Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

New Improved Brooklyn

“We want a new and interesting skyline viewed from the Manhattan side of the East River,” says Amanda Burden, director of the Department of City Planning and chair of the Planning Commission. “An undulating, interesting skyline rather than all towers of the same height, and a lot of space between the towers.”

Burden is talking—and it takes a minute to realize this, even when you’re asking the questions—about Brooklyn, specifically the Williamsburg and Greenpoint waterfronts, an area whose current “skyline” consists of stilled cranes, parked trucks, blocky concrete warehouses, and the Williamsburg Bridge. Brooklyn’s tallest building, the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower, was built in 1929—a banner year for skyscrapers—and has never had a rival. “The mayor and I went and looked at the Williamsburg waterfront the year before he was elected,” says Burden. “There are almost two miles of waterfront, it has been derelict for decades, and it is an enormous opportunity, one, to provide housing and, two, to provide a great waterfront for the people of Brooklyn.”

Burden’s plans, enabled by two lengthy rezoning proposals, could add more than fifteen new towers, 4.5 million square feet of office space, and 8,500 new housing units. The city’s plans would have been enough to herald a major conceptual shift, but then, in October, developer Bruce Ratner of Forest City Ratner announced that he had hired Frank Gehry to design an arena for what will become the Brooklyn Nets over the MTA rail yards at Flatbush and Atlantic avenues. The less-examined portion of Ratner’s plan for the Atlantic rail yards adds residential towers for 4,500 people between Fort Greene and Prospect Heights. Across the street, Ratner is rushing to complete the Atlantic Terminal, a mall that includes a Target in a big box below and 1,500 Bank of New York employees in a tower above.

Two blocks away, the BAM Local Development Corporation has just announced a second Frank Gehry project: The Theatre for a New Audience will be housed, sometime circa 2007, in a building designed by Gehry and echt–New York architect Hugh Hardy. The theater will share a triangular site with a public Visual and Performing Arts Library designed by up-and-coming Mexican architect Enrique Norten.

Smaller developers are repurposing Downtown Brooklyn office buildings into housing, and creating mega-neighborhoods with residential developments between Park Slope and Gowanus, Downtown and Boerum Hill. The piers under the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges will someday be an emerald necklace of parks, Whole Foods is going in at Third Avenue and 3rd Street, Fairway will and Ikea may touch down in Red Hook. And then there’s Coney Island, where some would like to see more sports-themed development around the annually sold-out Cyclones minor-league baseball stadium.

Brooklyn’s development has always followed the skeletal lines of the subways—the artists weren’t the first Lower East Siders to discover the L train; Wall Street workers decamped to Brooklyn Heights long before the twenty years of gentrification that differentiated Park Slope from Fort Greene, and Boerum Hill from Carroll Gardens, in the minds of most New Yorkers. Including cabdrivers. The new development plans are no different, centering on transit hubs at Borough Hall and Atlantic Avenue that are, as any commuter could tell you, already jam-packed.

“Brooklyn is a delicate growing neighborhood,” says Gehry, whose daughter recently bought an apartment—an expensive apartment—in Carroll Gardens. “The arena is like the ostrich swallowing the basketball, it seems like. However, it’s possible to work the edges of it to make it compatible with the neighbors.”

Of course, what the neighbors tend to say about Ratner and his development are far from delicate. Twenty years of skirmishing over gentrification has been subsumed into a larger struggle, one where the mostly white, highly affluent stroller set is for once allied with the rainbow coalition of longtime residents. On one level, this is simply the mother of all NIMBY (not in my backyard) battles—since Gehry’s stadium and its accompanying towers will literally be built in some Brooklynites’ backyards. And Brooklyn’s potent, sometimes cloying nostalgia for the way things were—dese and dose, egg creams and spaldeens—can fuel a knee-jerk rage at any change at all. But now there’s another force at work. In the past five years, Brooklyn has reached a new maturity and self-confidence. Gehry is arriving at a moment when the borough is fashionable, even by Manhattan’s exacting standards. Who wants to live on the Upper West Side when you can live in Park Slope? Who needs the East Village when you can socialize on Smith Street? Ratner and Burden seem to want to raise the borough up, make Brooklyn take a quantum leap, create a new kind of city—one that more closely resembles Manhattan. Which seems wrongheaded to many current residents. The real topic here is, what is Brooklyn?

