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Massive Brooklyn Development Designed by Frank Gehry Gets Green Light

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Courtesy Gehry Partners


With the recently completed IAC/InterActiveCorp.’s headquarters, Frank Gehry, FAIA, has finally made a mark on New York City. Now he is about to make a bigger one. In December, the state’s Public Authorities Control Board gave unanimous approval to plans for the Atlantic Yards, a $4 billion–plus Brooklyn development that is expected to contain more than 6,400 apartments, a new arena for the Nets basketball team, and several hundred thousand square feet of commercial space. Gehry will design every building on the 22-acre site.

The first phase of the development, containing the arena and the residential tower dubbed Miss Brooklyn, would be completed by 2010. The remainder, which also includes eight acres of green space designed by Laurie Olin, would follow. Renderings released by developer Forest City Ratner (FCR) show a mixture of upright structures, which Gehry refers to as background buildings, alternating with angled “signature” structures. The effect recalls his Fred and Ginger, the Prague building with erect and curving elements, but on a vastly larger scale.

Indeed, that scale—which involves inserting the approximate square footage of the old World Trade Center into a site just one-third larger—was at the heart of opposition to the development, with some critics calling more neighborhood-friendly elements, like a giant “front stoop” and glass-enclosed public atrium, Trojan horses. Now the project faces at least two lawsuits. One was brought by residents challenging the city’s right to use eminent domain to acquire their properties. The other contends that rent-stabilized tenants of buildings on the site cannot lose their leases without the approval of the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal. The lawsuits are likely to delay construction by at least a year, though FCR has already begun work on the project’s infrastructure.

In the meantime, opponents of the plan were able to wrest some concessions from the FCR president and CEO Bruce Ratner during last-minute negotiations. The height of Miss Brooklyn was reduced, from 620 feet, so that it wouldn’t overshadow the neighboring 512-foot Williamsburgh Savings Bank Building, long Brooklyn’s tallest building.

Ratner, who had already agreed to include more than 2,000 affordable rental units in the project, has also promised to build 1,000 affordable “home ownership units” on or near the site, and to spend $3 million to improve parks around the project.

But, at least to hear Gehry tell it, the protestors had more luck changing Ratner’s mind than he did. On several occasions, Gehry has told reporters that he believed the project would be more successful if parts were farmed out to other architects, permitting a variety of styles more akin to an authentic cityscape; a spokesman for Ratner said the developer had no comment. Gehry has also said that the project, with its vast impact on the city, “keeps me up at night.” 

Fred A. Bernstein