Davidson, published Sep 7, 2008.

The article is a great resource for thinking about the rush to build in glass. It includes 54 before-and-after slides of new glass buildings recently inserted into New York’s built environment. These are perhaps be best viewed and appreciated on line.

Brian Lehrer followed up with a discussion with Justin Davidson (and an accessibly abbreviated slide show) last week.

We like glass buildings: They can be glorious and sometimes perfect for certain situations, but things have gotten out of hand and so many are so perfunctory. And transparency can also have its drawbacks. Back in the ‘70s I had a friend who bought up a whole floor in 860 United Nations Plaza (the west of the two towers). He loved to take in the sweeping views unimpeded. He ignored the co-op rules requiring everyone to have identical white curtains: Whenever the co-op called, his curtains were always “at the dry cleaner.” Many original glass buildings have only just recently aged sufficiently to be eligible for landmarking. An interesting factor when the Landmarks Preservation Commission considers them is going to be the extent to which the visible interiors, original lighting schemes and such should play into considerations of the experience to be preserved.

Anyway, look and make up your mind about the Glass Stampede and maybe listen to the Brian Lehrer segment.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Should a Teardrop be Shed- Considering the Burden?

This is about Battery Park City’s Teardrop Park, which I like, and the issue of superblocking. I don’t like superblocks. I am wondering whether to cry a few tears about the inconsistent philosophy of Amanda Burden when it comes to supporting the Atlantic Yards, the ill-conceived megadevelopment supported by the man who appointed her, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

I was doing some research to provide some updates to a piece I did reviewing the design decisions being made with respect to the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site (See: Two and Fro?) I found something which I consider interesting in its own right particularly as it affords an opportunity to consider the design quality of what is proposed at Atlantic Yards and its landscaped areas.

Central to the resdesign of the World Trade Center site for its redevelopment is reinsertion of streets into the grid. I pointed out in Two and Fro? how this was in recognition that the original superblocking of the site was undesirable. I also lauded the design of Battery Park City as an urban design event that occurred between the original and new World Trade Center site designs. Battery Parch City vividly models the preferability of Jane Jacobs’ prescription for short blocks and frequent streets; conversely, the undesirability of superblocks.

So it caught my eye that Amanda Burden, currently Director of the New York City Department of City Planning and City Planning Commissioner Chairman, had apparently been concerned about “superblocking” in Battery Park City. Ms. Burden has intimate familiarity with Battery Park City as she was previously Battery Park City’s Vice President for Planning and Design in which capacity she oversaw the design of BPC’s open spaces.

Burden and Superblocking

Ms. Burden also has an intimate familiarity and appreciation for the topic of superblocking. In early 2006 Ms. Burden weighed in against superblocking at the redesigned World Trade Center site: “We need our streets, we need connectivity, we need an open Cortlandt St. for light and air and to create normal blocks,” and “It is important to open a street that has been closed for decades.” (See: Not ready to close the debate on opening Cortlandt St, By Ronda Kaysen, February 17 - 23, 2006 in the Downtown Express, extracting from a Feb. 6 World Trade Center Committee meeting.)

She was following through consistently with her earlier advocacy against superblocking at the World Trade Center site set forth in her March 8, 2004 open letter to the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC):

I. Public Realm and Open Space: Reintegrating the Site With Lower Manhattan

We share the longstanding goal of the LMDC and the PA to reintegrate the World Trade Center Site into the fabric of Lower Manhattan. The current WTC GPP and WTC GPP Site Plan reflect important steps towards fulfilling this objective through the restoration of Greenwich and Fulton Streets across the site and the addition of new open spaces. We believe that additional measures should be taken to more fully integrate the site into its surroundings with regard to streets, sidewalks, pedestrian flow, public open space and urban design. These are discussed below.

a. Extend Dey and Cortlandt Streets From Church to Greenwich Streets

* * * *

It is critical to the successful integration of the site with the rest of Lower Manhattan that Dey and Cortlandt Streets be extended as real streets between Church and Greenwich. These streets must be designed to accommodate both vehicular and pedestrian use. The public realm in New York is primarily composed of streets and sidewalks. As such, Dey and Cortlandt provide key opportunities to expand the amount of open space and accessibility into the site. Furthermore, these streets will ensure that the typical block size along Church Street remains the same as the blocks to the north and south. In New York, with few exceptions, larger block sizes (for example, blocks as long as the dimension between Liberty and Dey Streets) are provided only for our most significant public buildings such as Grand Central Station.