“Marty, I voted for you, I told my grandkids you were a people person,” said Joy Chatel. Marty is Marty Markowitz, Brooklyn borough president, a villain so well known he goes by only one name. Chatel’s Duffield Street house, home to her and seven of her ten grandchildren, would be condemned under the Downtown Brooklyn plan to make room, possibly, for a twenty-story tower. “How could you do this to us?” Chatel asked, gold beads clicking in her luxuriant mane, one of hundreds of neighbors who turned out in force on February 18 for a public hearing on the plan at Brooklyn Borough Hall.

The neighbors—united, for once, in favor of Brooklyn’s existing economic, social, and racial diversity—overflowed the gilt-edged courtroom and the community room downstairs, where proceedings were projected on a (very high-school) collapsible screen. Marshals kept shooing people out of the doorway. Members of the Prospect Heights Action Coalition passed out STOP EMINENT DOMAIN ABUSE stickers. Platoons of children frolicked, snacked, and napped in the corners.

Chatel is one voice in what is becoming an increasingly organized multicultural army opposed to the city’s and Ratner’s plans for many of the same reasons. At first they were just angry, confused, questioning. But recently they have begun to articulate their own vision of the future of Brooklyn, building on its history—that of the hundred-year-old brownstone and that of the three-year-old boutique. A group of Prospect Heights residents has hired Norman Siegel, former head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, to represent them; City Councilwoman Letitia James sponsored a neighborhood-planning workshop; a coalition of Greenpoint-Williamsburg groups is going toe-to-toe, and chart-to-chart, with City Planning to preserve industry and open new parks. Every week there’s a meeting, a rally, a fund-raising concert.

“Tourists come over the Brooklyn Bridge to see historic neighborhoods, not glass-and-steel construction,” said Cathy Wassylenko, a member of Community Board 2. There’s a sob in her voice as she rattles off a list of structures, including an 1860 clapboard rowhouse, that would be replaced by towers in the rezoning.

“Why should we destroy small businesses that have proven their loyalty to Brooklyn and replace them with corporations whose loyalty to Brooklyn is as large as the subsidies they receive?” asked one impassioned man, shaking in his gold-buttoned blazer.

But residents, the city says, are refusing to see the greater good; in the post-9/11 era, the boroughs need to play their part in what is delicately referred to as “business-continuity planning.”

“When you look across the Hudson River, you can see all the jobs that should have been in New York City,” says Amanda Burden. “Downtown Brooklyn has every advantage and is completely underzoned right now for development.”

By increasing the possible heights on several city blocks, and assembling large land parcels that include the lot on which Chatel’s house sits, City Planning hopes to create sites for four new towers, of 18 to 40 stories each. Its goals are to knit MetroTech, Ratner’s earlier, much reviled project, on Adams, to the bustling retail corridor along Fulton Mall, creating a tall, tight Downtown business district and to connect this new, improved Downtown to Boerum Hill and Cobble Hill.

Residential expansion will go on the east side of Flatbush Avenue, replacing a ragged, albeit popular strip of auto-body shops, car washes, and Kennedy Fried Chicken outlets. “Flatbush Avenue needs to be a gateway to Brooklyn,” says Burden. “When you come off either one of the bridges, you should say, Wow, this is where we want to be.

By focusing on all those jobs in New Jersey, City Planning may be aiming too high and too bland; one alternate vision for the borough builds on the trove of boutique owners, writers, and architects who wouldn’t mind moving operations out of their apartments. A garment district of sorts has already sprung up above Bridge Street’s row of fabric stores; Sandra Paez, owner of the Smith Street boutique Frida’s Closet, has an atelier on Lawrence where she sews her own designs plus the odd custom gown for Brooklyn’s many brides. Thousands of artsy professionals have flocked to Brooklyn, rehabbing their brownstones as a form of creative expression—why couldn’t there be a D&D building in Downtown Brooklyn?

