“Downtown Brooklyn presents a layered, seemingly impenetrable wall when viewed from Brooklyn Heights. The composition, especially with the oblique view of Borough Hall, seems designed as a purposeful representation of the city while it simultaneously denies continuity and the expansiveness to the neighborhoods beyond.” Photo and caption by Jason Montgomery.
Last Tuesday we put on a session at the Brooklyn Historical Society, the topic the rezoning of Downtown Brooklyn. “Downtown Brooklyn is evolving and changing rapidly with a surge of new development. But will these changes give us the downtown we all desire?” we asked. So, we explored the future of Downtown Brooklyn with the 2004 Special Purpose District Zoning Resolution, reviewing the goals of the rezoning and assessing the results so far, turning to a panel of experts on planning, community advocacy, government affairs, and development for a discussion on key issues critical to Downtown Brooklyn’s future, including public space, pedestrian experience and safety, public and private development, transportation, and connectivity to surrounding neighborhoods. Participants included myself, moderating the panel discussion, Bethany Bowyer (Downtown Brooklyn Partnership), Hilda Cohen (Make Brooklyn Safer), Ali Esmaeilzadeh (Forest City), and Kevin Hom (City Tech). Offered at Brooklyn Historical Society in partnership with the Downtown Rising Working Group.
Jason Montgomery, Assistant Professor Department of Architectural Technology City Tech, introduced our session, reviewing the aims of the rezoning that displaced historic businesses to make way for skyscrapers, luxury towers, and a more polished view of urban life. The point of the rezoning was to establish a comprehensive plan for strong and diverse commercial markets, bringing business to downtown. (And while, there certainly were already businesses in the area, along Fulton, these were not sufficient for the Bloomberg administration). Through the re zoning, Downtown was promoted as a third business district in New York, after Lower and Midtown Manhattan. Then and now, the planning challenges for the space, poor streetscape and an isolated downtown core, were many. Still, the city moved a zoning plan for a business district. Ten years later, many would scratch their heads and wonder what had happened to Brooklyn, starting in downtown.
Professor Michael Duddy reviewed the horizontal changes to the landscape, including a swath of residential buildings that have gone up in the last decade, skyscraper after skyscraper, as Downtown Brooklyn evolved with a developer friendly agenda, without complimentary public infrastructure of schools or transportation.
“Today, you can’t count the cranes on a view of Flatbush,” Duddy explained. The redevelopment of the neighborhood has gone through several stages. 1985-2005 witnessed the Forest City’s MetroTech, the first significant development in the area since the 1930’s. This is the sort of dead of isolated space, repelling bodies from a space few use or enjoy. 2004 ushered a new phase of development, new towers, City Tech and NYU anchoring this as a student space. Today, downtown Brooklyn is integrating educational, residential, and cultural resources, as well as the neighborhoods, Boerum Hill, Brooklyn Heights, and Fort Green, each of these neighborhoods disconnected and separate. Over the years, this downtown has a hard time relating to these other neighborhoods. The most natural integration moves from South to North, from Boerum Hill to Atlantic, yet the others are less smooth. The challenge involves connecting the isolated core out to the rest of the city. The barriers, double parked cars, and demarcating lines create any number of challenges. “Getting from Fulton to Jay Street one sees no smiling faces,” confessed Duddly.
Comparing glossy photos of plans for glitzy streets without cars to images of gridlock along Flatbush, Hilda Cohen, a transportation advocate with Make Brooklyn Safer and Families for Safe Streets, offered a telling observation. “In between planning and construction is 15 years of change. Within it remains a vast gap between the ‘bold new ideas’ and the reality. Where are the bold new ideas for streets asked Cohen. “Our streets are for us, not for cars. What are the ways to improve and report a problem?” So, how can we market streets for people to linger, to share space? How can we re imagine Jay Street, making this street usable for multiple users, while doing away with barriers, such as rows of double parked cars blocking bus lanes, clogging up traffic. If Brooklyn wants to be a cutting edge space, our streets must reflect this, it must realize that shared space is necessary. We need bold new designs. What makes these streets feel comfortable?
I followed by posing a question to our panel, noting Downtown Brooklyn is the third largest "business district" in New York City after the Financial District and Midtown Manhattan. The 2004 Develop Plan promotes Downtown Brooklyn as a key location for back office space. With Brooklyn's evolution over the past decade and the technology boom in Brooklyn, the planning for Downtown Brooklyn likely now needs to achieve different goals. What should be changed in the planning for Downtown Brooklyn to adapt to these new conditions? Is there a model urban "character" that should guide the development of Downtown Brooklyn?
Kevin Hom, a dean and architect with City Tech, suggested that Brooklyn, itself, could be a source for insight into its future. “Brooklyn was once one of the great cities in the US,” he explained. Ocean Parkway is a great model of a street, as an open thoroughfare, rapid transit, and great design. Downtown Brooklyn surrounded by water and industrial sites could be an ideal. Further, Manhattan is saturated, no room for further development. Brooklyn has been a model for design for 100 years. Today, the challenge includes exchanging high-rises for residential prototypes. It’s a unique space with a history to address its challenges as one of the great cities.
Ali Esmaeilzadeh, of Forest City, suggested that the city needs to create incentives so we can get the city where we want it too be.
Bethany Bowyer, of Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, pointed out that projects such as the Brooklyn Strand are in the works. And today, the office vacancy is just 3%.
Kevin Hom noted that with economic vitality, there was less inclusiveness. He pointed to the example of an Armani now on Atlantic Ave. That’s going to cater to a new kind of Brooklyn, one that has not always been there. Yet, city planning can guide this; government can plan this, opening a social and political dialogue.
For this to work, we have to rethink the streets here as other cities have, noted Cohen. She pointed to the example of Portland, Oregon where buses run for free downtown. So people use the buses, instead of cars, with gridlock reduced. We have to rethink how we get around.
Bethany finished with a question, can downtown be connected with the Navy Yards, Dumbo and the Brooklyn Strand?
How do you enhance the changes that have already happened noted Hom. The area needs connection.
While it has brand appeal, the area is going to need to balance the rush to develop itself with the past 100 years of good planning here.
I asked the crowd who of us go to downtown to eat? Who remembers the old Gage and Tullner restaurant down here? Few rose their hands.
Downtown Brooklyn, especially Jay Street, is home to a large population of college students. How can the uses, public spaces, and streets of Downtown Brooklyn better provide a sense of place for these students while leveraging the students' energy to help activate Downtown Brooklyn? How can community spaces in Downtown Brooklyn help foster community, integration, and interaction? What kind of spaces need to be developed?
Hom pointed out that some of the good planning that makes BAM thrive, an active theater and restaurants, open streetscape, could be extended downtown so people want to stay after work.
The realization that we need a vibe on the ground is becoming more prescient acknowledged Ali.
While downtown Brooklyn is an economic hub, it is missing needed infrastructure, noted several of the audience members, with frustration in their voices. While 10,000 new residential units have been created, supporting schools, libraries, and hospitals have not been developed.
It is the responsibility of government and governance to create these things, Hom pointed out. Only community pressure can create the impetus to create these things. People have to organize.
People want to live here. This is one of the great cities, along with Shanhai, Los Angeles, Tokyo, and London. The people want to make it great. Yet, from the 1950’s when the Dodgers left until 2004, the borough was sinking. And now its turning around with new tides of buildings and people.
Several called for halting the residential development until attendant needs are addressed.