Battery Park City and Superblocking

As I said, what caught my eye in my research was a reference to Burden’s focus and concern with respect to the issue of superblocking in Battery Park City. Battery Park City’s design is such an excellent exemplar of the opposite that you would think the issue would never come up. What’s more the concern was expressed by Burden in connection with respect to Battery Park City’s Teardrop Park which, having visited it, I never would have suspected would raise superblocking concerns. Yet here in a July/August 2004 Downtown Express story (A look back as Battery Park City nears next phase, By Josh Rogers) I read:

Burden said when she first talked to Carey about his concept of closing off a street to build a park surrounded by four residential buildings, she thought it was a terrible idea because it would create a superblock.

To be fair, the article went on to say that Burden “said she has since changed her mind now that she has seen the design by Michael Van Valkenburgh.” (The intricately constructed park opened September 30, 2004 so Burden may have seen actual construction by that time)

I’d visited Teardrop Park while construction was going on around it. I had some concerns about its design and functionality which I wanted to study with some thought to how it reflected upon plans for Atlantic Yards. I will discuss these concerns later, but the concern about superblocking was not then among them.

Extreme Sensitivity to Superblocking?

I know that Ms. Burden considers herself a disciple of William H. (“Holly’) Whyte as she had worked at his Project for Public Spaces. Mr. Whyte, renowned in his own right, is famous as Jane Jacobs’ mentor. Still, the concern about Teardrop Park as a superblock indicated an extreme sensitivity to the issue that had me wondering how Ms. Burden could ever be a supporter of Atlantic Yards (which by all reports she is) since Atlantic Yards is a project where true superblocking is a real concern. It is just one concern among many about the Atlantic Yards Project, nearly all of which are major.

Burden and Atlantic Yards

Does Amanda Burden truly support Atlantic Yards? To what extent is she just toeing the line for her boss? She may have begun by not supporting the project but there came a time when she started making formal statements of support.

In 2005 a short article by Matthew Schuerman appearing in the Observer, Extra Burden, (November 22, 2005) reported that “Burden says she is happy with the project as a whole, but what she would do to it if she had veto power is another matter.” The article stated, “Burden, a committed urbanist and acolyte of Holly Whyte, is also apparently concerned about eliminating Pacific Street and forming one superblock out of two already long city blocks.” In the same article mostly likely as fluff for the eye-wash of an insufficient process Architect/Starchitect Frank Gehry is quoted as saying “City Planning is really on this one,” and “Amanda Burden is really working us and we believe in what they want but the idea of creating storefronts on Atlantic Avenue--there’s not much depth to deal with.” Schuerman’s hopeful 2005 characterization was “it seems like city Planning Director Amanda Burden is still getting to have her say” but if any changes were made because she said anything it has escaped my notice. There is a hint in the article via a remark of Landscape Architect Laurie Olin that if concessions were negotiated by Burden in any respect it might have to do with a landscaping solution to the following, “One of the concerns that City Planning had and we of course share was if you come off of the streets, say Pacific, and walk into a space, what can you see?”

The Atlantic Yards megaproject didn’t change, but Ms. Burden’s public statements about it did.

In January 2007 the New York Times ran a bit of puff piece about Ms. Burden in which Ms. Burden was credited in changing the Atlantic Yards megadevelopment for the better; not by eliminating the superblocking as referred to in the 2005 Observer article, but by limiting the size of Atlantic Yards “behind-the-scenes.” (See: Once at Cotillions, Now Reshaping the Cityscape, By Diane Cardwell, January 15, 2007)

Since her appointment in 2002 by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, Ms. Burden has played a powerful behind-the-scenes role in shaping plans at ground zero, in limiting the size of the Atlantic Yards development near Downtown Brooklyn, and in helping push through the High Line project, which will transform a disused rail bed into a linear park linking the West Village to the Far West Side.