One positive development to come out of the plan’s public-review process is a focus on preserving the architecture of Downtown Brooklyn—the Landmarks commission and City Planning are now looking at a dozen prospects along Fulton Mall, which, if preserved, could become artist live-work spaces or small offices. Burden is all for preservation—luckily, none of the potential landmarks are on development sites—but she sees this refurbishment as one part of creating a 24/7 urban texture. “We’re not Houston,” she says. “We are a city that walks. We love the mixture, the vitality of the old and the new, the intimate, the large, the small, and the medium.”

Frank Gehry’s arena is Bruce Ratner’s glittering gift to Brooklyn’s intelligentsia. Since Bilbao, Gehry has levitated out of the architecture ghetto to become an American aesthetic hero, a god with feet of titanium. “Having a Frank Gehry–designed arena in Downtown Brooklyn will put Brooklyn on the map globally,” says Burden. “We know how great Brooklyn is; now everyone will know how great it is.”

“Bringing in Frank Gehry to do everything, that’s huge,” says Bruce Bender, a Forest City Ratner executive vice-president, a born-and-bred Brooklynite, lately of Peter Vallone’s office, who lives in Park Slope. “He could have gotten away with picking another architect, but he wanted it to be very special.”

Of course, many of the neighbors see Gehry as window-dressing, a beautiful distraction, a Trojan horse for Ratner and his cookie-cutter condos and big-box stores. To say that Ratner is not a figure most would entrust with Brooklyn’s aesthetic future would be an understatement. MetroTech is inarguably bland and deserted after five and on the weekends. His Atlantic Center mall is worthy of a Mike Davis inner-city architecture rant.

“The biggest complaint about this,” Bender says, gesturing across Atlantic Avenue at the sunken rail yards, “is that they don’t want it to be that,” pointing to Ratner’s hated Atlantic Center—a tan box with sidewalk-side retail on no sides, zero interior amenities, and long, hot institutional hallways between the few popular stores: Pathmark, Old Navy, Party City. “Bruce is very focused on upgrading Atlantic Center to the standards of Atlantic Terminal.”

Atlantic Terminal is an improvement: It is brick, or, at least, brick-faced, and its squat office tower is self-effacing. The architect, Hugh Hardy of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer, has even given the whole a ballpark entrance: a white, semi-circular pavilion that pops out toward the intersection of Flatbush and Fourth Avenue. Hardy is a classic choice, and will be collaborating with Gehry in the next block, but he is best known to Brooklyn as the designer of the borough’s second most reviled building, the rick-rack-sided twelve-plex on Court Street in Brooklyn Heights, a pile of misplaced giant Christmas gifts.

For Gehry, the project is a challenge and a privilege. “I studied city planning and all that when I was younger and never really got a chance to do stuff like this,” says Gehry. The challenge is the tight urban site. “The only arena that’s like it is Madison Square Garden, but we’re even going to be tighter, where the arena part is going to be tighter into the architecture of the buildings around it. And we’re hoping that the buildings around it are going to be beautiful.”

Gehry’s ostrich-swallowing-a-Spalding metaphor (in fact, the old Spalding factory at Sixth Avenue and Pacific Street will be demolished to make way for the Ratner arena) now makes more sense: the court is the ovoid core of the project, to be seen bulging through the metallic feathers that animate the streetscape, and extending upward into office towers and residential buildings. In the published renderings, the egg is glass, ringed with walkways that spiral up to a rooftop piazza, open to the public.

The other portion of the plan—the two eastern blocks that will be built as residential enclaves—gives its landscape architect, Laurie Olin, more room to maneuver. “Frank and I both feel that it is really important to be able to walk in off the street and find these open spaces, to have the sense that you’re still in New York but gone to something new and different,” says Olin, no household name but the designer of Bryant and Battery Park City’s parks.

