Tuesday, October 16, 2012

“Barclays”? Atlantic Yards?: On Lopate, NY Mag Architectural Critic Justin Davidson Disses Brooklyn Neighborhoods With Manhattancentric Illiteracy

Neighborhood corner with Freddy's Bar (now gone): According to architectural critic Justin Davidson the neighbrohood had "no character"
Maybe we should just rename New York Magazine, “Manhattan Magazine”  . .   That might help to remind us that Brooklyn, for all its importance, still doesn’t get the kind of informed, mindful coverage it deserves.  (While we are at it, also to remind us where things stand, we can rename the New York Post and the Brooklyn Papers Rupert’s Real Estate Rags.”  Murdock, at least-- a relief, sold and no longer still owns New York Magazine which languished under him.) . . .

 . . . Justin Davidson, New York Magazine’s architectural critic appeared on WYNC’s Leonard Lopate show yesterday, probably because he has written prominently run stories recently about the new Ratner/Prokhorov-owned arena in Brooklyn, the so-called “Barclays” (as in LIBOR scandal) Center and Manhattan’s 26-acre Hudson Yards mega-project.

Lopate was asking him about how the Bloomberg administration’s development approach had “transformed” city neighborhoods.  At the beginning of that interview Davidson, right off the bat, winds up dissing Brooklyn as he displays a Manhattancentric illiteracy of the value of its neighborhoods.
Lopate: Are we doing a good job tailoring developments to match the existing character of neighborhoods?  For example, the Barclays Center has caused great controversy: It’s been getting good reviews but many remain unhappy about its design and the way its site fits with its neighborhood.

Davidson: So, neighborhood character is one of those intangible things and perhaps the most difficult thing to preserve, because even preserving the buidings in a neighborhood doesn’t do anything to preserve the character.  Preservation is about `stuff,’ it’s about bricks and the physicality of the neighborhood, but preserving the architectural legacy of say Greenwich Village over the last, say, half century, hasn’t done anything to slow, in fact you could argue it’s accelerated the change of what happens there, who lives there, the economics of it are, and the character itself.  So, preserving what it looks like, almost by definition, changes what it feels like.

Now, as far as the Barclays Center is concerned I’d say that the context there is that particular block at the triangular intersection, the angular intersection of two large trafficked avenues is very distinct from the character from the blocks immediately adjacent, the residential blocks.  So when you say it’s changed the character, you really have to look at `What character?’ very precisely.  I would say that there was no character right on that site, and that’s a good place to have a really bold muscular building that does intrude, that does change things.

Lopate: Although design people were upset by the larger project, the whole Atlantic Yards project.  Do you think that’s likely to be built in the future?  Because it’s on hold at the moment but I don’t see anybody planning anything in that area.

Davidson: Well, uh: The whole of the Atlantic Yards project has to unfold according to a site plan that was pretty much set in motion . .  It flows from the Gehry design for that whole area.

Lopate: Except that he’s been excluded from much of that.

Davidson: He has but he’s still the site planner and that plan is still in force.  And it’s based on that a lot of the . . uhm . .  public monies and the incentives were put into place.  So legally, they have to follow that plan.  Now, eventually they may be able to change it, but for the moment that plan is in force.  So I think that will probably play out over many years.  The immediate. . uhm. . future of that site is that you’re going to have the arena that’s free-standing, and I think that what will happen is that the three towers on that triangular plot, right around the arena, will get built.  Uhm, that leaves the whole rest of the yards site and, of course, you know . .  Eventually it’ll have to get built.  I mean a site that open just can’t stay open forever in New York City.

Click to listen below:

Before the “Barclays” Center there was “no character” at that site?

The plan for Atlantic Yards mega-project “flows from” a “Gehry design” that developer/subsidy collector Forest City Ratner is “legally” obligated to follow?

Davidson is carelessly promulgating misinformation that’s in service to the Ratner narrative.  He does so notwithstanding a level of scrutiny he gave to Manhattan’s comparable, but overall smaller, Hudson Yards only a week ago which level of scrutiny is entirely inconsistent with such ignorant assessments.

In describing the “Barclays” site as previously having “no character” Davidson describes it as a single block that was at the triangular intersection of two large trafficked avenues.  That’s what it is now: It's not just a “block” but a newly created superblock created out of what were previously three blocks.  Previously, it wasn’t just between two avenues: Previously, Fifth Avenue and Pacific Street flowed through that now superblock block to define those three individual, separate blocks.