Exactly what happened “behind-the-scenes” may be interesting, but the story about the Atlantic Yards project being cut back in size were debunked before this article ran in the Times. Understanding the real story involves having to imagine exactly what did happen “behind-the-scenes.” Essentially the project wound up being the same size (or slightly bigger) than it was originally proposed when introduced December 2003 as follows. Like a department or electronics store “rasing prices” so they can then advertise “lowering prices” as a phony sales pitch, the developer, Forest City Ratner, boosted the theoretical size of the mega-project in order to thereafter advertise on the front page of the Times that it had been `reduced’ (For a lot more on this see: Tuesday, December 26, 2006, The Times defends the front-page scaleback story, but then practices "rowback") Ergo, the project was not actually made smaller than the giant sponge for subsidy that the developer himself originally conceived.

The sequence of how everything happened “behind-the-scenes” is difficult to say, but the stage-prop increase in the project size occurred at roughly the same time that Forest City Ratner was dealing with Ms. Burden and her Department of City Planning. Though substantial contemporaneousness is clear, the exact sequence is difficult to lay out because while indicative dates are public, not all of the dates that would determine a full sequence are out. The swelling in scope of the project’s size occurred around the date of September 5, 2005, the date when a draft project scope came out that added 2800 condominium units. The Observer article appearing not long after that indicates that, as of the time it was published, Ms. Burden and the Department of City Planning had been dealing with the project for a while. The Department of City Planning informed Noticing New York that the Department started looking at the project “in 2004.” The date of the Observer article is November 22, 2005 and it is the Observer article that mentions both that “Burden says she is happy with the project as a whole” and that she was saying she didn’t have “veto power” over the project. Although the article it mentions the superblocking concern associated with Pacific Street being eliminated, there is no mention of a City Planning concern about the project’s size. The City Planning Commission’s official assessment of Atlantic Yards is in a September 27, 2006 letter that was released with the announcement of “the reduction.” (The Planning Commission is distinct from the Planning Department though they function together and both are headed by Ms. Burden.)

Burden as a Defender of Atlantic Yards

Concurrently with the advertising of the (non-)reduction in the megadevelopment’s size, Ms. Burden was defending the huge size of Atlantic Yards. It should be noted the that the huge size of Atlantic Yards may only be legally possible with the superblocking, which by transferring eliminated streets to a private owner, changes the FAR (floor to area ratio) calculations. FAR is a measure used to regulate density. In essence, if you want to state a lower FAR number you are virtually backed into superblocking, even if that does not truly achieve the “lower density” that the lower FAR number appears to suggest. See the Times story Atlantic Yards Developer Accepts 8% Reduction in Project, by Nicholas Confessore, (September 28, 2006):

Ms. Burden yesterday defended the relatively modest reduction in scale, saying that the project, which would extend east from the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues near Downtown Brooklyn, would be in an ideal location for a high-density development. “It is a transit hub,” she added. “It is at the crossroads of two wide avenues in Brooklyn. It can accommodate density, and density brings excitement, foot traffic, jobs.”

The Planning Commission’s September 27, 2006 letter has no direct references to superblocking. There is potentially an oblique one: The letter mentions in passing that the Design Guidelines for the open space “require generous entrances to the open space along Atlantic Avenue that are aligned with the street grid to the north, to emphasize connections between Fort Green and Prospect Heights, and will contain ample seating and planting to promote their use.” The reference to how seating and planting might promote the connection of the neighborhoods is what is offered in lieu of actual streets.

Ms. Burden apparently professes to know a lot about Atlantic Yards. In a February 21, 2008 article in the New York Times on the proposed 125th Street rezoning in Harlem (City's Sweeping Rezoning Plan for 125th Street Has Many in Harlem Concerned, by Timothy Williams) Ms. Burden referred to her study of Atlantic Yards to provide assurance that she had worked hard on the rezoning:

Ms. Burden said she had spent more time studying the 125th Street proposal — including attending 30 to 40 meetings and walking the street on several occasions — than she had on any other project, including Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn and Columbia University's expansion in western Harlem.

