August 10, 2006

Atlantic Yards (What Would Jane Jacobs Do?)

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I've avoided taking a stance on Atlantic Yards for just a bit too long now. If anything I was vaguely in favor of it. A basketball team for Brooklyn is a fabulous idea, and developing that dead zone of the actual Atlantic Railyards (as opposed to the larger area encompassed by the actual development plan) is pretty much a fail safe venture. There is not that much room to get worse than a dead railyard. Things of course get more complicated when the plan reaches out past the borders of those yards an into the destruction of people's homes, and that was the point where I had decided it just wasn't worth thinking about the issue anymore... For a while my main thought, was "why couldn't they have picked a better celebrity architect than the highly overrated Frank Gehry, and if it has to be Gehry couldn't it at least be the good Gehry?"

Two articles have changed all that, and are well worth reading. For one Chris Smith's New York Mag cover story gets down into the real details of the development "plan" and the further it get the clearer it is that this thing is poorly planned, at least from an urbanist standpoint, the economic and political side seem to have gotten far more attention. There is no thought for traffic, no thought for the impact on the school system, no thought for what happens to people after they hand over the cash to developer Bruce Ratner. Most horrifying to me is the fact that there seems to be no thought on the impact of the development on the subway system, even though it is being built precisely at the point where 13 out Brooklyn's 18 subway lines converge! And on top of a railyard connected to the LIRR terminal too! If Ratner really wanted to improve Brooklyn, the absolute first priority of his plan should be building a better Atlantic Avenue subway station, without it the only possible thing he can be proposing is a gigantic mess.

The second, more nuanced and perplexing article is Karrie Jacobs' "Jane Jacobs Revisited" in Metropolis Magazine. K Jacobs' (no relation to J Jacobs) is to smart to outright claim what J Jacobs would think about Atlantic Yards, but in the beginning she confesses to have never actually read J Jacobs, and in the end she pretty much confesses to cherry picking her way through the book.

Indeed there is a whole lot in J Jacobs' masterpiece that can directly be used to critique Atlantic Yards. The observations of what makes a successful street, the critiques of housing projects, the passionate call for short blocks, and it goes on. What is so frustrating about the article though is what is not said, Karrie's reading of Jane is not particularly wrong, J Jacobs is indeed a fan of "density, diversity and complexity"*. But what is so insidious about K Jacobs article is that it implies that the Atlantic Yards project actually meets these criteria. What Chris Smith's article makes clear is that Ratner's development does not even come close. Density sure, it has that, but with it's token low income housing, and the removal of almost all the offices due to political maneuvering, very little diversity is left. As for complexity, well if Karrie Jacobs had actually read some of Jane's other books, well then she would realize J Jacobs would be the last person to see complexity emerging from anything like Ratner and Gehry's plans.

Jane Jacobs was certainly not completely opposed to development plans, but her vision of the vibrant city has always been an organic one. It is readily apparent in Death and Life of Great American Cities but it only gets stronger and stronger in each of her successive books, minus perhaps the very last ones. Of course while her 1961 classic continues to be well read, no one at all seems to have read Economy of Cities or Cities and the Wealth of Nations. In those works it becomes far clearer that J Jacobs sees the healthy city as being one that is developed via an evolutionary and iterative process and the unhealthy one being developed via a political and overly planned process. If the Atlantic Yards development was something that had stemmed from the demands and needs of the community, say the need for an extended port, or the need for an aqueduct, or a more extensive business center to meet growing needs, than yes J Jacobs might have been all for it. But when the demand comes from a developer's greed, spliced with a politician's desire to build an arena, well that's exactly what J Jacobs sees as killing cities.

The final argument for Atlantic Yards that once influenced me a bit was Steven Johnson's, that Brooklyn lacks a vibrant downtown and Atlantic Yards could provide it. Now it is true that downtown Brooklyn is pretty dismal, but it does have one incredibly vibrant zone, the shopping area on and around Fulton Street (somewhat misleadingly called Fulton Mall). What makes Fulton Mall so relevant to Atlantic Yards though is where it dead ends, where the vibrancy stops, right at Bruce Ratner's first development in Brooklyn MetroTech center. It's almost casebook Jane Jacobs, the street grid ends, the massive development begins and the soul of the city just dies. Like Johnson I'd love to see a vibrant commercial core develop in Brooklyn and the Atlantic Railyards are a natural site. But from both history and Ratner's own published plans it is clear that the Atlantic Yards development is not the project that will make that goal happen.

So what would make that happen? I certainly can't claim to have the answer, but if I were Ratner the first thing I'd do is fire Mr Gehry and hire someone like Joshua Prince-Ramus who at least clearly makes strong attempt to understand just what he is actually building.

* although it should be noted that she saw very clear limits to density, and I find it highly likely she would see Atlantic Yards going way past that limit.

Posted by Abe at August 10, 2006 10:03 PM


Right on.

I'm especially glad you to see Fulton Mall as healthy & vibrant - those who don't have cultural (and economic) blinders on.

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