Atlantic Yards Planner: “Space on Streets is Useless Space”

In this week’s New York Observer, Matthew Schuerman talks at length with Laurie Olin, the landscape architect who may or may not have been teamed up with starchitect Frank Gehry on Forest City Enterprise’s Atlantic Yards project "to compensate for Mr. Gehry’s reputed lack of urban-planning skills." Schuerman writes:

Mr. Olin’s role in the project is far more than figuring out what trees to plant, and it cuts to the very heart of the controversy: the placement of the buildings that enclose eight acres of open space, the closure of city streets, and accommodating 16,000 residents on 22 acres of land.

One of the more controversial aspects of the Atlantic Yards project, the Observer reports, is the plan to de-map:

a one-block stretch of Pacific Street, melting the two adjoining blocks together into a "superblock" – the type of mid-20th-century urban planning widely used in housing projects, but since discredited by Jane Jacobs and a whole school of so-called urbanists. They have argued that superblocks discourage the type of street life that makes places like the West Village so successful.

olin_globe.frontpage.jpgOlin is clearly not impressed with "taboos against superblocks and the tower-in-park design."

"If I put a street through here, I have less space for people and I have more cars," he continued. "When people say ‘superblock’- what’s wrong with what this is? Because I don’t see how adding one car in here is going to make it a better space. I think space on streets is actually useless space."

The folks over at BrooklynSpeaks see it otherwise:

Streets define the public realm in NYC. Nearly every park in the city is surrounded by public streets. And streets themselves are places of activity and recreation. Far from being "useless space," Brooklynites use their streets to hang out on stoops and eat and drink in restaurants that spill out on to the sidewalk. Aside from parks and plazas, New York’s public realm is its streets. The bottom line is that demapping Pacific Street would turn land that is now totally public into semi-private open space, mainly benefiting the developer and the future residents of the project, who will enjoy the use of parkland that won’t be for all of us.

Jonathan Cohn of BrooklynViews was writing about this issue a year ago. He found City Planning Chair Amanda Burden’s position particularly puzzling:

Last week, City Planning Chair Amanda Burden made a strong case for an open Cortlandt Street at the World Trade Center site. "We need our streets," she said, "we need connectivity, we need an open Cortlandt Street for light and air and to create normal blocks". But that’s Manhattan. Brooklyn is different.

  • ddartley

    Tell Olin to try living next to or near a “superblock,” when his everyday walking errands require you constantly to walk the huge length of the hideous thing. It sucks. It’s a dead zone. Then tell him to try forgetting something on his errand and having to repeat the whole trip. Their very presence is infuriating.

  • Rob

    Anyone who favors superblocks needs to walk past Lincoln Center along Amsterdamn avenue. A horrible dead place.

  • Spud Spudly

    Didn’t the shine come off of “superblocks” with the realization that their use in public low-income housing projects was a near-total disaster? That’s why new projects today resemble brownstones, not the monolithic high-rise nightmares of Marcy and Cabrini Green fame.

    Not that Ratner intends to build anything like that — he just wants to appropriate public space for his private project. Whoopee.

  • Danny

    I think the readers of this blog agree that living with cars in a dense area is not ideal. So why advocate for more streets that will be used for more parking and traffic through a residential neighborhood?

    Yes, streets are the lifeblood of the city when children do not have parks to play in near their homes (see picture above). If you disagree, well then you are saying that the lifeblood of the city is dependent on the presence of cars.

    Jane Jacobs spoke out against superblocks primarily as a poor means of public housing because the interior courtyards could not easily be policed. That is why parks have roads – so they can be kept safe.

    The main reasons for streets, not superblocks are:
    1) connect neighborhoods with car traffic
    2) to keep an area safe with police presence
    3) to provide more parking
    4) to allow ddartley to drive to the convenience store on the corner

    The reason livable streets advocates like streets is because of their intimate scale that forces pedestrian interaction.

    I bet if they built pedestrianized streets, free of private automobiles, accessible by police and emergency vehicles, people wouldn’t fight those. why can’t superblocks be designed as such? Instead of big open spaces that seem “a horrible dead place” when not too many people are around.

    I think the main argument here is not streets, per se. Rather, it is scale.

    It worries me when smart people have an anti-superblock mentality because they have seen bad examples in the past. Can we learn from some of those mistakes and have successful superblocks free of cars in the public realm? I think so – I hope you can see it too, and fight not for automobile trafficked streets through Atlantic Yards, but rather pedestrianized neighborhood connectors and intimate scale givers.

  • P

    Danny, do you have an example of a good superblock?

  • Gizler

    Danny, what you describe I would not call a superblock. I’d say it’s regular blocks with pedestrian only streets. Big difference.

  • ddartley

    Why is it every time I try to say something helpful, someone calls me a motorist?!

    Danny, point definitely taken about irrational prejudice. Nevertheless, streets existed before cars. Even before horse-drawn carriages. I was indeed worrying about pedestrians, and streets NOT unnecessarily given to cars.

    And, I, and I think Rob, were NOT complaining about “big open spaces.” I think we were both talking about big CLOSED spaces, and I maintain, they suck. Note-Rob mentioned Lincoln Center on the AMSTERDAM AVE. side. Not a big open space. Rather, a big WALL. And the superblock I had in mind is very similar.

  • P

    I agree Gizler- for one, it changes the public’s relationship to the (cough) interstitial space of the development.

    As a superblock all of the ‘park space’ between the buildings is privatized backyards that few outsiders would venture into- making a mockery of any claims that this is a benefit to the community.

    When streets- pedestrian or not- subdivide the lot there will be much more greenspace fronting streets: creating conditions much more similar to what we consider to be public parks. Non-residents will feel more comfortable in enjoying this space.

