The debate over Atlantic Yards is heating up as construction begins on the 22-acre site. Supporters say it will knit together neighborhoods that had been artificially separated by Long Island Rail Road yards, add needed housing and feature more public space and interesting design by noted architect Frank Gehry.
But critics rightly worry about the scale of the development, and what it will do both to neighborhoods and existing infrastructure.
One of the many tussles surrounding the project appears at first glance to be a minor one, turning a portion of one street (Pacific Street) into a so-called "superblock," an extremely long block without cross streets. However, many planners say such superblocks end up discouraging neighborhood street life.
Streetsblog points out that the project's landscape architect, Laurie Olin, actually told the New York Observer: "I think space on streets is actually useless space." Blog BrooklynSpeak fires back: "Far from being 'useless space,' Brooklynites use their streets to hang out on stoops and eat and drink in restaurants that spill out on to the sidewalk. Aside from parks and plazas, New York's public realm is its streets. The bottom line is that demapping Pacific Street would turn land that is now totally public into semi-private open space, mainly benefiting the developer and the future residents of the project, who will enjoy the use of parkland that won't be for all of us."
I'm waiting to see how development plans for the Natick mall expansion and downtown Framingham affect the nearby neighborhoods. Will new residential developments be knit into the fabric of the community, connecting to the existing street network in a pedestrian-friendly way? Or will they be set off surrounded by huge asphalt moats, making it less likely that residents of new condos will feel a part of the same community and neighborhoods as nearby residents?
Already, marketing pitches for the new condos at Natick Mall stress things like a private rooftop garden (not for the rest of the neighborhood). And while the new Nieman-Marcus building shell appears to be close to the Speen Street sidewalk, I'm not confident there will be a welcoming street-facing entrance and pathway from the sidewalk to the store. These are things we need to be keeping an eye on.
All growth isn't necessarily good growth, even when a star architect is involved. "I live three blocks north of the project, in sunny, friendly Fort Greene, a neighborhood diverse by race, age and family configuration," writes Jennifer Egan in yesterday's New York Times.
"Even without Atlantic Yards, our neighborhood and others nearby are feeling the strain of poor planning for a rising population. Traffic and parking are problems already; Flatbush Avenue is a seething mass of vehicles that I dread crossing with my children. Morning subway trains are crammed, and the buses on DeKalb Avenue are often too crowded to pick up new passengers.
"At my son’s public school — a lottery school serving the Atlantic Yards area — 620 children vied last year for 100 slots, and the number of applicants rises by a hundred each year. The claim that these neighborhoods can absorb at least 15,000 new residents, not to mention 20,000 arena-goers, defies common sense."