(Many in those communities opposed to such things as eminent domain abuse naturally found this assurance disconcerting.)

Whatever her familiarity with Atlantic Yards, soon after defending its huge density, Ms. Burden inaccurately referred to Atlantic Yards as “a gaping hole in the heart of Brooklyn.” Norman Oder of Atlantic Yards Report documents this as “either deceptive or na├»ve.” (Thursday, February 15, 2007, Spin city #1: Burden calls AY “a gaping hole in the heart of Brooklyn” The CUNY TV picture of Ms. Burden is from that article.) 60% of the project is non-rail yards property in which eminent domain abuse would be an operative feature in clearing out private property owners.

As Atlantic Yards Report suggests, she likely picked up her parlance directly from the developer. The Observer reports that Ms. Burden met with the developer/subsidy-collector Bruce Ratner only a few months before her remark. (See: Ratner Meets With Burden, by Matthew Schuerman, September 6, 2006) comments. According to that report Burden “wouldn’t give her own thoughts” but said of Ratner and Atlantic Yards “he did not mention scaling it back.”- (If you check your dates, the scaling-back reference is because this is exactly when the drama of the project’s faux size-reduction was taking center stage.)

We Need Our Streets, We Need Connectivity

The people of the community who live in the area around Atlantic Yards and who oppose Atlantic Yards have been asking for more streets to be inserted into the street grid at the site instead of fewer, just as street are reinserted at the redeveloped World Trade Center site. That is exactly what has been called for by the community’s UNITY Plan. If when it comes to the Trade Center site Ms. Burden believes "We need our streets, we need connectivity, . . for light and air and to create normal blocks," and believes “measures should be taken to more fully integrate the site into its surroundings with regard to streets, sidewalks, pedestrian flow, public open space and urban design.. . “ that “critical to the successful integration of the site . .” is that “streets be extended as real streets . . .designed to accommodate both vehicular and pedestrian use” and that “the public realm in New York is primarily composed of streets and sidewalks” why can’t Ms. Burden support the Atlantic Yards neighborhood community when it makes this case?

And what are the “normal blocks” in which Ms. Burden believes?

Teardrop: A Super-B Park?

When I heard that Ms. Burden had superblocking concerns with respect to Battery Park City’s Teardrop Park I wanted to take a look at what these were.

Teardrop Park is an elegant little park and something of a tour de force in terms of design, particularly in summertime. It is nestled between four buildings. Depending upon how you count them there are six or more entrances so there are a number of ways in which it can be traversed but there is a particularly identifiable east-west throughway that allows pedestrians to cross in the middle between two of the park’s entrances. The throughway could have been a full-fledged street open to vehicular traffic which would have created two blocks. Even though it isn’t, the conceptually larger single block which the entire design represents including the park and all four buildings is not all that large. It falls substantially short of being on a par with the unnecessary superblocks that will be created in the case of Atlantic Yards; for instance, by the totally unwarranted closing of Pacific Street between Carton and Vanderbilt Avenues. I wanted to get a sense of exactly how they compared, so I overlaid Teardrop Park on this superblock.

Overlaying what Burden feared might be a superblock against the much larger real one in the Atlantic Yards plan makes quite clear how massively formidable and intimidating the complex of large blocks at Atlantic Yards will be. It makes clear why the community suggests that the area be developed by leaving existing streets in place and by adding to them as well.

Does Teardrop Park Work?

Next question: Does Teardrop Park and the block of which is a part work? Yes. I think it is very successful in the foliage seasons. But this answer cannot be given unqualified. Not everyone agrees. How well it works, and what allows it to work, has to come with some caveats and explanation.

The very well respected Project for Public Spaces for which Amanda Burden once worked gave the park a very negative review (available with PPS pictures). Points made in the PPS review have merit and I agree to an extent. The park, thick with foliage and full of intricate twists and turns, is designed with so much mystery it takes, as PPS suggests, a “brave soul”to venture in to experience it. PPS considers the obscured from view park space too threatening. I think this is at the core of the park’s charm. The park, which is in part a children’s park, makes me think of hide-and-seek. It almost mimics the reward one might get by venturing off into the woods to find life in the gloom.

