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Re-Imagining Downtown Brooklyn (and the Outer Boroughs)

Dec 31, 2008
Dec 14, 2017

With its walkable streets, bustling retail districts, and mix of both small and mid-rise scale, Brooklyn is a world-class example of what makes urban living enjoyable. New York's most populous borough is also blessed with an abundance of great parks and cultural destinations. Many people consider Prospect Park to be one of the world's best, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Brooklyn Museum, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Coney Island, and other important places give Brooklyn a critical mass of cultural assets that any city would treasure. However, the inner core of Brooklyn is not performing anywhere near its potential.

Borough Hall Plaza is one of the critical public spaces in downtown Brooklyn that could be much better.

In downtown Brooklyn, major streets function mainly as "storage capacity" for traffic feeding into the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges or the Flatbush-4th Avenue-Atlantic Avenue intersection. (That intersection is undeniably the worst in Brooklyn, unfriendly to vehicles and a true nightmare for pedestrians.) The central business district, bounded by Atlantic Avenue, Flatbush Avenue, Court Street, and Tillary Street, is nearly bereft of quality streets and public space. In addition, the extensive waterfront near downtown has been lying fallow for decades, poorly connected to adjoining neighborhoods and the central business area. The principal connections to the waterfront--such as Atlantic Avenue--are designed for vehicle traffic and very unfriendly to pedestrians.

Two major projects in the works--Brooklyn Bridge Park and the Atlantic Yards development--now 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.

Brooklyn Bridge Park

The downtown Brooklyn waterfront could become a world-class public space serving people from throughout the five boroughs. Instead it is on track to become a suburban-style park catering mainly to residents of an ill-conceived high-rise residential development. The current plan simply does not match up to other world class waterfronts, nor does it display a sound grasp of the principles of good waterfronts.

The park's site promises an unprecedented opportunity to create a great new public space that will be Brooklyn's face to the world. Unfortunately, the current plan by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates calls for little more than a passive recreational park dominated by luxury housing. The concept for the park has been radically degraded from the ideas that emerged from a successful community-based process in 2001, during which an extensive and much admired series of public hearings yielded a master plan laid out by Ken Greenberg Associates. What remains now is basically a huge developer-driven residential real estate project tacked on to a series of isolated one-dimensional uses -- either large-scale recreation or passive parks and walkways -- that will effectively prevent Brooklyn residents from getting the most out of their prime waterfront.

To start with, the plan's many rigid features will preclude the park from supporting a range of activities and responding to user demands. Narrow piers and pathways throughout the park offer great views but a limited sense of amenity, intrigue or destination. Without real attractions to draw people, many of the piers will quickly become magnets for negative activity. Another deadly touch, the large berms in the middle of the plan, will suffer a similar fate. Meant to act as sound attenuating devices, the berms hide secluded pathways, void of any reason for human use, that will not only be extremely dull but also unsafe.

Then there are the residential towers, sold as bringing a built-in constituency to the park, which will inevitably house a small, well-heeled population intent on keeping any other constituencies out of the surrounding public spaces. The towers themselves and the large open spaces that surround them will also go a long way towards enforcing exclusionary goals. The fact that the buildings are placed at the entrances to the park and are surrounded by highly-trafficked roads, car-dominated entrances and large swaths of passive green space ensures that these crucial areas will clearly belong to the high-rise residents and not the people of Brooklyn. (The marriage of luxury high-rises and elaborate design has played out just as predictably in other parks, including Barcelona's Diagonal Mar development, Toronto's new highrise waterfront, and Battery Park City's Teardrop Park, also designed by Van Valkenburgh.)