One of the newly renovated residential buildings torn down to clear the way for the arena
Another newly renovated residentail building
And if Davidson is to consider his own point that preserving a neighborhood means paying attention to “the economics of it” and “the character” of a neighborhood (presumably with respect to its interwoveness with the rest of the city), then he should note that what was cleared away at the “Barclays” site just to make way for arena included, but was not limited to, Freddy’s, a neighborhood bar and music venue, and two large newly renovated condominium buildings.  Freddy’s was an anchor and a gathering place generating neighborhood connection.  The two condominium were also more important than just what they were themselves: They set the tone and example for development that was taking off in the neighborhood, something the Ratner organization elected to wipe out because it was competing with its own properties which Ratner wasn’t developing at the time.

In talking about the “Barclays” site Davidson keeps focusing on the triangularity of the plot.  That is probably a clue to the fact that he has spent most of his time appraising the arena from the triangular plaza to which the “bold muscular building” presents itself.  It may be true that across Atlantic Avenue from that plaza you have the two Ratner shopping center malls and that these may be viewed as having “no character.”  But across Fulton Avenue from that plaza is a community garden now dwarfed in scale by Ratner’s newly created superblock and the illuminated pyrotechnics of its 24/7 advertising oculus.

Go around back of the arena and you will see the abject, brutal characterlessness the arena presents to the neighborhood where Freddy’s bar and new residences once stood.
Police barricades in back of arena to create neighbrohod character: Where Freddy's used to be

Neighborhood "character" courtsey of the back of arena 
In praising the character that the “Barclays” Center is bringing to the neighborhood, Davidson is praising a top-down corporatizing of a previously locally energetic Brooklyn.  It is being done with government assistance that makes everyone else pay for this takeover by the corporations.
Front of arena: New corporatizing charcter for neighborhood

And it is not just from the Barclays site that Ratner cleared and scooped out existing neighborhood fabric: The same thing was done in the larger Atlantic Yards site where you now see newly created superbocks of Ratner parking. 
Partial view of the very long fence around Ratner superblock now mostly used for parking
That Davidson thinks there was nothing of character in the neighborhood before, and that he now predicts that, probably playing out “over many years,” the Atlantic Yards mega-project will be built because, “I mean a site that open just can’t stay open forever in New York City” only serves to emphasize how smart Ratner probably thought he was as he raced to dismantle and demolish as much of the neighborhood as quickly as possible (buildings like the historic Ward Bakery building that would have ben exquisitely repurposed, except for Ratner) so that people like Davidson would buy into and promulgate the official Ratner narrative.

The Ward Bakery Building demolished by Ratner for his parking lot and so it couldn't be repurposed for competing neighbrohood development
As for the idea that the site plan for Atlantic Yards somehow hews to (or is legally obligated to follow) any vestige of a Gehry design is ludicrous.  Even on the "Barclays" block, where the first of the construction is occurring, virtually nothing hearkens back to any sort of Gehry influence.  What actually carries over are the things that reflect the marching orders Gehry got from Ratner: To squeeze in an unprecedented amount of density and close down the streets, avenues and sidewalks, creating superblocks, to get even greater density than otherwise possible.

It would be nice to believe, as Davidson posits, that there is some sort of envelope of constraining obligation that affects Ratner but that isn’t the case, especially since Ratner has been granted a mega-monopoly with which negotiation is a practical impossibility.  Every time Ratner comes back to government officials looking to change his deal he gets more subsidy and diminished obligations to the public.

As for a binding “site plan,” consider what Davidson describes in his article about the Hudson Yards mega-project that’s on the drawing boards:
Architects discuss access points, sidewalk widths, ceiling heights, flower beds, and the qualities of crushed-stone pathways. You could almost forget that none of this exists yet—until one architect points to a lozenge-shaped skyscraper and casually, with a twist of his wrist, remarks that he's thinking of swiveling it 90 degrees.
It’s not any different with Atlantic Yards at this point either.

You must read Davidson’s recent article on Hudson Yards as a check against his stunningly casual acceptance of the Atlantic Yards situation.  In that article Davidson conveys many misgivings with respect to the sole ownership of Hudson Yards by the Related Companies, misgivings that should also apply to the plan for the larger Ratner Atlantic Yards mega-monopoly in spades with many more misgivings added on top.  But he doesn’t make the connections. .  Woe is us.  Woe to Brooklyn.  (See: Friday, October 12, 2012,  Justin Davidson’s New York Magazine Review Of Hudson Yards Echos Concerns Raised By NNY, But Does So Without Mentioning Obvious Atlantic Yards Parallels.)

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