Pacific Park is a 4.9 billion USD mixed-use development under construction over seven city blocks of Downtown Brooklyn. When completed in 2025, Pacific Park will encompass 6,430 new apartments, up to 100,000 square metres of office space, 25,000 square metres of retail space, a public park, a grand new entrance to the subway lines below and the Barclays Center sports arena – with the latter two elements already completed. First conceived as Atlantic Yards in 2003, the project has accelerated the borough’s rapid transition from a post-industrial district to the poster child neighbourhood for the so-called millennial creative culture, and not without some conflict. If change was inevitable in Brooklyn, the tensions within a borough prideful of its rich and diverse social, economic, and cultural strands have only been exacerbated by the development. uncube correspondent David Bench and illustrator Lane Rick, both based in New York, sat down together to ponder the nature of growth, identity and “Brooklyn’s newest neighbourhood” in this long-read dialogue about real estate reality.
David Bench: Identity is a key theme for this development, something underlined by the name change that developers Forest City Ratner unveiled in 2014, in which Atlantic Yards was re-christened Pacific Park. Part of the reasoning behind this move was to put some distance between the early compulsory purchase (eminent domain) controversies and the future of the project as a residential neighbourhood, but it is more than that. The project itself was an icebreaker for the development community in Brooklyn. While NIMBYism was an issue in the early stages of the project, the name change seemed to coincide with a general acceptance (or ambivalence) regarding large-scale building projects. Where Atlantic Yards may have represented the first clear wave of gentrification, Pacific Park is now just another in a series of large residential developments in Northern Brooklyn alongside the Domino sugar factory and Northside Piers in Williamsburg, the Gowanus canal projects and the development of the Brooklyn Bridge Park. Atlantic Yards had the burden of initiating this scale of residential development in Brooklyn.
Lane Rick: And even in the immediate area, many tall towers are on the rise – including a recently announced 73-storey tower by SHoP Architects. This kind of development would certainly have been much more controversial before Pacific Park. Since the original masterplan was released to the public, Brooklyn has become not just a popular place to live, but also a well-regarded business address. The subsequent increase in demand for office space has paralleled a fast-growing residential real estate market and an increasingly high profile cultural presence.
To understand the development it is helpful to consider it as two distinct projects. With the Pacific Park rebranding in 2014, phase one was already partially completed; the Barclays Center on the west block of the development had been open for two years, and the modular tower at 461 Dean Street was already well under construction. Half a mile east, the condominiums that occupy the east end of the site reveal the rebranded face of Pacific Park. The ambition of the first phase of the project, along its west edge, contrasts starkly with the more typical luxury condos of the project’s second phase. The mixed use west edge caps a major transit hub with the rusted steel sports arena and includes the world’s tallest residential modular tower and will offer affordable housing when completed. In contrast, the generic condos on the east edge are a profitable insertion of market-rate housing into a real estate market that is clearly struggling to meet high demand. Perhaps their boldest move is the abrupt shift in scale from three-story townhouses to an 18-story, 275-unit tower.
DB: With the Barclays Center, Pacific Park has brought professional sports back to Brooklyn in a clear effort to build civic engagement in the project. By locating the arena on a site that in 1957 was denied to the then Brooklyn Dodgers (and resulted in the baseball team’s move to Los Angeles, where they are still located), the Barclays Center is something of a historical correction. As part of the local-oriented branding, the food kiosks inside the arena are all Brooklyn-based franchises and sit at street level, creating a continuous promenade between the plaza outside and the arena’s primary interior circulation. With the looping steel cantilever over the plaza and the storefronts along the south face of the arena, it actively engages with its context.
LR: The sports arena has certainly become a strong element of Brooklyn’s identity. Its mass has a strange harmony with the shopping mall to the north and the irregular blocks and intersections to the south and east. The rusted steel makes for an iconic addition to Brooklyn as a landmark punctuating views from the many streets that radiate from it. The public plaza in front of the Barclays Center is perhaps one of the most successful aspects of the project. The crowds that spill over before and after events makes evident the need for a large open space, but even at off hours, people come out of the subway entrance on the east edge of the plaza and pull out their phones to take a picture before moving on with their day. The arena itself has a strange but appealing mass.