No matter what you think of the Brooklyn Bridge Park design, it will be very expensive. This is completely unjustifiable. Many great waterfronts have been created with much lower budgets, using compatible and publicly beneficial revenue streams to support the public goals of the project. In Düsseldorf, for instance, a tightening budget proved to be a blessing in disguise because it forced planners to focus on lower-cost design and inexpensive programming. The result has been a simple yet astoundingly successful public space. Vancouver's Granville Island breaks even and serves as the city's number one destination for both locals and tourists. It has achieved success by constantly evolving and finding ways to attract and maintain new user groups, despite being even more isolated and inaccessible than Brooklyn Bridge Park.

All the needless expense complicates the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation's dubious mandate to operate a financially self-sustaining park, and the consequences are proving to be disastrous. The inclusion of luxury housing, for instance, is basically a crutch to prop up the park's revenue stream. The irony here is that the proposed design and management approach makes it nearly impossible for the park to sustain itself. The park is literally designed to prevent the kind of use, ownership and participation that would make it both revenue generating and valued by the larger Brooklyn community.

The chance remains to return Brooklyn Bridge Park to the "13 Guiding Principles" that evolved from the community hearings in 2001. To begin, the entrances to the park should be completely re-designed as active, pedestrian-friendly plazas and destinations that draw people from throughout Brooklyn to the ends of Atlantic Avenue, Fulton Street and even Joralemon Street. Instead of housing, which is the most private of all forms of development, these areas should be the site of buildings that generate revenue while serving a public purpose, like Brooklyn-based cultural institutions, arts organizations, non-profits, or even restaurants.

After all, the purpose of generating revenue for the park and deeding the land for park use is to promote public space goals. Why then create a park based on design and uses that conflict so directly with these goals? The vision for a waterfront to serve and reflect all of Brooklyn has been weakened by the development corporation's process, but there is still time to seize the opportunity to create a world class waterfront.

Atlantic Yards

The Forest City Ratner proposal for the Atlantic Yards site 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 there without also addressing 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, Downtown Brooklyn, and even the cultural institutions near Grand Army Plaza, 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 needs a set of buildings that form a great destination at Atlantic and Flatbush. 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. Office and residential buildings should have plazas and courtyards that function as gathering places. If there are department stores, for instance, they should not concede to the auto (as Ratner's Atlantic Center mall has done) but rather dignify the pedestrian with grand entrances.

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 seventeen 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.

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. He 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. His approach makes the public spaces of his buildings lifeless, and the areas around them empty of human activity.

The plans released for Atlantic Yards promise more of the same: The inclusion of superblocks and insular, privately owned public spaces will not only prevent the evolution of a truly vibrant place, it guarantees that Brooklynites will never adopt this place as their own. The borough's most important intersection should not be destined to have a set of disjointed, lifeless buildings surrounded by rivers of traffic. That is not the solution anyone wants--save for some would-be tastemakers in the media--and it is certainly not one that Brooklyn deserves.

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 and jobs. The current proposal pretends to deliver these promises, but we should not be fooled. At the same time, we must not get discouraged. This is not just a misguided mega-project to walk away from in resignation; it is a challenge that Brooklyn must rise up to. BrooklynSpeaks, a coalition sponsored by the Municipal Art Society and several community groups, has articulated an alternative vision for the site and is now undertaking a campaign to make the project truly work for Brooklyn.

More Outer Borough Opportunities

Implementing a public space agenda means re-examining places all over New York, in every neighborhood. It would encompass areas undergoing rapid change and districts that have been largely overlooked by developers and planners. Here is a small sampling of places in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens (Staten Island is forthcoming) that would reap huge benefits from the nine strategies outlined in this commentary.

The Bronx

Bronx Terminal Market While the wholesale Bronx Terminal Market was nothing like the popular public markets that most people are familiar with, its demise is a misdeed in line with the neighborhood-destroying urban renewal of the 1960s. Rather than show its commitment to small businesses and understanding of the benefits of public marketplaces, the city has decided to displace existing businesses and jobs with a conventional big box development in the name of "revitalization." This site could still be used to add jobs far more creatively by building on existing assets and connecting the surrounding neighborhood to the waterfront in a meaningful way.