“It won’t be like a forest, but there will be these groves of trees,” Olin says. “I have proposed two major clearings, one of which has a sunny mound in it, one of which has a large water event. There’s this yearning we all have in the middle of cities to have something soft and have some grass.”

It is this desire for groves and lawns, a true escape, that pushed the architects to ask for the closing of Pacific Street, and the creation of what looks very like a sixties superblock. Olin dismisses this criticism—“We’re not going to build thirties towers in a greensward. We’ve learned in the last 30 years about seeing and being seen”—a paraphrase of “eyes on the street,” one of urban theorist Jane Jacobs’s most valuable insights.

The most contentious issue is the displacement, via eminent domain, of the 200 to 400 people who live and work on and between Pacific and Dean streets. Ratner says he has to condemn these blocks of brownstones, condominiums, and small businesses, because the arena won’t fit any other way. Bender says the market has been given enough time to repurpose the old bakeries, the mini storage centers.

“I can’t blow my own horn, but I am going to do my best to make it beautiful,” says Gehry with a modest chuckle. “I don’t usually do schlocky stuff. I’m not going to start now.” Gehry and his associates have already begun holding videoconferences with members of the affected community, and the design is evolving from the publicized model. “It’s a shifting plan because they have community meetings. They call and say, We’re going to leave this building and that building and What if this happens? and What if that happens? We do a lot of what ifs, and ands, and buts.”

Like the Downtown Plan’s rendering of Willoughby Street as a second Rockefeller Center, Ratner’s idea of residential towers—however elegant—seems airlifted in from the other bank. “It’s a Battery Park City,” says City Councilwoman Letitia James, who represents Fort Greene as a member of the Working Families Party. She, practically alone among the better-known Brooklyn politicians (Marty, Chuck), has vehemently opposed Ratner’s plan, speaking against the arena, against eminent-domain abuse, for affordable housing, for jobs for Brooklynites. The Atlantic Yards plan is largely out of the city’s hands, on state-owned land, funded by a private developer. But it could have as great an impact, and as many towers, as the Downtown Plan: home to the Brooklyn Nets, 2.1 million square feet of office space, 4,500 housing units, and 300,000 square feet of retail space. The tallest projected tower, at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush, would top out at 620 feet—108 feet higher than the Williamsburgh Savings Bank building.

Poised, attractive, and by now something of a local folk heroine, James is quickly able to work up a rhetorical head of steam. “Our tallest building is the Williamsburgh bank building, and now you are going to destroy that? You want to build luxury housing in the middle of a working-class community? Why? Because of our proximity to a transportation hub, because of our proximity to Manhattan. This is really to appeal to Manhattan, to appeal to commuters. This has nothing to do with Brooklyn.”

James’s, and her constituents’, issues aren’t attractive: eminent domain, traffic, asthma, housing, parks. They are the nitty-gritty of urban life, uncloaked by the glamour of professional sports or globe-trotting architects.

Tucked into the back of a social-service agency, James’s district office doesn’t even have a view of the back side of the Atlantic Center, much less the parks on the future arena site. Her barred windows look across a set of bare backyards. No pictures on the walls. Not even a flower on the desk. “The No. 1 issue throughout the city of New York is the crisis in affordable housing,” says James. “There are these ten acres of land available, and I would like to provide for the needs of my constituents. I’d like to see an expansion of Atlantic Commons”—three-story rowhouses, inexpensively built, between South Oxford and Cumberland streets. “I’d like to build more townhouses, I’d like to build some more rental units and some more commercial and retail units. Something which is more in character with the community.”