PPS objects that the park is hard to find. It is certainly that. It is designed like a secret park and that is another charm because you feel rewarded that you have found it. But when you find it, it evokes curiosity which can only be satisfied by going in. This is a form of invitation. The fact that it is an eccentrically extended initiation only means that it invites differently and with greater quirkiness than other inviting parks. For those who need the assurance of a more obvious invitation there is also a sign at one end with a park map. Within the “secret”park the invitation to go further into other more secret places is repeated. There is a location called “the Marsh.” It has two barely detectable entrances to take you into a closely overgrown path that goes all the way through it. If you find and accept the invitation into the Marsh you will be rewarded. Secret within secrets.

The park is exceedingly small, 1.9 acres. I disagree that there is nothing to do there. It seems a great place for chases and exploring, climbing up and climbing down. Kids run and race on the lawn, play on the slide. I will admit that the last time I was there a park attendant was augmenting the activities with drawing materials but the crowd of children was enormous.

The park is intended to mimic the Catskills or a place in the Hudson Valley. It makes the most out of its constrictive smallness by using changes in grade and devices like tunnel doorways which the designers considered an homage to Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux. With, as PPS points out, the “over 1,900 tons of bluestone, granite and limestone” that “was used in the construction of Teardrop” it has to be a very expensive park. It cost $17 million. Its centerpiece is a 27-foot bluestone wall arranged in strata meant to evoke a mountainside. The wall is equipped with plumbing that makes a kind of natural fountain or waterfall in the summer and is meant to cover itself with ice and icicles in the winter. When you think that winter is the time when many of us turn off outdoor plumbing to keep it from freezing and that this doesn’t happen here you are reminded you how expensive it must be. That is also a reminder that much of the very high design quality at Battery Park City has been achieved because there is money to spend. Because of the expense, PPS is right to propound you would have to think twice before doing the same thing again in too many places. For me though, it is a guilty pleasure.

Van Valkenburgh

Michael Van Valkenburgh is designing other parks right now, among them the much larger 1.3 mile Brooklyn Bridge Park where cost has become a large factor in issues being discussed: That is another very long story. His firm did the new IKEA waterfront park in Brooklyn and is doing the new park area in Hudson River Park north of Chelsea Piers. In terms of cost the entire Hudson River park is supposed to cost only $500 million.

Divergent Experiences

Teardrop Park is unlike any other public space at Battery Park City. Since Battery Park City has so many public spaces this is an achievement in itself but that Battery Park City has so many different public spaces is also part of the way it succeeds. PPS contrasts with Teardrop Park the significantly different “adjacent Rockefeller Park which is perhaps the best used and best loved section of Battery Park, with the broadest range of users.” But Teardrop Park succeeds partly because, hidden just feet away from Rockefeller Park and other immediately adjacent Battery Park City green space, it offers, on a small scale, the divergent experience from those green space that PPS observes. Battery Park City is remarkably successful in that with all its green spaces there are really no two that are alike. If you sent someone out with a camera they would be hard put to find a location where they could take a picture you could not quickly identify the particular green space where the picture was taken.

PPS acknowledges that, to an extent, Teardrop Park might provide a narrow solution to the challenges undertaken in the park’s design. I would not propose that the expensive secret-space of Teardrop Park be extended over many more than the 1.9 acres that it uses. In some neighborhoods it might not work at all: Too many people might want more of a feeling of safety.

Unsunny Side of the Treat

What particularly interested me the first time I went into Teardrop Park was whether it worked while being surrounded by such tall buildings. The first time I was there surrounding buildings under construction were still ascending so I left without being able to reach a conclusion. Those building have all reached their full height now. Teardrop Park works with them in a strange way. The buildings, which are about 23 or 24 stories, provide a great deal of shade. To the south, another building of about 30 stories which is outside the park, across the street and separated by a yet-to-be built plaza casts more shade. The shade seems almost natural in that it fits in with the Catskill forest theme. The shade of the buildings is like the upper canopy in a forest that provides shade naturally and since there is also a lower canopy provided by the expensively thick and close vegetation you almost don’t notice it is the buildings that are unnaturally providing shade. Or perhaps the shade-giving buildings can be interpreted as the mountains of the Catskills themselves.