Pelham Parkway Pelham Parkway, one of the few east-west corridors in the central Bronx, is truly a greenway, lined with mature shade trees that hang over the roadway, set within wide, grassy medians. The parkway connects the Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanical Garden on its west end with Pelham Bay Park, New York City's largest park, five miles to the east. The two wide medians -- one running down the middle of the parkway and the other between the main roadway and a service road to the north -- provide a wonderful opportunity for small passive parks, neighborhood gathering spaces, playgrounds, and bicycle and walking paths. Yet, due to the parkway's high-speed traffic and scarce crosswalks, the medians sit empty.

This is a corridor that could take lessons from Eastern Parkway and Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn; it could become an urban boulevard that serves its neighborhood as a park as well as a roadway.


Fulton Street A major commercial corridor cutting across the breadth of Brooklyn, Fulton Street is especially full of potential where it slices through the grid of Fort Greene, creating small triangular parks. If managed as active public spaces, these pocket parks could become much more valuable neighborhood assets.

Williamsburg and Greenpoint Waterfront Residents of Williamsburg and Greenpoint have long been denied access to the East River. The waterfront is currently not much more than a series of vacant lots and industrial buildings--many long-since abandoned. Those bold enough to navigate the broken glass and rubble and squeeze through gaps in the chain link fence at the end of North 9th Street in Williamsburg are rewarded with fantastic views of Manhattan, as well as a little solitude. In Greenpoint, many streets end at the East River and become informal gathering places where people fish, play music, or throw barbecues.

Plans for high-rise residential towers near the waterfront pose both opportunities and threats: The derelict areas will be made more usable and accessible as new waterfront parks are built, but these parks may also become de facto private backyards for residents of new developments. To truly succeed, the waterfront must not only remain publicly owned, but also incorporate a broad range of uses that appeal to the diverse population of north Brooklyn. Getting the right mix of activity can only happen if the city alters the developer-led planning process it has followed to date. It is time to let the local communities play a leading role in shaping the future of their waterfront.

Brooklyn Museum This great Brooklyn institution completed a major renovation in 2004 with mixed results. PPS commends the architecture of the new facade, which has created a more inviting and transparent entranceway. The amphitheater steps on the east side provide a great place to sit while kids play below in the new WET-designed fountain.

The landscape architecture is what comes up short. A new plaza design clogs most of the space in front of the Museum with shallow, grassy terraces that are virtually unsittable. There is no area flexible enough for events to take place, so the potential to hold outdoor exhibits or otherwise extend the Museum's presence into the public space has gone to waste. Right now the plaza acts only as a buffer between the Museum and Eastern Parkway, but there is still an opportunity to correct this mistake and re-design it as a real gathering place.


Downtown Flushing This district--which includes the largest of New York's four Chinatowns--is already bursting with street activity. With more pedestrian space and improved sidewalk presence of public institutions like the Flushing Library, it would serve its diverse population even better.

Socrates Park When this park was reclaimed from a former industrial site, it was a significant step forward for Queens neighborhoods that are close to the East River. With better connections to surrounding neighborhoods, improved access to the water, and more active management, it could become a first-rate waterfront destination.

188th Street Once the vibrant commercial center of Fresh Meadows, replete with New York's only Bloomingdale's outside of Manhattan, 188th Street has suffered from the increasing suburbanization and auto-orientation of Queens. Where "Bloomy's" once welcomed local shoppers along the main stretch, the most recent tenant, Kohl's, has turned its back on the neighborhood, orienting its entrances toward a rear parking lot. At the same time, 188th street is primed for a resurgence. Renovated public spaces offer places for locals to sit and enjoy an ice cream or chat with neighbors. The street also still boasts some of the nicest bus stops in the whole city –- grand, bricked shelters with hanging baskets of flowers, actual benches, and trash cans that aren't overflowing.

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Learn About PPS’s Three-Pronged Approach to Drive Change