Oh Brooklyn, My Brooklyn

It’s not so easy being a cheerleader for future-forward architecture when the future is right outside your window.

The radio wakes me, and before I’ve even opened my eyes I’m listening to a news story about the new Brooklyn, the sleepy second-banana borough that is suddenly on every developer’s to-do list. This morning’s account involves the Williamsburgh Savings Bank building, a 1929 tower that sits all by itself near the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues, the beacon for a business district that never arrived. Long home to myriad dental offices and other unglamorous small-scale tenants, it will be transformed by a consortium that includes Magic Johnson into yet another landmark reserved for wealthy apartment owners.

I wake with a start because next to the Brooklyn Bridge, and maybe the parachute jump at Coney Island, the Williamsburgh Bank is the most iconic edifice in Brooklyn—the borough’s Empire State Building. And they’re making it into condos. It’s on the fringes of my neighborhood, Downtown Brooklyn, one of the last unfashionable bits within a couple of subway stops from Manhattan. For the moment my block has nothing remotely hip on it. When I look outside I see a restaurant called the Pastrami Box. Next door is a store with a sign that looks as if it was cut out from the Yellow Pages; it says: “LAWYERS.” It’s all very prosaic, but that will soon change.

Brooklyn has taken on a new sheen. Williamsburg has become a more powerful nightlife magnet than the East Village, a bustling theme park for artistically minded twentysomethings. Park Slope’s Fifth Avenue now has the kind of dining typical of the Village or Soho. Beyond the Pastrami Box there is a lot of new construction. It’s clear that my little corner of Brooklyn is on the verge of losing its humble workaday feel.

So here’s the question I’ve been pondering. My professional life has largely been about advocating the modern, the new. I am infuriated by fuddy-duddy contextualism and opposed to nostalgia. But it pains me when, in my own neighborhood, as much as a shop awning gets torn down. So my gut reaction to most news about Brooklyn makes me wonder if I am perhaps a hypocrite. Can I still believe in the big ideas I have about the rest of the world while looking out my own window?

Every day there’s another announcement about the coming of the new Brooklyn. In mid-May the latest was that the UN might temporarily move to downtown while it refurbishes its famous headquarters. The story got “Men Walk on Moon” billing in the Brooklyn Paper, a free weekly. Boosters suggested that the move might jump-start the city’s plan to encourage high-rise office towers in the area. “Even if it’s only temporary, it puts Brooklyn on the international stage,” said Kenneth Adams, president of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce. “Think of it—Geneva, The Hague, Brussels, and now Downtown Brooklyn.”

And then there was the e-mail from a community organizer I know. The subject line declared, “This is the last straw.” In the e-mail was a link to a Daily News story about a company called Thor Equities (supposedly the same one that is helping to lure the UN) buying up property on Coney Island, possibly to build a new retail and entertainment complex. “Are they going to take us out and replace us with an Applebee’s?” asked gyro stand operator Joey Clams. “Knishes, hot dogs, shish kebab—that’s what makes Coney Island.”

The minor incursions of mainstream America into Brooklyn are becoming routine. Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Target are already here; Whole Foods, Ikea, and Holiday Inn are on the way. But that’s not the real issue. My concern is the potential return of 1960s-style urban renewal. Developer Bruce Ratner—whose accomplishments in Brooklyn include a cluster of truly hideous shopping centers and an Atlanta-style office park—is making headway in his bid to build a basketball arena for the Nets above the Long Island Rail Road tracks behind his malls, along with 17 residential and office towers in the surrounding area. He has retained architect Frank Gehry and landscape architect Laurie Olin to woo the cognoscenti. But do we judge Ratner’s intentions by what he’s built in the past or what he’s promising for the future? When I look out my window I stare directly at one of his projects—a windowless high-rise multiplex with an Aztec-patterned facade—and question whether Ratner should be charged with redeveloping such a substantial chunk of the borough.

Meanwhile in May the city council signed off on a major rezoning plan for Williamsburg and Greenpoint, the neighborhoods that sit directly across the East River from Midtown Manhattan. Clearly a plan was needed in an area that is already undergoing rapid redevelopment. And the one that was passed is relatively balanced. It includes incentives for a substantial number of affordable-housing units, along with a $20 million grant for the retention of industrial jobs in the neighborhood. However, the main thrust of the plan is to take the dying industrial waterfront and convert it into an esplanade lined with high-rise residential towers.

An animated fly-through on the city planning department’s Web site shows the distinctive variegated landscape of industrial Williamsburg completely replaced with a string of about 16 bland apartment towers that could be anywhere. Granted, it need not be built out that way, but the computer simulation belies the plan’s diplomatic language. The plan is carefully couched—it tosses a bone to each of the area’s constituencies—but the waterfront fly-through reveals the scheme’s inner life, the big fantasy that is actually driving it.

Generally speaking I’m not against development or change, even in my own backyard. I’m enthused about other smaller-scale plans, such as the 500,000-square-foot residential project that Time Equities—a relatively enlightened developer—and Hamlin Ventures are building above the subway station at Hoyt and Schermerhorn Streets in Downtown Brooklyn. It will include a 216-unit affordable-housing facility created in collaboration with the nonprofit Common Ground and the Actors’ Fund. And I’m happy with the emerging Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) Cultural District—immediately adjacent to Ratner’s future empire and Magic Johnson’s new condos—which will include affordable space for arts organizations, mixed-income housing, and likable architecture.

But I’m troubled that Brooklyn is being regarded as an opportunity rather than as a place. Ratner’s development scheme, the Downtown plan drafted by the city, and the vision for the Greenpoint-Williamsburg waterfront all seem to view the borough as a tabula rasa. It is that old urban-renewal thinking that overvalues the potential and understates the significance of what’s already here—exactly the kind of thinking that engendered a 30-year backlash. It’s not nostalgia or NIMBYism to want planning that intelligently integrates past, present, and future.

The news about the Williamsburgh Savings Bank building has me wondering where all those dentists will go. Will they band together and build a Dental District? First thing in the morning I am not an architecture critic—I am a Brooklynite. And I wake up with the local’s mantra running through my head: “May the bubble burst before they get a chance to build.”

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