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The typical streetscape in the neighborhoods adjacent to the $4-billion mega-project proposed for downtown Brooklyn features 19th- and early-20th-century row houses. Photo: Jerome Harris

The orginal model of the 16-skyscraper, 10-million-sq.ft. project illustrates the design by Frank Gehry for the developer, Forest City Ratner. [more]

 

 

Opinions

Being Right Is Not Enough

By Clem Labine

The brownstone revival and the New Urbanist movement taught us how to create livable urban neighborhoods, but an avalanche of developer dollars can sweep aside all "right" answers – unless we are willing to join the political fray.

For 30 years, Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk have been confronting the traditional design community with this inconvenient truth: Sensitive development in existing cities requires architects and planners to engage in rough-and-tumble political processes at the local, state and federal levels. Otherwise, all our good ideas and clear thinking will amount to nothing. We are facing a glaring example of that situation here in Brooklyn – only 10 blocks from where Traditional Building and Period Homes are published. Ironically, our city, which has seen one of the most successful urban-revival phenomena in the U.S. – the brownstone movement – is about to be assaulted with a mega-project that does violence to just about every humane urban-planning principle.

The brownstone revival, which took hold in Brooklyn in the 1960s, proved the validity of many of the same city-planning principles that the New Urbanists, like Andrés and Elizabeth, were simultaneously developing from an entirely different starting point. Here are some of the reasons that brownstones, and similar row-house neighborhoods, make vibrant ur-ban communities today:

Traditional Architecture:
The traditional architecture of 19th- and early-20th-century row houses is very attractive to many middle- and upper-income homeowners. Trad-itionalism provides a sense of stability in a world that increasingly lacks this quality. Similarly, the New Urbanists have found great market acceptance for new communities that feature traditional designs.

The Row House Plan:
The American row house is based on the 18th-century London townhouse plan – and has proved to be an amazingly adaptable and successful urban building type. For example, the building that houses the editorial and business offices of this magazine is an 1885 brownstone that was built as a residence, but was readily adapted to commercial use in 1905.

Horizontal Density vs. Vertical Density:
Neighborhoods of connected row houses provide high population density per acre, making efficient use of expensive city real estate. These row houses provide horizontal density, which still allows residents to be connected to street life. The "Tower in the Park" residential developments of the 1960s, on the other hand, provide vertical density. This building type has proved a social failure in numerous cases; vertical density isolates people from the street and fosters alienation. Many of these projects have already been dynamited after being in service for less than 45 years.

Human Scale:
The three to five stories of the typical urban row house create an appealing human scale, while providing from 3,000 to 6,000 sq.ft. of living space.

Energy Efficiency:
The long common walls on two sides of the row house insulate the bulk of the house from extremes of hot and cold weather.

Vibrant Street Wall:
Connected row houses make a human-scale street wall that encloses the block on its two long sides, transforming the street into an inviting "public room." And each house has a door that leads into that communal room.

The Stoop and the Porch:
The typical New York row house has a stoop – a set of steps leading from the sidewalk to the second ("parlor") floor. The stoop is an intermediate zone between public and private space, and provides many opportunities for casual social interchange with neighbors. The stoop serves the same social function as a front porch. The value of front porches is a feature promoted in many New Urbanist developments.

Mixed Usage:
"Mixed-use development" is one of the buzzwords of today's urban planners. The adaptability of the row-house plan provides many opportunities for mixed-use neighborhood development: offices, retail outlets, light commercial and residential units can all be easily accommodated within a single block of row houses.

Street Grid:
The classic row-house neighborhood is built on a rectangular street grid, which has proved to be an efficient, flexible system for routing and distributing traffic in mixed-use neighborhoods. Projects that block up portions of the street grid have often found this to be a mistake.

Walkable Neighborhoods:
The street grid combined with mixed-use development makes for walkable neighborhoods, with resulting personal health benefits as well as gasoline savings.

Over the past 40 years, the value of these characteristics in creating livable neighborhoods has been validated again and again. So it would seem a "no-brainer" that urban projects in the 21st century would be based on this accumulating body of humane planning principles.

Ironically, today – right in the heart of brownstone Brooklyn – a developer is proposing a $4-billion mega-project that would diminish (some of us say "destroy") the livable character of a large section of Brooklyn. This project has the full backing of New York State – and many New York City politicians – along with nearly $1 billion in public subsidies.

I have become personally involved in the struggle to stop – or radically downsize – this project because the developer and his architect (Frank Gehry) have chosen to ignore all the guidelines for sensitive urban development. The project proposes to pack 18,000 people, commercial offices, a basketball arena and retail outlets in 16 skyscrapers on a 22-acre site. The project would create the densest census tract in the U.S., duplicating many of the worst mistakes and abuses of 1960s "Urban Renewal."

It is disheartening to see the way a politically connected developer has been able, so far, to ignore a growing chorus of community opposition. The project is under the control of New York State and this means that not a single elected official in New York City has any legal standing to alter or oppose it. So, to no one's surprise, the recent Draft Environmental Impact Statement, compiled by the state's Empire State Development Corporation, found that the mammoth project would have a "negligible" adverse impact on adjacent neighborhoods.

This gargantuan project is wrong on so many counts, and the political process so rigged, that space doesn't permit anywhere near the full list. It quickly became apparent to me, though, that cool logic and rational discussion counts for little or nothing when a big-bucks project like this gets rolling.

The alternative: I'm joining with many other citizens in the kind of civic activism that Duany has said is so necessary to achieve humane urban development. In this case, the challenge is to ignite so much political heat that state political officials will reconsider the size and scale of this project – or even dump it entirely and start over. Getting political officials to change their minds is no easy task, however, especially when the developer is promoting the idea that this is a "done deal."

Opposition to this project involves many of the standard tactics of civic activism – letter-writing, emailing, lobbying politicians, attending rallies and testifying at public hearings – but when big developer bucks and political influence are involved, opposition also involves lawyers and courts and even getting involved with political campaigns. That takes money and endless fundraising.

So, when a well-heeled and politically connected developer wants to build a mammoth ill-conceived project, just knowing it's wrong is not enough. You must be prepared to wrestle in mud in the public forum.  

 

 

 
 

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