Re-Imagining Brooklyn's Inner Core

Dec 31, 2008
Dec 14, 2017


Defining the Challenge

Without a doubt, Brooklyn is a great place to live. Its historic brownstone districts are among the best urban neighborhoods in the world. With walkable streets, compact retail districts, and a mix of both small and mid-rise scale, Brooklyn is a world-class example of what makes urban living enjoyable.

Brooklyn is also blessed with an abundance of great parks and cultural destinations. Many consider Prospect Park to be one of the world's best. Add to that the cultural assets of BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music), the Brooklyn Museum, the Botanic Garden, Coney Island, and other important places, and it's easy to see the borough has a critical mass that any city would cherish.

We can do what's best for Brooklyn. Here's how.

However there are also many problems. The whole inner core of Brooklyn is not performing anywhere near its potential. Downtown Brooklyn is a prime example of an urban core designed around and for cars. The entire downtown and its major roads are little more than a concession to traffic, with most space allocated to "storage capacity" for the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges or the Flatbush-4th Avenue-Atlantic Avenue intersection, which reached its limit a long time ago. (That intersection is undeniably the worst in Brooklyn, unfriendly to vehicles and a true nightmare for pedestrians.) Brooklyn also has a weak central business area bounded by Atlantic Ave., Flatbush Ave., Court St., and Tillary St.

The extensive waterfront near downtown has been lying fallow for decades, poorly connected to adjoining neighborhoods and the weak central business area. The principal connections to the waterfront--Atlantic Avenue and Cadman Plaza West--are designed for vehicle traffic and very unfriendly to pedestrians. For any part of the Brooklyn waterfront to succeed, the priority given to traffic in the inner core must be overturned in favor of pedestrians. People are drawn in great numbers to friendly, comfortable streets not dominated by traffic, such as Montague St., Smith St., Court St., the Fulton Mall and parts of DUMBO. But under current policies, downtown Brooklyn and the new waterfront park will simply get more traffic, not more people--and no one wins in that situation.

This essay addresses two major projects that are now in the works--Brooklyn Bridge Park and the Atlantic Yards development--that present a once-in-a-lifetime chance to re-shape Brooklyn's inner core around a truly vibrant public realm. As currently envisioned, both of these projects will be tragic missed opportunities, because they are not designed as compelling places that people will enjoy using. With a thorough re-evaluation and re-design of these proposals, however, we can do what's best for Brooklyn. Here's how.

Making Atlantic Yards a Great Public Space

The Forest City Ratner proposal for the Atlantic Yards has many weaknesses (which we'll address shortly). But the truth is that no development--even one much stronger than what's on the table now--can truly succeed on that site unless we also address the area around the intersection of Atlantic, Flatbush, and Fourth Avenue. This intersection should be an iconic space--a source of pride for Brooklyn as a whole. Not only is it a gateway to major assets such as the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the cultural institutions near Grand Army Plaza, and Downtown Brooklyn, but it is also the threshold to many of Brooklyn's great neighborhoods.

Done the right way, development here could transform the intersection into the "Crossroads of Brooklyn."

If this major intersection is ever to become important to Brooklyn, the first priority must be to define it as a great destination. Right now it is dominated by vehicles -- it's just a place to drive through. The pedestrian experience is a nightmare, and there is no plan to deal with this major obstacle. Any development on any portion of this intersection will be a failure if surface transportation issues are not dealt with.

In addition to the major issue of vehicle traffic, Brooklyn at Atlantic and Flatbush needs a set of buildings that form a great destination. Done the right way, development here could transform the intersection into the "Crossroads of Brooklyn" -- i.e. its Times Square or Michigan Avenue. To make this happen, priority must be given to creating world-class public spaces both outside and indoors. This means that buildings should be easily accessible at grade and from transit underground. It means we should look to retail and cultural uses to provide a strong identity. If there are department stores, for instance, they should have grand entrances that dignify the pedestrian rather than conceding to the auto. Office and residential buildings should have plazas and courtyards that function as gathering places, and entertainment uses should have reserved, well-designed billboards that give energy to a place that will define Brooklyn.

Forest City Ratner's current proposal does not meet these criteria. Instead of a development that enhances the public realm of the borough, we have before us yet more concessions to traffic and carte blanche for the architect's ego. At the center of it all are twelve buildings by celebrity designer Frank Gehry. Gehry's designs are iconic wonders and thrilling to look at--one at a time in a few places--but not clustered at the most important intersection in Brooklyn.

Gehry is most famous for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Scores of other cities have been wowed by that building's effect on tourism, and they clamor for their own Gehry. What these cities don't anticipate is the enormous downside to his designs, caused by the way he proudly scorns the context of the neighborhoods where he works. This approach makes the public spaces of his buildings lifeless, and the areas around them empty of human activity.

