How gargantuan is too gargantuan? That seems to be the question of the day for Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project—”Ratnerville” to its opponents—that would tower over Prospect Heights and Fort Greene, dwarfing the Williamsburgh Bank Building with a row of Brooklyn’s tallest skyscrapers. From the start, critics have been throwing out alternate plans in the hopes of derailing Ratner’s grandiose schemes: There has been the Unity Plan, the Pacific Plan, the Extell Plan, and most recently, state assemblymember Jim Brennan’s plan to lop off three million square feet from Ratner’s 8.7 million-square-foot project, replacing it with hundreds of millions of dollars in public subsidies.
Last night it was the Municipal Art Society’s turn, as the venerable non-profit presented its critique at a packed public forum at the Hanson Place United Methodist Church. In place of yet another plan, the MAS presented a primer on basic urban design principles—respect existing neighborhoods, don’t close streets, create real public parks—with the goal of preventing Atlantic Yards from becoming “a gated community in the middle of the city,” in the words of the MAS’s Stuart Pertz. (Stuyvesant Town came in for a Powerpoint smackdown on this count.) And while MAS president Kent Berwick insisted he didn’t want to make simplistic headlines, he made them nonetheless with the declaration that “the [Ratner] plan in its current state would not work.”
If at times it felt like the assembled multitudes were about to be sent home with an assignment to read chapters five through nine of Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, it was still impossible to leave without drawing some conclusions about the project at hand. First off, it’s friggin’ humongous—Pertz drew gasps when he summed up the Ratner plan’s bulk as equal to “three Empire State Buildings, 23 Williamsburgh Bank Buildings, or 2200 brownstone houses,” totaling about 80 percent of the floor area contained in all of Prospect Heights.
Secondly, the indigestible lump in the plan is the Nets basketball arena: Remove the requirement for a superblock large enough to fit an arena, and suddenly there’s no need to seize buildings by eminent domain, you can leave 5th Avenue open, and Ratner’s “Miss Brooklyn” skyscraper can be slid east so it no longer blocks views of the Williamsburgh Bank clock tower. (“Brooklyn’s wristwatch, so I’m told,” noted MAS architect John West.) Ratner and his celebrity architect, Frank Gehry, have certainly shown a willingness to adapt their plan to curry public favor, going through what seems like a new crumpled-paper-and-balsa-wood model a week, but whether he’d consider ditching the arena depends on whether you believe that the hoops-fan-come-lately Ratner is really committed to bringing the NBA to Brooklyn, or merely has his eyes on the prize that is Brooklyn’s last undeveloped prime real estate.
The standing-room-only forum included the requisite Brooklyn infighting—even before the MAS had made its presentation, Develop Don’t Destroy and the Fort Greene Association had issued press releases declaring it insufficient, and designated catherd Leonard Lopate of WNYC at times struggled to keep questions on topic. But it also showed signs of slowly crawling toward a public debate about what the Brooklyn of the future will look like, including serious assessment of such wonky topics as floor-area ratios and traffic generation. The question then becomes: Since the project is controlled by the state-run Empire State Development Corporation, does it matter what the public thinks? Barwick insisted yes, but nonetheless worried about the opaque planning process. “Whether Atlantic Yards will turn out to be a great project or a flawed project, no local elected official will ever get a vote,” said Barwick, echoing a common refrain of the evening. “And that’s just wrong.”