Battery Park City, of course, is a project Amanda Burden cites as proof that she knows how to create a neighborhood. Renderings of Williamsburg’s future on the City Planning Website bear a strong resemblance to BPC. But to many, particularly the architecturally savvy, BPC is an image of an evil to be avoided at all costs—antiseptic, overpriced, homogenous, all that is not Brooklyn. Despite the Dodgers nostalgia that suffused early sports-section coverage of Ratner’s arena proposal, few that I talked to expressed any desire to see a Nets game—or the Ice Capades, which partisans often mention as an additional attraction. What locals are interested in is what Ratner’s plan could do for the neighborhood, adding parks, solving a dangerous traffic pattern. For Brooklynites, the project’s grandeur seems beside the point.

While Ratner and Burden’s glossy dreams for Brooklyn seem borrowed from elsewhere, David Walentas bases his vision of the future on what has happened in his own development life cycle. Twenty years ago, he looked at the hulking warehouses and factories between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges and thought, Someday this is where people will want to live. Over the past five years, his bet has finally paid off, and Dumbo has become a sort of Tribeca East. Current Williamsburg condo development pays close attention to the Dumbo model—adaptive reuse, with an emphasis on views and artsiness (however contrived)—and spaces for living, not working. But as his work there has wound down, Walentas has turned his investment eye to Downtown Brooklyn.

Like Walentas, BAM LDC chairman (and longtime Brooklyn impresario) Harvey Lichtenstein is one of New Brooklyn’s founding fathers. Unlike Walentas, Lichtenstein thinks theaters, not condos, are the engine of change. BAM’s aesthetic cachet has been a key factor in luring Manhattan’s cultural elite across the East River. “The idea is to take advantage of being an outer borough and have a little more daring to it. You are not as constrained as institutions are in Manhattan.”

Now Lichtenstein wants his beloved Fort Greene neighborhood to become Brooklyn’s cultural hub, a goal he believes is now well within reach. Every year, a larger percentage of BAM’s audience (visibly younger and hipper than that of Lincoln Center) comes from the borough. “It is great for Brooklyn to be on the outside,” he adds. “Places like that have a special kind of energy. The Dodgers were out of the mainstream, and that’s happening now in a different way. Brooklyn shouldn’t just be a copycat.”

BAM lies at the center of neighborhoods to which artists, writers, and musicians priced out of Manhattan have fled. Brooklyn has taken over some part of Manhattan’s national role as an incubator of talent, a place to be not-yet-successful among like-minded people.

“We talked about the difference between Manhattan and Brooklyn, looking between the two places to try to identify what is the Brooklyn thing,” says Charles Renfro, the Diller Scofidio + Renfro partner who was team leader for the firm’s BAM LDC master plan. “We researched how many artists lived there, and Brooklyn has way more artists than Manhattan. The reality about Brooklyn is that people are living there and doing their stuff and not screaming out for attention.”

In March, the BAM Local Development Corporation announced a Gehry project of its own: a 299-seat theater, co-designed with Hugh Hardy, for the 25-year-old Theatre for a New Audience, to be built, beginning in 2005, just two blocks from Ratner’s arena.

The choice of Gehry by both the BAM LDC and Bruce Ratner is not, as it happens, coincidental. The BAM LDC is run by Lichtenstein, BAM’s founding director, and Ratner is a former member of BAM’s and the BAM LDC’s boards of directors (as well as the owner of one of the LDC’s development sites). The theater project has been in the works for much longer than the arena, so Ratner stole a bit of its thunder—and more than a bit of its publicity.

An emphasis on excellent architecture—cutting-edge, and brand-name—is written into BAM LDC’s mission statement, along with the project’s overarching goal: creating a mixed-use cultural district around BAM’s Opera House and Harvey Theater. Its master plan was masterminded by architectural stars Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Rem Koolhaas.

“The idea was that the district itself would necessarily be totally experimental,” says Lichtenstein. “It would not be conventional. It would honor the need for public space and open space. We would make it as transparent as possible so that the buildings wouldn’t be intimidating and people would have some sense of what’s going on inside.”