In Düsseldorf, for instance, the city advertises a cluster of Gehry buildings to project itself as a trendy city. Look beyond the sleek, commercial image, and you'll see the threat that Gehry poses to Brooklyn. The Düsseldorf buildings create a completely dead zone around them. People do not congregate or converse there. The entrances are so puny and minimal, you would be hard-pressed to tell that people live inside. There are no benches, no signs, no retail, no flowers, no balconies, nothing. The only sign of life; A dumpster sticking out from the side of one building.

An ad highlights Gehry's Düsseldorf buildings to symbolize the city's trendiness...

...but up close, the only signs of life are the dumpsters. Is this what Brooklyn really wants?

All Gehry's creations are interesting from a distance, but up close they lack the multitude of uses that are essential to real urban destinations. They are objects, not places. Brooklyn's most important intersection should not be destined to have a set of disjointed, lifeless buildings surrounded by rivers of traffic. That is not a solution anyone wants and certainly one that Brooklyn does not deserve.

A Proposed Approach and Next Steps

  1. We should realize that the Flatbush/Atlantic Avenue/4th Avenue intersection can be the most important in the borough -- "The Crossroads of Brooklyn" -- but that it will impede the success of any nearby development until we completely rethink the way those streets function. We have a long way to go. Flatbush and Atlantic need to be re-designed as great streets for pedestrians. And 4th Avenue must become a grand boulevard along the lines of Barcelona's Ramblas.
  2. Any Atlantic Yards development should be predicated on a Surface Transportation Plan that puts the automobile in a secondary position. We need people at this intersection, not cars. This intersection should make as full use as possible of public transit, both underground and at the surface.
  3. There should be a community-led vision that helps to achieve this set of goals. The greatest intersections in the world should be studied along with transportation solutions that Brooklynites would be proud to showcase. London's Piccadilly Circus and the cities of Zurich and Copenhagen provide excellent examples of intersections to learn from. The great boulevards of Barcelona could also be highly instructive.

To move forward, our ultimate goal should be to make this intersection define Brooklyn. It is something we should be proud of, the place we bring visitors. We need great design and lots of it. We need icons and we need destinations. We need development. The current proposal pretends to deliver these promises, but we must not be fooled. At the same time, we should not get discouraged. This is not just a misguided mega-project to walk away from in resignation; this is a challenge that we must rise up to.

Creating a Great Waterfront

Brooklyn is in the process of becoming a major destination in and of itself rather than just an appendage to Manhattan, and the development of Brooklyn Bridge Park could have a major impact on that rebirth. However, great care needs to be given to developing the park so that it really benefits the downtown, nearby neighborhoods, and the greater Brooklyn population.

Imagine a waterfront that would rival the best in the world...

If the waterfront is to truly become a defining feature and destination for all of Brooklyn, then a much more dynamic and far-reaching solution is required than what has been proposed thus far. The current plan will limit the types of uses that can occur in the park, and it is constrained by a reliance on high-rise residential properties to financially support the recreation-oriented uses. This kind of park design would fit well in the Hamptons (perhaps it could be passed on to them). Brooklyn demands a much bolder and broader strategy. Fortunately, a better vision for the waterfront can still take hold.

Tear Drop Park is an activity-free park design recently completed by Van Valkenburgh in Battery Park, NYC.

Imagine a waterfront that would rival the best in the world, with a mix of commerce, residences, water-related activities, and an extensive network of public spaces of all kinds. The waterfront would be integrally connected to a rejuvenated downtown core, linked by surface transit to Brooklyn's outstanding cultural resources. Transforming Atlantic Avenue and Cadman Plaza West into pedestrian-friendly boulevards terminating at spectacular waterfront plazas would greatly enhance the experience of the downtown core and bind it closely to neighboring residential districts as well as the water.

A Proposed Approach to Rethinking the Waterfront

Waterfront development has the potential to combine public recreation, mixed-use development, historic preservation, industry, and a variety of water-related activities. By reaching out to communities throughout Brooklyn and drawing out their particular passions and interests, a vision could emerge for the downtown waterfront, with a particular emphasis on the stretch near downtown Brooklyn from Atlantic Avenue to the Con Ed lot, and how it fits into a larger plan for the entire western waterfront from Greenpoint to the Verrazano Bridge.

If we review what has worked and what has not worked among the world's premier waterfronts, we gain insight into the types of dynamic and interesting destinations that could be located on the Brooklyn waterfront. We also gain an understanding of those waterfronts that have successfully represented the cultural and ethnic makeup of nearby communities. This knowledge would then inform a strategy for Brooklyn Bridge Park and the entire Brooklyn waterfront, helping to identify the specific areas along the water where destinations would thrive.