But the illusion of upper canopy shade is not quite all that allows the space to function adequately when so sequestered from sunlight by big buildings. Teardrop Park has got to be one of the few parks in the world whose sunlight comes in courtesy of heliostats, giant mirrors mounted on swivels to move with the sun and redirect sunlight down into the light-deprived park. There are three of them on a 23 story building next to the park and together they cost $355,000. Heliostats are giant mirrors mounted on swivels to move with the sun and redirect sunlight down into the light deprived park. (See: Here Comes the Sun, Redirected, By Timothy Williams, June 2, 2005)

What I was most interested in was how well the small park worked surrounded by the tall buildings. All these solutions work best in the summer and foliage seasons. In the winter there is less light because of the angle of the sun and the shortness of the day. Because of the cold what sunlight there is, is more precious. Lastly, the camouflaging effect whereby the foliage makes the buildings disappear no longer operates. In winter the park is far less a success. Observations about how much use the park gets are apparently at odds with each other. The difference between summer and winter might account for the lack of agreement.

The park gets limited light because it is a small park surrounded by buildings. It gets even less light than another similarly sized park might get because the buildings immediately abut the park rather than being set apart by streets and sidewalks as is normally the case.

Tower in the Park Design?

There has been discussion about whether Teardrop Park represents discredited “tower in the park” design. It clearly does not. True, the buildings are not separated from the park by the typical streets and sidewalks. That poses a theoretical problem that the green space might be perceived to “belong” to the buildings, but in execution the design surmounts this problem. Unlike tower in the park design, all the buildings are flush along exterior street lines. Coming up upon the scene there is no indication that the buildings are “within” a park, and except for the entrances, no hint of the park at all. Rather than the park enclosing the buildings (a tower in the park design), the buildings enclose the park. The park is designed as Jane Jacobs indicates she would favor making use of the enclosure of buildings to define the space and gives it definite shape that is “an important event” in its surroundings and doesn’t “ooze” as “no-account leftover.” The park meets other of Jane Jacobs’ prescriptions like having many clear identifiable focal points but Jacobs would have noted the limited light.

With the absence of separating streets, the question is raised whether the space feels public? I feel the answer is mostly yes. And that is largely because of the excellence of the execution. Interestingly, the park is partly carved out of private space which was then made into this public space. That this space now feels public is that much more of an achievement. To pull together enough space to make the very small park work there were negotiations with adjacent owners to have them give up space that would otherwise have been used for private landscaping or other use including things like back-door access.

The buildings around Teardrop Park are mostly simple oblongs. No building is by itself shaped to embrace or partially encircle the park. The buildings, separately owned and by different designers, are clearly as distinct from each other as they are similar to and an obvious part of all the surrounding buildings that comprise the generally welcoming Battery Park City neighborhood in which it is embedded. Because all the buildings seemingly lay an equal and general claim on the space, they make it seem public. There is also something about the way they seem aggressively attacked by the musculature of the landscaping makes it seems as if they, like Mayan ruins in the jungle, can hardly hold their own against encroaching nature. One building’s backdoor entrance is blocked, almost impolitely, by a huge stone bolder in the middle of a path. Rather than the buildings claiming the landscaping the landscaping claims the buildings. In most cases it works. Still, looking smack into a operating health club through barely concealing bushes is an odd compromise. It all might not have worked; but in the case of the execution of the tour de force that is this particular park, it does.

