Friday, June 04, 2010

New AIA Guide to New York City calls Atlantic Yards "ill-advised"

The fifth edition of the AIA Guide to New York City has emerged, all 1088 pages worth, with some tart words for Atlantic Yards, thanks (I assume) to a new co-author who got to know Prospect Heights after playing music at the now-closed Freddy's Bar & Backroom.

The book's summary:
First published in 1968, the AIA Guide to New York City has long been the definitive guide to the city's architecture. Moving through all five boroughs, neighborhood by neighborhood, it offers the most complete overview of New York's significant places, past and present. The Fifth Edition continues to include places of historical importance--including extensive coverage of the World Trade Center site--while also taking full account of the construction boom of the past 10 years, a boom that has given rise to an unprecedented number of new buildings by such architects as Frank Gehry, Norman Foster, and Renzo Piano. All of the buildings included in the Fourth Edition have been revisited and re-photographed and much of the commentary has been re-written, and coverage of the outer boroughs--particularly Brooklyn--has been expanded.
Here's some more back story, from E-Oculus.

The Prospect Heights setting


The book states:
Prospect Heights, a severed pizza slice (in plan), a bite missing from its side (at Grand Army Plaza; the southern half of the slice is Institute Park), is an ethnically diverse neighborhood just north of Park Slope, featuring leafy blocks of 19th-century brownstones designed by then leading architects, including Rudolph Daus and the Parfitt Brothers. its western edge is marked by the hubbub of Flatbush Avenue; its eastern, less defined edge, blends at Washington Avenue into Crown Heights.

The Long Island Railroad yards and a swath of the neighborhood is the site of the controversial proposed Atlantic Yards project. Partial demolition of buildings in the seven blocks of that project's "footprint" has created "developer's blight," a phenomenon in which a developer declares a neighborhood "blighted" in order to justify the use of eminent domain, then, by demolishing buildings, creates the very blight that didn't exist in the first place (a self-fulfilling prophesy). The result (for now) is a thriving neighborhood with incongruous blocks of contiguous wasteland, reduced to rubble, on its northern edge.
Actually, the wasteland isn't so contiguous.

Atlantic Yards

The book, finished months ago, lists AY as "unbuilt" rather than "partly under construction." It states:
UNBUILT: Atlantic Yards (basketball arena and housing)... Ill-advised. A massive proposal by developer Forest City Ratner (of MetroTech fame: see Brooklyn Civic Center section) that, if built, would forever change the character of small-scale, tree-line Prospect Heights. The plan call for buildings over the rail yards between Atlantic Avenue and pacific Street (good idea) and demolishing blocks of homes and businesses in Prospect Heights, replacing them with modern residential towers and a basketball arena (bad idea). Frank Gehry's master plan (a swiveling cadre of towers) captivated many a City official and architecture critic, but opposition among community groups in Prospect Heights was fierce. As the downturn in the financial markets delayed the project, Gehry's designs were replaced by less flashy plans by the firms SHoP and Ellerbe-Becket. Now that Gehry isn't involved, more and more critics are coming out against the project. Where have they been?
Unmentioned: the use of superblocks, the privatization of streets, and interim surface parking.

On the ESDC and the Extell plan

The book states:
The Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), previously the New York State Urban Development Corporation (UDC), founded in 1968 and famous for its experiments in public housing (Coney Island, Twin Parks in the Bronx, Roosevelt Island), wields the power of eminent domain and can issue tax-exempt bonds without approval from the legislature or the public. So much power! The ESDC gave approval to Atlantic Yards, while an alternate plan by the developers Extell, designed by the firm CetraRuddy, was barely considered. CetraRuddy's subtle plan feature smaller-scale housing built over the railyards in such as way as to knit together Prospect Heights and Fort Greene, sans basketball arena and towers, and without resorting to eminent domain.
The Extell plan had ten towers, smaller-scale, but still high-rise.

Down the block

One description is a bit brief:
R7 497-509 Dean Street, ca. 1890. Triangular bays enliven this handsome row.
There's actually a little more back story. As the sign at 499 Dean hints, the building has been renovated into luxury housing. After buying out most of the tenants, the landlord in late 2006 bricked up the windows, pressuring the last remaining family to leave. The condo emerged in May 2009, as Tracy Collins's photo shows.

Also, the P.S. 9 condominiums at the northeast corner of Sterling Place and Vanderbilt Avenue get a shout-out:
Almost lost, its renaissance as condominiums is a joy.
The unmentioned benefactor: Forest City Ratner.

On MetroTech

The book describes MetroTech as an "unfortunate reprise of the 'urban renewal' of the 1960s":
Despite being the de facto campus for New York University's Polytechnic Institute, MetroTech feels decidedly more corporate than academic. The architecture is a mixed bag; some bgood 1990s additions by Davis Brody Bond haven't relieved an overall sense of sterility.

Developed by Bruce Ratner, MetroTech commandeered eleven blocks of previously public streets and converted them to quasi-public spaces. Public or private? It's difficult to tell. MetroTech is full of vigilant security guards who will tell you to stop taking photos and might even ask you, out of the blue, where you're going. In a city renowned for freedom in its street life, it's a disturbing development.
Interestingly enough, Ratner's Atlantic Terminal and Atlantic Center malls get a bye.

The new author

The original authors Elliot Willensky (d. 1990) and Norval White, have seen their work updated significantly by Fran Leadon, a registered architect who teaches at the School of Architecture, City College of New York.

He's a Brooklynite and, in his role as a musician, has performed at Freddy's.

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