Nets' move would give Brooklyn a new arena and buildings complex
By Justin Davidson
December 18, 2003
Art lured him to Bilbao, classical music to downtown Los Angeles, and basketball may bring Frank Gehry to Brooklyn.
The architect, known for his sinuous forms and wavy metal rhapsodies, has come up with a master plan to redevelop a narrow X-Acto blade of land at the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic avenues into Brooklyn Atlantic Yards. A master plan is still a long way from an architectural design, but even in its rough, boxy form, it gives a powerful reason to root for developer Bruce Ratner's bid to buy the New Jersey Nets.
If the deal doesn't happen, that strip of land might remain what it is now, a no- man's-land alongside the railroad tracks, a neglected wound at the join between four neighborhoods: Fort Greene, Park Slope, Boerum Hill and Prospect Heights. If it does, Ratner would move the Nets to Brooklyn, and the basketball arena would bring with it acres of housing, greenery and much-needed glamour.
Whenever a mayor raises the possibility ofbuilding a stadium on Manhattan's West Side, residents and civic groups raise their timeless howls. But what West Siders scorn, Brooklynites would do well to welcome. Gehry, who hails from the coast where the Dodgers remain in exile, is proposing to do more than heal Brooklyn's sporting history: He is offering to knit the borough a new downtown.
This is an enormous project by metropolitan standards: 21 acres (five more than the World Trade Center site), with a lot of moving parts, a projected budget of $2.5 billion and a 10-year timeline.
Let's start with the arena, which is where the builders would begin, too. Forget about the traditional freestanding coliseum, rising amid arid plains of parking. Forget, too, about Madison Square Garden, a round, squat drum that barely registers from Seventh Avenue and, inside, provides all the romance of a slaughterhouse. Gehry's arena would be a glass palace pinched between two converging boulevards, encircled with medium-size office buildings and topped with an open garden, landscaped by Laurie Olin, the transformer of Bryant Park.
This is an arena as public forum: While office workers and neighborhood residents picnic amid arbors and enjoy views that sweep from the Brooklyn Bridge to Prospect Park and from the Empire State Building to the Statue of Liberty, restless types can take a spin around the running track. Even in winter, the roof will be peopled, since the track converts into a skating rink - not the postage-stamp kind, as at Rockefeller Center, but a quarter-mile loop.
Gehry has never designed a sports arena before. His most recent success is Disney Hall, new home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he managed to create a feeling of electric communion and egalitarian intimacy in a concert hall that seats 2,200 people. Infusing those qualities into a building meant to accommodate 10 times that number will be difficult. Clearly, Gehry is not interested in producing a standard- issue stadium, but the jokes that already have begun - that he will outfit his court with elliptical hoops and undulating backboards - gloss over his genius at adapting to necessity and convention.
It is that sifting and arranging of needs - the astute assessment of the neighborhood - that makes Gehry's master plan so exciting. Forest City Ratner, Bruce Ratner's development company, already has had a hand in developing downtown Brooklyn, and the new bland, unassertive Metrotech Center, where the corporation has its offices, provides a good model for how not to go about it. Atlantic Yards, by contrast, promises a level of livability that is rare in New York City.
Atlantic Avenue will get honest-to- goodness sidewalks planted with trees, instead of the crumbling strips now petering out into weed banks.
Brooklyn will get a new skyline, not the usual clump of sun-blocking skyscrapers, but a slithery sequence of low-rises, towers and midsized apartment buildings. These new residences will mingle people of various income levels and link them along a six-block corridor of greenery. The retail spaces will be geared not to chain boutiques but to coffee shops, cleaners and grocery stores. An underground garage will accommodate 3,000 cars for those determined to drive into the heart of Brooklyn, but the beauty of the site is its neighboring knot of public transportation: Nine subway lines and the Long Island Rail Road converge at Atlantic Terminal across the street.
The apartment buildings will not all swoop and twist like Gehry's celebrated icons - even people who like spectacle architecture don't necessarily want to live in it. But the site, tapering to a prow at the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic, offers a built-in opportunity to amaze. For the triangle of land between the arena and the street, Gehry has proposed an "urban room," a sunken plaza beneath an office tower raised on stilts, with a restaurant suspended overhead.
The covered piazza is not a native New York form, much less a Brooklyn one, and the model as it stands does not guarantee that it will be more amicable than the Citicorp Plaza on Lexington Avenue, where a subway station and the office building spill into a soulless concourse. But Disney Hall, with its open lobbies and rooftop grounds, hints that besides being able to sculpt a postcard-worthy facade, Gehry also might be capable of crafting a great civic space.
Last year, he opted out of the scrum to design the new World Trade Center, and the Guggenheim Museum branch he designed for an East River site was shelved. Now, New York has a chance to grab a Gehry extravaganza. Let's hope it doesn't slip away.