DB: SHoP Architects designed both the arena and the modular tower, which sits adjacent, and the results are strikingly different. Where the sports facility has a muscular massing that matches its function, the tower obfuscates its innovation. Billed as the tallest modular tower in the world, it appears as three distinct masses stacked up rather than the hundreds of individual modules that are its constituent parts. This experiment in prefabrication has severely compromised its budget and schedule (at least a two-year delay), perhaps in part because it denies the natural syncopation of the modules that could have been expressed. This is a strange denial of its character as the modules were prefabricated nearby at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and much has been made of the “Made in Brooklyn” aspect of the project in order to build on the artisanal/crafted-everything brand of the borough. So why they don’t visually express this is a mystery. The ambitions of the western portion of the site are certainly admirable from a development point of view, but the architectural logic does not quite live up to its promise.
LR: Urbanistically, however, the Barclays Center has successfully transformed the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues, for vehicles and pedestrians alike. As an icon of the borough’s changing identity, the west block is redefining the found condition of Brooklyn. The masterplan for Pacific Park’s east block, however, is much less responsive to its context. Not only in the design, but also in its marketing. The southeast-most building, 550 Vanderbilt Avenue, is advertising itself as the first condominium in “Brooklyn’s newest neighbourhood”, Pacific Park. It is expected to open in fall 2016, coordinating its market-rate condos with the affordable units of nearby 535 Carlton Avenue. Both sites are already in the existing neighbourhood of Prospect Heights, and it seems the buildings might bypass an opportunity to transform their context and provide a blueprint for the development and continued gentrification that almost certainly lies ahead.
DB: But the towers operate at such a large scale that they really do become their own neighbourhood – as is claimed by the marketing literature. Rather than integrating with what is existing, “old” and “new” Brooklyn come together in sharp contrast and the project clearly defines itself as its own entity, with all of the accompanying benefits: light, views, the integration of affordable housing, and the creation of public open space which would only be possible with this scale of the development. As much as many people would love to see the continuation of the existing nineteenth-century terraced housing fabric of Prospect Heights, this would only allow units for the super rich given current real estate and construction costs. Density is required for the inclusion of so many of these goals and so in that way, it really is a new neighbourhood.
LR: This new scale of construction is certainly reflected in the international players that have made Pacific Park possible. Barclays, a British bank, financed the arena, and Mikhail Prokhorov, a Russian billionaire, owns the Brooklyn Nets, the local basketball team who are also housed in the arena. With the rebranding as Pacific Park, Forest City Ratner sold a majority interest in the development to Greenland Holding Group, a Chinese government-owned corporation and one of the world’s largest property developers. These investors have little motivation to focus on accommodating the existing fabric and urban patterns of nearby neighbourhoods. Maybe this is in keeping with Brooklyn’s new face as a high-profile international brand. Would Brooklyn be able to back large-scale developments like Pacific Park without big money investors such as these? And what development strategies would otherwise be available to the borough?
DB: It is interesting to think of Pacific Park in relation to other transit developments of a similar scale across New York City. It’s difficult to ignore Madison Square Garden as a precedent; under the guidance of Robert Moses in the 1960s, the Beaux-Arts Penn Station was torn down and the rail lines buried to make way for a mixed-use development with an arena on top. The project is recognized as a canonical mistake, and yet, Pacific Park follows a similar program. It’s part of an impulse to make use of the remaining developable space in the city, like Hudson Yards on the west side of Manhattan. This trend makes possible a more sensitive and connective attitude towards development, where (for the most part) the prime location of the site is leveraged against the difficulty of building over the rail yards and knitting disparate neighbourhoods together.
LR: The two distinct ends of Pacific Park will ultimately be united in 2025 with the completion of the towers along the north edge of the site that cap the rail lines. Not only is this an opportunity to bring a cohesive identity to the massive development, but it also will provide a standard for future developments. As the first of what is likely to be a number of projects that stretch east along Atlantic Avenue, public space and circulation within the project has the power to create a new public typology in Brooklyn as a whole. Its success is paramount in offering a much-needed precedent for future growth, one that accommodates heavy vehicular traffic – as along Atlantic Avenue – and slower pedestrian movement within its own footprint and the surrounding neighbourhoods.
– David Bench is a practising architect at Selldorf Architects, writer, and uncube’s New York correspondent. Lane Rick is an architect and freelance designer working in China, the USA, and Canada.