The proposal by Forest City Ratner to build a professional basketball arena for the NJ Nets plus a large housing, park and retail development on 22 acres of downtown Brooklyn has generated intense controversy as it has evolved over the past three years. Now that the plan has taken form — with Community Boards 2, 6 and 8 holding simultaneous public hearings this Thursday, Aug. 3 on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement and General Project Plan — City Limits invited the leaders of two stakeholder groups to inaugurate our “City Conversations” series with their divergent analyses of what’s right and wrong with this borough-shaping plan. If approved, Atlantic Yards’ first phase would be built by 2010, with the entire site developed by 2016.
For all its potential, “Atlantic Yards” as currently proposed would not work for New York City. Successful urban planning is a question of balance, and the project fails to accomplish a delicate balance of bringing density to the area while fitting in and integrating with surrounding neighborhoods. The project also raises questions about how New York is addressing its critical need for affordable housing, designing new areas of its public realm, and involving the public in its decision-making for major projects.
The issue is not whether the city should be pursuing aggressive policies to generate affordable housing. Justice and equity demand that we take steps to ensure our neighborhoods remain economically diverse, and create and preserve housing for low and middle-income New Yorkers. But the scale of Atlantic Yards indicates that the strategy the city is pursuing is flawed. In the rezoning of Hudson Yards and Greenpoint-Williamsburg, the city created an incentive for developers to build affordable housing by permitting them to build bigger buildings than would otherwise be allowed. Atlantic Yards follows this pattern, as the excessive scale of the project — the developer has proposed 8.7 million square feet, the equivalent in floor area to three Empire State Buildings — is clearly only acceptable to the project’s political sponsors because of the inclusion of affordable housing.
But Atlantic Yards will still overwhelm the surrounding neighborhoods even as it houses residents with a mix of incomes, and New York should not have to sacrifice neighborhood character to get affordable housing. The city needs a better approach to this problem. One alternative would be to create a comprehensive requirement that all new high-density development in the city include a modest proportion of affordable housing.
There would be several advantages to this. First, we could set density and height limits according to what is right for neighborhoods and the city as a whole, instead of what we think is required to get developers to build affordable units. Second, we would generate far more affordable units: if this policy were in place today, thousands of the units that are being built across the city today — notably in Downtown Brooklyn — would be affordable. Finally, the approach would establish a level playing field. A developer building in Queens would be required to build affordable housing just as one in Brooklyn would, and there would be no need for negotiations to establish the quantity he or she needed to build, which instead would be established by the city's zoning resolution or state law.
The real estate community has argued that such a requirement would deter development, but this has not been the case in Boston and San Diego, which require all new development to have 10 percent of units be affordable. The simple fact is that developers build if market conditions are right, and almost all of them would be able to adjust to producing affordable units, particularly given the generous housing subsidies the city offers to developers for building affordable housing.
Atlantic Yards also raises questions about the way the city is planning its public spaces, particularly on developer-driven projects like Atlantic Yards. New York is a great city because at key moments the city's leaders established where its public streets, parks and civic spaces would go. This has not happened at the Atlantic Yards site. Instead the developer has proposed removing public streets to create super-blocks and creating a “publicly accessible” park that would be the backyard of free-standing residential towers. The problem with this approach is that has not worked in the past. Similar enclaves in New York, like Stuyvesant Town, have fine park space for those who live there, but because the open space is situated behind buildings, members of the public feel discouraged from using it.
An alternative approach would be to learn from previous large-scale development in New York City and not only keep existing streets but add new ones — as Rockefeller Center and Battery Park City have done — to improve circulation and better connect the surrounding neighborhoods. To make it truly public, the park space could be bordered by streets rather than buildings, as is the case with all other successful public parks in New York City. And instead of tall, deadening towers set in park space, the developer could build continuous blockfronts with inviting retail to ensure lively streets.
Finally, good urban planning cannot be separated from a good public process for deciding what gets built in New York City. So far, the public process for Atlantic Yards has been lamentable. The project’s passage through the state's land use approval process means that no Brooklyn official will get a vote on the project, and the state's efforts to solicit feedback from the public have been disappointing: recently, the state both released the environmental report and scheduled a public hearing for the project in the middle of summer, when many New Yorkers will be on vacation. The state’s lack of leadership and failure to establish a real public process has alienated local residents and pitted communities against each other. In addition to establishing a better planning framework to create affordable housing and great public spaces, the city and state need to demonstrate they can listen to New Yorkers, and establish opportunities for them to shape the major projects that will affect their lives. It is not too late to do this for Atlantic Yards, but time is running out.
Kent Barwick is president of the Municipal Art Society, an organization that advocates for a more livable New York. www.mas.org