Brooklyn’s Proposed Stadium: Not a Bad Idea

On December 10, at a carefully orchestrated event hosted by irrepressible Brooklyn Borough president Marty Markowitz, real estate developer Bruce Ratner unveiled his ambitious plan to buy the New Jersey Nets and move them to a Frank Gehry-designed arena near downtown Brooklyn. If Ratner succeeds in this endeavor, his biggest accomplishment won’t be in buying the team, whose franchise will soon be available at auction, nor in securing the services of the world’s most famous architect. Rather, his biggest achievement will be in completing this massive project over the widespread opposition of the surrounding communities.

Still, for sports fans and architecture buffs, the proposal seems too good to be true. Forty-six years after the Dodgers skipped town, a major-league franchise might return to Brooklyn on a site across the street from where former Dodger owner Walter O’Malley wanted to move his baseball team over the objections of then-Planning Commissioner Robert Moses. Talk about symbolic symmetry.

Called the Brooklyn Atlantic Yards, the 21-acre site in question—which is bound by Flatbush Avenue, Atlantic Avenue, Vanderbilt Avenue, and Dean Street—is located between the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the neighborhoods of Fort Greene, Prospect Heights, Park Slope, and Boreum Hill. Eleven acres of it is a LIRR train yard, which would be decked over and relocated; the remaining portion of the site would be subject to every neighborhood activist’s worst nightmare: eminent domain.

I was surprised to discover that the project’s most romantic element, the arena, is a small part of the plan. Ratner wants to build more than a home for the Brooklyn Nets. Along with a 19,000 seat arena, the plan includes four office towers (the tallest—620 feet—would be far taller than anything in Brooklyn, including the nearby Williamsburg Saving Bank); 300,000 square feet of retail space; and 13 apartment buildings ranging in height from 110 to 452 feet.

From a planning perspective, there are two ways of looking at Ratner’s proposal. It is either long overdue (city planners are always talking about dispersing high-density development into the outlaying boroughs), or it is completely out of scale and represents, as the many neighborhood activists already opposed to it say, “the Manhattanization of Brooklyn.”

Outside Borough Hall on the morning of Ratner’s press conference, a group of picketers handed out flyers to entering journalists. “We thought we voted for Borough President Marty Markowitz,” read one flyer. “Instead we got Robert Moses.”

The specter of Moses (Jane Jacobs’s Moses, not the Biblical one) continues to loom over every large project in New York. Normally I’m sympathetic to neighborhood activists, if for no other reason than most big developments here have been such disasters. But I write for an architecture and design magazine, admire Gehry a lot, love sports, and don’t think much of the current site.

A day after the press conference, I called Patti Hagan of the Prospect Heights Action Coalition, an anti-gentrification group organized prior to the Ratner plan. She tried to convince me that the grimy industrial corner of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues—the proposed site of the arena and office towers—“worked” from an urban perspective. Now I don’t live in the neighborhood, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to visit that dreary corner and tell me it’s a pleasant (or even a quirky) experience. Supporters of the project are right about the rail yards, which act as a barrier dividing several neighborhoods.

The site plan—created by Gehry and Partners, with landscape architecture by Laurie Olin—has some good elements. It creates six acres of publicly accessible open space, 4500 units of housing (Ratner claims that a portion of it will be affordable), and an open, glassy arena that given Gehry’s aesthetic exuberance might animate the street even on non-game days. One claim that the architect makes, about the plan “reknitting the communities together,” seems dubious due to the proposal’s sheer size.

Ratner calls the site “clean” and maintains that his project will displace just 50-60 businesses and 140 housing units. If he’s telling the truth (which is certainly an open question), this displacement would be minimal for a project of this magnitude. Hagan says her group is conducting a site census and predicts that over 1000 residential units will face the wrecking ball.

So, why do I want to believe the lower number (or at least hope that Ratner’s number is more accurate than Hagan’s)? And why do I feel that the objections of well-meaning people like Hagan sound a bit stale, like battle cries from a previous war?

It’s clear the long Moses-induced hangover is over. We’ve entered an era where it is acceptable again to Think Big (the Freedom Tower, New York’s 2012 Olympics bid, the Brooklyn Bridge waterfront park, the BAM cultural district, Jets Stadium and the far West Side, the Second Avenue subway). We’ve reached a point where, instead of reacting with the traditional, knee-jerk opposition to anything big, or allowing ruthless developers to run roughshod over angry neighbors, we need to look at the practical implications of a plan and see if we might find a reasonable middle ground between the sides.

Ratner (whose design sensibilities prior to choosing Renzo Piano for the New York Times Building were thoroughly mediocre) has hired great designers here. I’m hoping that the 7.6 million square feet of development he’s proposing is merely an opening bid, a negotiating ploy.

Residents might also take a more pragmatic neighborhood approach and engage Bruce Ratner on different terms: not necessarily to block this deal, which might be inevitable or even good in the long run, but to be able to cut the best possible deal. The right strategy might involve applying pressure on Ratner not to stop or stall the project, but to improve it: to reduce its mammoth scale, add urban amenities, and insure that displaced families and businesses are fairly compensated and properly relocated.

If that kind of dialogue occurs, the plan might fulfill the more idealistic promises of Ratner, Gehry, and Olin while producing a decent return on investment. Even if Ratner’s Nets bid fails and the plan is scuttled, the development pressures on the site won’t disappear and the next time around—and there will be a next time around—the design team is not likely to be as talented.

Categories: Cities