Shedding Light on the Atlantic Yards “Greenspace”

When people think about the flow of sunlight around Atlantic Yards they may think first about how “Atlantic Terrace,” a new 10-story building being built across the street from Atlantic Yards, had to give up its plans to use roof-top solar panels to supply power because the plan would not work because of the Atlantic Yards’ “30- to 50-story towers” across the street. (See: Ratner’s shadows end solar power dream, by Ariella Cohen, The Brooklyn Paper, February 10, 2007) The ten-story Atlantic Terrace, which is assisted by city and state agencies is, perforce, representative of what under normal circumstances the city, state and the community currently believe should be at the Atlantic Yards location. Atlantic Yards is not an example of something being done under normal circumstances. A 50-story building next to a 10-story building towers 40 extra stories over the 10-story building. (The plan, though it may now have changed, had been for a 60-story building towering an extra 50-stories.) According to the Brooklyn Papers, “Magnis Magnusson, who is designing the 80-unit Atlantic Terrace said:

“If the towers had been reduced to 20 or 25 stories, it would have been possible” . . . “Environmental impact studies for Atlantic Yards predicted that Ratner’s project would cast shadows “for most of the … day” during the spring and fall, and through the afternoon in the summer. In the winter months, light will be “severely” diminished.

What people probably think about next when it comes to sunlight and Atlantic Yards are the shadow studies done by Professor Brent Porter of the Pratt Institute that show the extent to which the tall and fat Atlantic Yards towers would put Fort Green and even a portion of the more distant neighborhood of Downtown Brooklyn into shadow throughout the year. (See: Ratner’s shadow looms: Pratt study: Atlantic Yards would put Fort Greene in darkness, by Gersh Kuntzman, The Brooklyn Papers, June 24, 2006)

What people need to get around to thinking about, which is what I was thinking about, is the extent to which Atlantic Yards will put its own greenspace in shadow and otherwise overpower it. The shadows cast will be on a much greater scale than on Teardrop Park.

The buildings abutting Teardrop Park are 23- or 24-story buildings. The ten Atlantic Yards buildings abutting the landscaped greenspace will all be substantially that height and mostly considerably taller. In descending order of currently planed height, they will be the equivalent of; 46 stories, 41 stories, 39 stories, 31 stories, 28 stories, 28 stories, 24 stories, 21 stories, 20 stories, and 18 stories. In addition, the non-abutting buildings just across the street, will add a towering presence and cast substantial shadows, especially at the end of the day. In descending order of currently planed height, they will be the equivalent of; 51 stories (previously 60), 51 stories, 32 stories, and 29 stories (previously 42), and 27 stories. (There is another 25-story building somewhat further West across another street.)

In terms of casting shade, the tallest buildings will mostly be at the north of the site along Atlantic Avenue. This effectively maximizes the amount of shade is distributed to northerly neighbors rather than have it be suffered by falling back upon Atlantic Yards’ own greenspace. Some of this shade will also fall on the extra-wide Atlantic Avenue before reaching privately owned neighboring property. Though perhaps unneighborly, casting shadows to the north and on Atlantic Avenue might arguably be viewed as good urban planning where it not being taken to this extreme.

Jane Jacobs observes that “buildings should not cut sun from a park . . .if the object is to encourage full use.” On a clear day, sun and shadow will travel around a park like a sundial and people can be observed to follow the sun.

How the towers are sited can affect how their shadows are thrown on a clear day but cannot affect their imposing effect. A 46-story building rising straight up out of a “greenspace” landscaping which is supposed to be inhabited by people on park benches will bear down on people. Imagine that you wear glasses: If you place yourself as far away from the 46-story as possible, as far on the other side of the landscaped greenspace as the building across permits, and then tilt your head all the way back to look straight up, the sky will not come within the frame of your glasses unless you also arch your back to do a backbend. At multiple points, the greenspace areas are intruded further into by the way the buildings are designed. These intrusions will thrust those using the space that much closer to the 46-story building across that way. If they try to bring the sky into view they will have to bend even further back.

On a clear day (when the sun falls directly) the landscaped area will be mostly as dark or darker than Teardrop Park. On cloudy days, the diminished light will not be direct and the amount of ambient light which is diffusely provided will depend much more on how much sky exposure there is. On those cloudy days the Atlantic Yards greenspace will be considerably darker than Teardrop Park. Reflectivity of the buildings will factor in to an extent. The Atlantic Yards buildings, like the Teardrop Park buildings will likewise have some reflectivity but overall it will be dark. How the stated eight acres of green landscaping offered as Atlantic Yards “park” will deal with this darkness on either clear or cloudy days will pose an interesting challenge. This is eight acres of challenge vs. Teardrop’s 1.9 acres of clever solutions.