Lichtenstein envisions Brooklyn as a younger-skewing alternative to Manhattan’s Museum Mile, with the culturally adventurous seeing a matinee at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Dumbo, dining on Smith Street, shopping on Atlantic, and making it to BAM for an 8 p.m. curtain. The Brooklyn Museum, newly awakened to the marketing possibilities of not competing with the Met, could be another stop, not to mention Rafael Viñoly’s canary-colored addition to the Brooklyn Children’s Museum (opening 2006).

Enrique Norten, of the Mexico City–based TEN Arquitectos, won an NEA-sponsored competition to design a new Visual and Performing Arts Library. Norten’s stunning design emphasizes the flow of Flatbush, its multicolored glass wall—which Norten has described as a billboard—striated by horizontal lines. “My library reconstitutes the texture of the city. It fills in a very broken condition. It is missing a tooth,” says Norten of his site. “The design brings in new urban spaces, spaces of gathering, and a new space of urban identity.”

Rather than setback restrictions and shaded squared-off blobs representing future development projects, Diller, Scofidio, Renfro, and Koolhaas came up with a spiritual mission statement for the neighborhood. “How do you spur development that’s a little more naturalistic,” says Renfro, “a bottom-up approach, as opposed to one that’s top-down?”

As it happened, naturalistic or not, many of BAM’s neighbors saw the plan as gentrification by another name. As adventurous as BAM was, it was still seen as Eurocentric. And of course it attracted white people—who displace, of course, people of color. That conflict is still and always the most complicated and intractable of the issues surrounding Brooklyn’s development.

“The Fort Greene district lies at the crossroads of all these different forces—how do you make something interesting that’s not dictatorial?” Renfro says. “How do you make something that deals with the scale of the city while not being banal? How do you reinforce it but also make it more interesting? We made images which tried to evoke a spirit, an experience of the place, as opposed to a look.”

Open spaces, like the one Norten describes, were a part of that spirit, as was an attempt to remove as few buildings as possible. “It is certainly a contrast to the Atlantic Yards development, which is exactly the kind of thing we tried not to do—a wiping clean of the blocks, and a top-down megastructure placed in it,” Renfro says.

In this vision, the architecture and development ornaments and accessorizes what’s already there, rather than replaces it. In place of the Gehry spirit, a Brooklyn spirit. It’s a vision that makes a lot of sense—livable, comfortable Brooklyn, with the aesthetic overlay that’s grown up in the last twenty years, combined with a sensitivity—hard-won, it’s true—to the people that were living there first. That’s something that’s not happening in Jersey City.

It may have started as a defense mechanism, the idea that anyone would prefer to live in Brooklyn—no one likes to admit being priced out of the promised land. Brooklyn ten years ago was acceptable, but hardly prime, real estate. Park Slope tended to Birkenstocks, non-trendy babies, and Ultimate Frisbee. But in the past five years, that outer-borough embarrassment has disappeared. Many of the fields that make New York New York—art, theater, design, architecture—are centered, residentially if not from nine to five, in Brooklyn.

It shouldn’t take towers along the waterfront to recenter our mental maps of New York on the East River, not at Central Park. Brooklyn is already different, inextricably linked, but equal. It shouldn’t be back-office territory, but front-office space for smaller businesses. Those potential Williamsburg towers really are on the Fifth Avenue of the future. Enrique Norten’s library, Frank Gehry’s theater and arena are equivalent to Herzog & de Meuron’s South Bank Tate Modern—jewels in the setting that is Brooklyn, rather than alien presences.

The trick, then, for Brooklyn’s neighbors is to negotiate with the city, with the developers, with the architects, from a position of strength. Know neighborhood character, and admit its weaknesses. Point the Manhattan developers to real instances of blight. Look to the development that has been and is now already occurring, without benefit of tax breaks and zoning incentives.

The fear of Manhattanization is not, in this case, knee-jerk nimby-ism, but the sense that many chose to Brooklynize instead—to move here from other places, to stay here for multiple generations. What is attracting all this top-down money is work that has already been done by people happy to say, when asked at a party, No, I don’t live in New York. I live in Brooklyn.


Originally published in New York Magazine