Aaron Naparstek discusses a few reasons for the momentum shifting away from Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards proposal: New York losing the 2012 Olympic bid, the Extell competing bid, but most interesting of all, a suggestion that showing a picture of the bizarre looking buildings in the New York times galvanized previously unconcerned citizens into opposition:
Ratner has long been criticized for the cheap, fortress-like architecture of his other Brooklyn projects. Gehry, the celebrity architect renowned for designing buildings that look like crumpled balls of tinfoil, was brought aboard to neutralize that critique and provide the developer with aesthetic cover. Yet, Gehry’s designs did what months of petitioning, protesting and public meetings couldn’t. They got “sensible,” well-heeled, politically connected Brooklynites pissed off, paying attention and preparing to fight. For neighborhood advocates who have been working diligently to get an apathetic public to pay attention to the travesty underway at Atlantic Yards, Gehry’s architectural models were a gift.
But Aaron Donovan, in the comments, makes a point I wholeheartedly agree with:
More important is that Ratner’s plan would create 6,000 homes, while the Extell plan creates only 1,940. All across the U.S. northeast, cities are atrophied, hollow-eyed versions of their once great selves—New Haven, Hartford, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit, Cincinnati. These cities suffer from decades of disinvestment, white flight and planned shrinkage continues. Small pedestrian friendly towns have suffered the same fate as businesses have fled to the suburban rings. Beyond the northeast, “cities” are merely agglomerations of auto-dependent suburbs—Atlanta, Phoenix, etc.

New York stands along as the only walkable, pedestrian- and transit-friendly city that is gaining traction as we proceed further into the 21st century. More people want to live in Brooklyn and Manhattan than there is space to house them all. This leads to prohibitively expensive real estate, deferred dreams and untold economic opportunity lost to other communities that make it easier to build housing. It also fosters ever greater dependency on the car as would-be New Yorkers are forced to live in suburbia.

The Atlantic Yards, right on top of a subway and regional rail hub, are a very appropriate place for dense residential living. Dense residential living doesn’t have to entail height, a stadium, bad architecture, or my personal pet peeve, street demapping. The Ratner plan has all four of these thing, but I like it better than Extell’s plan because it makes for better use of centrally located urban land.

I wouldn’t say New York is the only “walkable, pedestrian- and transit-friendly city that is gaining traction” - Boston and Washington DC, while much smaller, still have great urban centers that don’t require owning a car, and are even building more of it. But while there are many problems with Ratner’s plan in particular, I can’t sympathize with those who say, “If we wanted Manhattan, we’d live there. Many people do want Manhattan, but can’t afford to live there. Whose needs matter more? That’s a very tough question.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.