If the landscapers of Atlantic Yards spend as much per acre on solutions as was spent on Teardrop Park instead of the $17 million that was spent on Teardrop they will be spending $71.6 million. It is also doubtful that they will use the dense-foliage building-hiding tactics of Teardrop as part of a tower-in-a-jungle landscaping solution.

Atlantic Yards as Tower in a Super-block of Landscaping

I use the phrase tower-in-a-jungle because whereas Teardrop Park escapes with Houdini spectacularity the danger of the much proscribed tower-in-a-park design, Atlantic Yards can do no better than fall deeply into this hackneyed and discredited vernacular. Not only are there ten buildings immediately abutting the landscaped greenspace, they are all shaped with protrusive wings, in some cases with protrusions on protrusions inserted invasively into and laying claim on the landscaping in a very aggressive way. These will not be small or dainty buildings.

The crooked clasp of these clutching buildings will give the greenspace the feeling of a series of possessed and cramped crannies. Increasing the feeling of possession will be the way the Atlantic Yards buildings will stand in all ways starkly apart from the community that they have bullied their way into. Unlike the seamless melding in Battery Park City where all the buildings are clearly unique while being obviously part of the overall community, the Atlantic Yards buildings will have nothing in common with the surrounding community: Designed and brought to you by a single architect and a single developer, they will interlope like a cadre of troops all arrayed in a set unfamiliar uniforms. This will create a we/they dialogue with the neighboring buildings much the way that Peter Cooper, Stuyvesant Town or so many other standard issue old-style-vernacular housing developments don’t integrate with their community or psychologically share their landscaping.

The worst and most straightforwardly familiar as an old-fashioned tower in the park block design is the large block proposed to go between Sixth and Carlton Avenues. None of the greenspace landscaping surrounding the buildings will be surrounded by a community of buildings. It will be very much like a series of front yards. On the other hand, for what its worth, some of this landscaping will get the best light of any of the megadevelopment’s landscaping.

The nearest attempt at Atlantic Yards to create enclosed space will be the darkest and most claustrophobia-inducing space. That will be the block between Carlton and Vanderbilt Avenues. Running east/west through the space will be a very long path that might be considered as the ghost of Pacific Street. If one presupposes that embarking upon the path will get you through to the other end, the journey will take you through a gauntlet where structures loom out at you eight times before you have made it safely through. The entire gauntlet will be three blocks long if you measure the number of blocks lengths if you go by the measure of how many blocks one could suggest that block should be broken into.

You will have a choice between these two blocks: shadowy claustrophobia or a block with front yard style lawns.

What Does Amanda Burden Truly Think?

I truly believe that Amanda Burden’s hypersensitivity about superblocks and good public space design as exemplified by her Teardrop Park concerns and the rest of her Battery Park City experience is real. I think that in this respect she is true to her roots. I think that the passion that comes out in her rhetoric about the avoidance of superblocking at the World Trade Center site is honest and heartfelt. On the other hand her rhetoric defending density at Atlantic Yards because “it is a transit hub,” and “at the crossroads of two wide avenues in Brooklyn” that “can accommodate density, and density brings excitement, foot traffic, jobs” sounds perfunctory. I think she is toeing the line for her boss and she has dropped her concerns about superblocking and good public space design only because only with superblocking and the theft of streets from the public can the unprecedented density of Ratner’s no-bid megadevelopment be achieved.

As for the justification that Atlantic Yards is a transit hub, I too believe that, to an extent and within reason, this should be taken into consideration as future Noticing New York posts will make clear, but I commend to you some thinking urban planner Alex Garvin offered when considering Atlantic Yards. He suggested we are doing a lot of what is referred to as `transit-oriented development’ and what we should be doing instead is providing a lot of `development-oriented transit.’ (See: Tuesday, July 22, 2008, At MCNY panel, defending dissent and promoting the better way to develop (not like Atlantic Yards)