    Of course that’s why Rattner wants it to be a superblock: paying customers only, please.

  • AD

    What are those kids playing, stickball? One is used to seeing such pictures in black-and-white. It’s so nice to see a picture of that in color.

  • jbg

    I agree with Gitzler and P strongly – if they were proposing pedestrian streets that looked and felt like streets that would be fine. Sort of like Rockefeller Plaza. Only I think it would be essential here for the streets to be owned by the public.

    OTOH, I also like streets which cars use. For one thing, they’re good because you can take cabs and buses, which are forms of public transit that use vehicular streets. The problem is when you have too many cars – and for that the solution is not so much pedestrian streets as residential parking permits, congestion pricing and other demand management strategies.

    The bottom line is that either a public pedestrian street or a public vehicular street would be both better than what they’re planning to give us.

  • Dave

    If anyone other than Laurie Olin said this, I would be really upset. But if you look at public spaces that Olin has designed over the past 20 years ago, it becomes very clear that the man has an innate understanding of how to design a good public urban space. He has arguably added designed more excellent public spaces in NYC (Bryant Park, Battery Park, etc)than anyone other than Olmsted. So dispite the troubling words, I’m still confident that Olin will design a space that is appropriate and pedestrian oriented. One of the only people I would give that kind of benefit of the doubt to.

  • Here is an example of a good superblock: Columbia University.

    It has lots of life and people everywhere. Closing 116th Street to traffic and donating it to Columbia was a great move, but partially because it acts as the kind of pedestrianized street Danny suggested.

    Whether something like that can succeed in a non-college environment is an open question.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Here’s an idea: have a street that allows cars to drive through, with a streetscape that makes it clear that it’s a public space. But have it be a pedestrian-priority street, with lots of traffic calming measures (mini traffic circles, narrow lanes, pavement of color, etc.) to make that clear to the drivers as well. Hey, maybe you could even extend that west on Pacific Street.

    Honestly, I never liked that stretch of Pacific Street. I can’t imagine it being any worse. It’s just a question of how much improvement we can give it.

  • crzwdjk

    I think one of the key differences that makes the Columbia superblock work, and the others fail, is the number of people walking through. Because in the end, what makes something a public space is its accessibility to people who have no particular business there and are just passing through.

  • Q.R.

    Let’s not forget that the Columbia superblock does fail in many ways — the outside of the campus (particularly above 116th) is barren, window-less walls for three to four blocks. It’s really awful.

    But College Walk (116th) is very vital, and used as a pass-through for the whole neighborhood, so overall I’d say success…

  • P

    I think one of the key differences that makes the Columbia superblock work, and the others fail, is the number of people walking through.

    Exactly. This point is much more important than Mr. Ollin’s record of accomplishments. Battery Park City Park- to the extent that it is successful- works because of its location on the waterfront. Atlantic Yards won’t have the same amenities attracting the public throughout the day.

  • ddartley

    The very fact that some of us are citing the very same superblocks to both attack and defend them illustrates how huge they are!

    E.g., Columbia is so huge that it’s possible for one person in his day-to-day life to see primarily ONLY its beautiful and accessible open space, and another person in their day-to-day experience to see only the non-functional, multi-block wall. Same with Lincoln Center: attractive to many on the Broadway/Columbus Side; and a huge, dead wall on the Amsterdam Ave side (that incidentally cuts off from central Manhattan and Central Park an entire, large, less wealthy popluation (and also keeps that population out of sight of the wealthier citizens)).

    A minority of these comments have made good defenses of both Olin and superblocks; but all the comments illustrate that a superblock can be good on three sides and bad on one (or vice versa, or any combination thereof), and that’s still overall bad, because even just one side of a superblock is HUGE! Let’s hope that the designers of any new superblocks take that into account.

    Oh, and a final thought, and perhaps such designers already know this very well–I just haven’t seen it in these comments: one thing that would make the “public spaces” inside superblocks “liveable” would be the presense of retail businesses. When I complain about walking far out of my way because of a superblock, I am sure that the trip would be less painful if there were numerous small businesses to keep me entertained on the long walk. And this is especially important for the more internal public spaces in such complexes. Yes, Danny, maybe these are outdated examples, but they’re still very very common: some beautiful, manicured public space inside a superblock, with connections to surrounding streets, yet WHERE NO ONE GOES! If there were shops there, it wouldn’t be so unused.

  • David Chesler

    Here’s a superblock tower-in-the-park that works: Co-op City (as built). Half a square mile or so with no interior streets, but plenty of interior paths for walking, bicycling, and security patrols.

    Without interior streets, parents felt it was safe to let their children wander about; with children and teenagers wandering about there was a vibrant street-level neighborhood.

    Note: The Co-op City thing failed primarily because with something so big, and nobody owning it, corruption is attracted. And in recent years as the garages were condemned, the interior green spaces were converted to the vast asphalt wastelands they were trying to avoid. (Robert Moses had his hand in it. Blame him for that state-funded quasi-government-authority structure. A big part of the Mitchell-Lama motivation was to stop the “White Flight” that his heavy-handed social engineering [and bull-dozing to make the Cross Bronx] had exacerbated.)

    Reasons Co-op City worked: #1: Jessup was a brilliant architect. Open spaces under the buildings gave better vistas at the pedestrian scale. Varied architecture made it not the federal red monolith housing project. Not sure about the state-mandated townhouses. Some people like their scale mixed with the high-rises, but they occupy a lot of real estate. It didn’t destroy an existing neighborhood or grid system, but was built on swamp (although today it would be called wetlands.) As a new neighborhood, the racial tensions of “old people” and “new people” were significantly lessened. As a middle-income nominal cooperative, there was more pride of ownership and less hopelessness than a low-income project.


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