[okay, now i’m against it]

Topic: Around Town

Daniel McKleinfeld today alerted me to a Slate article by Jonathan Lethem, author of Motherless Brooklyn and Fortress of Solitude, decrying Bruce Ratner’s plans for a massive collection of Frank Gehry-designed towers in the heart of Brooklyn.

I have until now been ambivalent. There are always groups opposed to any kind of development anywhere in New York, and often this opposition is reflexive and silly. I’ve heard Mr. McKleinfeld himself condemn the new project because it would replace the Fulton Street Mall, though it’s actually being planned for some distance away, mostly on a desolate unused rail yard. So we might find ourselves with hideous, windswept corporate plazas on an inhuman scale, but it’s hard to see how that would be worse than an uncrossable rail yard. That’s not to say that something vastly superior might be done with the space instead, but I do think it’s relevant that unlike the territory appropriated by the World Trade Center in Manhattan, the proposed Atlantic Yards site won’t be ripped from the fabric of the surrounding communities, because the site is already a gaping hole.

Another point raised by Ratner’s opposition is that the towers will dwarf the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower, as if this quirky Downtown Brooklyn oddity were a holy object that all Brooklynites must be able to spot from their front doors. We live in a city that dwarfs the once-towering Statue of Liberty, and I don’t think this has been a disaster. I believe that the Great Phallus of Brooklyn can lose some of its stature without destroying the manhood of my borough. The insistence that we should never, ever allow anything to be built that might block views of the thing strikes me as arbitrary, sentimental and reactionary.

So then why am I suddenly on Lethem’s side? Because the proposed development that will be 8.66 million square feet. That’s more than a million square feet more than the World Trade Center towers, which remained partially vacant for most of their existence. Granted that significant chunks of this massive development would be residential, while 10 percent would go to the Nets arena. Even so, that’s just a ginormous project. I mean, really fucking huge. Stupidly huge.

I hadn’t quite grasped until today just how enormous this thing would be. If nothing else, it raises terrifying questions about the already inadequate transportation infrastructure. And who exactly is going to be renting out this massive new glut of office space? Assuming the Freedom Tower eventually gets built (not a sure thing, but never mind that), the two developments together would put vast quantities of office space on the market in a relatively short period of time, depressing prices and possibly leading to damaging vacancies.

Far more than an arena for the Nets, the Atlantic Yards project is a massive, centrally planned intrusion into a borough whose best districts — many of which are near the proposed site — are among the most elegantly organic, human-scaled urban spaces in the United States. These kinds of projects were all the rage in the 1960s, and they gave us disasters like the original World Trade Center and Lincoln Center.

The project site is currently awful, and a smaller development there — even one as bad as Bruce Ratner’s hideous Atlantic Center Mall — would be an improvement. But I think Lethem is right: a project on such an enormous scale can’t help but harm the surrounding neighborhoods.