A series of community-based workshops around each of these areas would then be held with local residents to refine the initial ideas and build towards an overall vision. This vision could then define an infrastructure plan. Implementing quick, inexpensive experiments in the proposed redevelopment area would then create enthusiasm and support for the long-term plan.

We propose that several actions be taken before committing to a specific plan for the Brooklyn Waterfront.

  1. Examine great waterfront cities, giving special attention to cities that have transformed themselves in the last 20 years. These could include:
  2. Sydney (2 harbors)
  3. Hong Kong
  4. Seattle
  5. Vancouver
  6. Baltimore
  7. Venice Beach, California
  8. North section of San Francisco waterfront (Pier 39 to Chrissy Field)
  9. Southbank, London
  10. Stockholm
  11. Copenhagen
  12. Hamburg
  13. Oslo
  14. Bergen, Norway
  15. Barcelona
  16. Venice
  17. Examine specific destinations that could provide lessons for waterfront development.
  18. Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen
  19. Waterpark, Copenhagen
  20. Granville Island, Vancouver
  21. Paris Plage, one-month summer event, Paris
  22. Piazza San Marco and Venice (as an example of a vehicle free environment)
  23. Evaluate current park plan in context of other recent waterfront park development. The waterfronts of Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Mission Bay in San Francisco, and Portland, Oregon have parks with designs similar to the proposed Brooklyn Bridge Park plan. These waterfronts parks are all examples of design that receives recognition and awards but does not attract users. Portland is a perfect example of a park so dysfunctional that it is now being redesigned, and Barcelona is an example of a city playing to the high design community, but not delivering to city residents.
  24. Evaluate nearby waterfront examples around New York City.Relevant examples include Battery Park City, the West Side entertainment complex, Riverside Park, Liberty State Park, South Street Seaport, and the new Hudson River Park promenade. For the most part these waterfront spaces provide examples of what not to do. Together, except for South Street Seaport, they form a kind of boring suburban front yard for the New York City region, hardly befitting what should be the world's premier waterfront.
  25. Look at the entire waterfront as a series of public spaces.We challenge Brooklyn to think big. The entire downtown waterfront from the Con Edison plant to Red Hook should have ten major destinations. Each destination should be the site of ten places, each with ten activities or things to do. Brooklyn's communities are home to a dazzling variety of local talent. Each destination along the water must harness these assets wisely to shape the world's most exciting waterfront.

Next steps

This is what needs to happen to get back on the right track and move forward with the approach proposed above.

  • First, decision makers must stop and agree that the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process is not an end, but a beginning. There needs to be a vision for the entire waterfront.
  • A new, more diverse team needs to be in place at the Development Corporation. Their expanded role should be to develop a larger, more comprehensive vision, including a diverse mix of public spaces, waterfront related activities, major destinations, and funding strategies both for implementation and for ongoing management.
  • A design/placemaking team needs to be employed that can accomplish all the recommendations in the vision.
  • There needs to be an ongoing engagement and implementation strategy with all the communities and elected officials to grow this waterfront over the next 25 years.
  • There should some immediate wins with some impressive experiments comparable to the Paris Plage event that has proven so successful for the Seine riverfront.

We have enough space and access for a very diverse, entertaining, and enterprising development that would showcase Brooklyn's assets along a much-needed waterfront area. But a pretty, passive park alone does very little in this regard. We need something that goes deeper into the cultures and desires of Brooklyn's residents. We need a great destination on the water that would set an example for other waterfronts on the Hudson and the East River. As Brooklyn becomes a waterfront city, we have the opportunity to create something unique and extraordinary, but it needs to be about Brooklyn.

Conclusion - Where Do We Go from Here?

To date, we are witnessing a piecemeal development strategy for all of Downtown Brooklyn--its waterfront, cultural resources, and shopping districts. There is no vision for Fulton Street and the inner business district, which could be tragically left behind in the current effort. We are making city-defining decisions with no foresight, no sense of what we will end up with. We will all lose, and it will be felt most negatively in the  neighborhoods that are so much of what currently draws people to Brooklyn.

Clearly the New York City Planning Commission needs to play a central role with the Brooklyn Borough President, community organizations, community planning boards, developers and citizens. There needs to be an overall vision with sections devoted to transportation, neighborhood preservation, cultural development, civic/governmental centers, housing, the development of commercial centers, and major attention given to defining at least Ten Great Destinations connected by Great Streets that will become the soul of Brooklyn in the course of the next 20 years. Everyone with a stake in the future of Brooklyn must put our energies into furthering such a vision, not leap blindly into decisions we will regret for generations.


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