Why not a REAL “Atlantic Alternative”?

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By Paul Sheridan
We have seen the first sketches for Bruce Ratner’s “abominable arena” for Brooklyn’s downtown area.  Elsewhere, others have analyzed its many problems: the taking of private property for profit, the loss of billions in future income to the city, the increased traffic and congestion, the poor aesthetics, the lack of land- use reviews, etc.
I am confident that Ratner will not get the Nets franchise, what we are seeing is a game where a wealthy corporation (a sports team) pits one city against another.  Even if he does manage to buy the Nets, the collective smarts and political power of many of Brooklyn’s residents will be able to keep this overblown plan from being built at this site, fancy architect or not.
That leaves us with the question of what should happen there, along Atlantic Avenue, east of Flatbush Avenue?  Planning for the growth, renewal, and for change in our city neighborhoods has been all too reactive for too many years.   Government leaders seem to sit and wait until private developers assemble enough land-or the rights to land-cheaply enough, then they propose building what will return the maximum profit to them, with the least outlay by them.  And if the public takes the major risks, investing its future income, all the better.  Politicians cheer from the sidelines.  Is this leadership?
It is time to be proactive.  I am as opposed to Ratner’s plans as much as any sane resident of Prospect Heights.  But after 15 years here, I recognize that the city, the community, the governmental owners of this land should be developing and improving these train storage yards.  Shouldn’t this space be developed?-The yards are fairly ugly, cold in winter, hot in summer, and could relatively easily be decked over for some good uses, but certainly not for any towers, neither offices nor housing.
The name that Ratner has chosen for his megalopolis in the midst of our low-rise brownstone communities, “Atlantic Yards,” should tell us something about the lack of imagination at work here.  It reminds me of suburban tract developments called Ferndale Woods, or Meadowlark Glen. They might have once had dales or glens, but all that remains are the street signs.  Ratner would remove the yards, but keep the name.  Let’s imagine a few other possibilities for this land:
Fifth to Sixth Avenues- a Public Market, above the rail yards.
An Atlantic Terminal Market if you will, covered overhead (with some interesting architecture?), creating an airy “indoors,” heated in winter, cooled in summer, as an incubator for small businesses-food sellers, both local and regional farmers and bakers, (much like the very successful Greenmarkets), plus crafts, books, music, etc.  There would be low start up costs for vendors, short- and long- term leasing, careful planning to minimize impact of delivery traffic.  Additionally, convert the storage yards below to an enlarged LIRR train station, to handle and encourage non-automobile commuting for the employees in millions of square feet of new office space planned to the north along Flatbush Avenue.  Every other rail track in the yard could be built over to become a station platform.  Brooklyn, New York City, and the nation certainly all need more rail traffic and less street traffic.
Sixth to Vanderbilt Avenues:   Low density, truly affordable, residential-commercial development Low to mid-rise (2-to 6-story) housing, with mixed apartment sizes, with some commercial spaces, generally smaller footage offices, for small businesses, lawyers, medical, as well as neighborhood-oriented businesses, but not regional, not “big box,” soulless malls.
One important question is what is the definition of affordable, a phrase thrown around a lot but with few specifics, much like being for mom or apple pie.  I think a good starting point for anyone using the term is “affordable for someone who earns less than I do.”  How about $1000 a month, or less, for a decent-sized two bedroom (900-1000 sq. ft)?  That would fit within the usual financial standards-25% of your income for housing-12 months  x $1000 = $12,000, which is 25% of a $48,000 yearly family income.
Some of the advantages to this kind of plan are: there is no need for condemnations using eminent domain; much lower construction and site- preparation costs; portions may qualify for federal funding (rail transportation); no city streets would be blocked off (the #63 bus could keep its route, for example); no need for 3000-car parking garages (though many in the area would like to see some off-street parking for the nearby 78th police precinct).
This plan might sound like Rouse-ification (think South Street Seaport), but most would agree that is better than Ratnerization!
I should add that I am an amateur here, I am not a city planner or an architect.  I think there are a lot of good ideas out there if the communities were truly involved, and not simply handed a plan.  As an example, my neighbor has a vision: she suggests re-extending the small streets that were cut off by the construction of Atlantic Commons and Atlantic Terminal. She wants to see streets like South Elliot and Clermont to go from Atlantic Avenue to Pacific Street.  She also suggests adding a new small street that curves, meanders even, down the middle between Atlantic and Pacific, from Fifth to Vanderbilt Avenues.  She puts in small-scale, in-context, housing similar to Atlantic Commons (using the best possible design!) and lots of green spaces on this “deck-over” of the yards, which would stay.  This is development that fits the need’s of borough of Brooklyn:  the neighborhoods, minimizes new traffic, does not cost billions, but millions.  It is most certainly not development that fills a developer’s pockets, or fulfills fantasies of politicians.  Here’s yet another radical idea: why not a real ballpark for the use of neighborhood youth?
One closing thought: We have not heard much from the residents of nearby Park Slope.  Maybe this project is not yet on their radar screen, or perhaps they hope that it will help their property values while somehow not impacting on their quality of- life?  Anyone who has seen Flatbush Avenue at a standstill, from downtown to Grand Army Plaza during rush hours, will understand that no neighborhood exists in a vacuum.  Pay attention Slopers, you will not like “Ratner’s Revenge,” I promise you.