The Journal Slams City For 4th Avenue Planning Botch

It’s nothing we haven’t heard (or said ourselves) before (StreetsBlog was on this back in 2008), but The Wall Street Journal minces no words this morning in its critique of Brooklyn’s 4th Avenue and the rezoning rules that allowed it to become the antithesis of what Jane Jacobs would have wanted.

Just as great architecture can lift the spirit, bad architecture can crush it. In few parts of New York is this more the case than with the rash of new apartment buildings along Brooklyn’s Fourth Avenue, the six-lane street that runs south from Atlantic Terminal and cleaves Park Slope from Gowanus. Because of bad decisions by Amanda Burden’s City Planning Department and the profit-above-all-else motive of some developers, Brooklyn is going to be stuck for decades with this depressing wasteland of cheap materials and designs…Fourth Avenue, anchored at the north end by the sublime Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower, could have one day become one of New York’s grand avenues, a broad street full of life, mixed uses and appealing architecture. But the Planning Department lacked such foresight in 2003 when it rezoned the noisy avenue to take advantage of the demand for apartments spilling over Park Slope to the east and Boerum Hill and Gowanus to the west. Focused primarily on residential development, it didn’t require developers to incorporate ground-level commercial businesses into their plans, and allowed them to cut sidewalks along Fourth Avenue for entrances to ground-level garages. Developers got the message. With the re-zoning coinciding with the real-estate boom, they put up more than a dozen apartment towers, many of them cheap looking and with no retail at the street level, effectively killing off the avenue’s vibrancy for blocks at a time.

The writer has special words for Henry Radusky of Bricolage Designs, a poster-child for the dark side of the last building boom. “Each Radusky project looks like a slapdash building with blank, deadened bases that add nothing to the street.” But Radusky blames the depressing outcomes on his clients. “We’re always urging our clients for better architecture. Some of them go for it, some of them don’t. It is a shame, no question about it,” Mr. Radusky told The Journal. “The city gifted these developers with a really profitable zone, and not everyone took advantage of it to build good architecture.” City Planning head Amanda Burden did not respond directly to the article but admitted through a spokesperson that the 2003 zoning changes were not the agency’s finest moment. “It was not a concern at the time that development controls would be needed to prevent the negative aspects of development that has occurred on Fourth Avenue.” (Similarly, the agency had called the rezoning a “missed opportunity” back in 2008.) The article is subscription only but if you go in to Google News and search for “Brooklyn’s Burden: Fourth Avenue” you should be able to read it.
Brooklyn’s Burden: Fourth Avenue [WSJ]
Photo from StreetsBlog

28 Comment

  • USGrant

    While I agree with the commentary on “bad architecture” crushing the spirit -can the WALL STREET Journal, with any credibility, slam “profit-above-all-else” anything….?

    • Historically, the news side and the op-ed of the WSJ have been polar opposites and very separate. I don’t know if this has continued on in its current News Corp. era, but I would imagine that journalists and the editorial board still move in different circles.

  • While some of these buildings are not the prettiest, its still better than tire shops.

  • 4th Ave is 4th Ave. It will always suck.

  • All of the new buildings are ugly with the exception of “The Arias” on Butler, I actually like that one, even though it replaced my favorite tenements that were there before.

    But 4th was horrible anyway, at least these new buildings are bringing it some sort of life.

    So there isn’t commercial space on the ground floors, so what. not every Avenue has to be the same. We have 5th and 7th with commercial, isn’t that enough?

    While the building shown here with the grilles at ground lever are really ugly, that was the architects fault, he could have maybe used an imagination and made the street level a bit nicer…..but at least it is neat, and not another tire shop.

  • All of the new buildings are ugly with the exception of “The Arias” on Butler, I actually like that one, even though it replaced my favorite tenements that were there before.

    But 4th was horrible anyway, at least these new buildings are bringing it some sort of life.

    So there isn’t commercial space on the ground floors, so what. not every Avenue has to be the same. We have 5th and 7th with commercial, isn’t that enough?

    While the building shown here with the grilles at ground lever are really ugly, that was the architects fault, he could have maybe used an imagination and made the street level a bit nicer…..but at least it is neat, and not another tire shop.

  • The buildings can always alter the spaces down the road if it makes enough sense. There can one day be stores in some of those buildings, parking spaces could be converted, etc.

  • The buildings can always alter the spaces down the road if it makes enough sense. There can one day be stores in some of those buildings, parking spaces could be converted, etc.

  • You can’t legislate a quality building. That decision is made by the developer and their perception of the market. In retrospect, City Planning should have mandated ground-level commercial uses, but it was incorrectly assumed that the market would dictate that use. Fortunately, zoning regulations now mandate ground-level commercial use for future buildings. I suspect that in time the ground-level garages will be converted to more appropriate commercial uses.

    • srsqualms

      reasonable, I think that you disprove your own point by the end of your comment. They absolutely could have ‘legislated’ higher-quality building and in retrospect they regret the missed opportunity.

  • As much as it would be nice to have ground-level retail, until the NYPD and DOT get serious about stopping the rampant speeding, red light running, and general lawlessness of drivers on 4th Avenue, it won’t really matter what’s happening on the sidewalk. Cars routinely go 50 or 60 mph on 4th and zip around corners without looking for pedestrians. I’d patronize a shop or restaurant on 4th, but I’m not so keen on crossing the street there if I don’t have to, especially with my kid.

    It’s the elephant in the room, much more so than bad design. Boring buildings and safe streets are much better than nice shops and a raceway. Too bad the NYPD doesn’t care about speeding.

    • srsqualms

      Ditmas, don’t you think ground-level retail would contribute to traffic calming and curbing speeding? Your comment seems odd to me. I thought the point was that “bad design” is not just bad because it’s ugly but because it has measurably bad effects on communities. It’s really not something the “cops” can flip a switch and change. People treat highways with nothing but cars as a raceway. Drivers are less likely to act like they are on a “raceway” if they are in thriving integrated retail and residential communities with pedestrians, trees, good bumpouts, and attractive people-friendly architecture.

      • Great points, qualmly, since you do need a holistic approach to traffic calming. There’s no silver bullet, and obviously the bad design feeds the impression that 4th remains a highway.

        However, for most of the day 4th Avenue has way too much space for traffic, contributing to speeding. Just reducing the space for cars alone would go a long way towards calming traffic. (As you mention, bumpouts would help.)

        For example, drivers were speeding on PPW before DOT narrowed the roadway, even though that side of the park is usually full of activity, attractive, and very residential.

        The cops can certainly flip a switch if they started enforcing the law on a regular basis. It would send a message to drivers to watch out. When’s the last time anyone got a ticket for speeding on 4th?

  • no-permits

    i don’t really get this.. most of the new construction buildings on the avenue that come to mind have commercial space on the ground. it’s really just that one pictured above on the corner of second street without and the “finger” on carroll.

  • no-permits

    i don’t really get this.. most of the new construction buildings on the avenue that come to mind have commercial space on the ground. it’s really just that one pictured above on the corner of second street without and the “finger” on carroll.

  • Trolly Dodger & Reasonable: Its nice to see that you have such faith in the market, however these spaces will probably never become retail without major changes. First of all, parking at grade doesn’t count against the allowable FAR. Since the developers no doubt maxed out their developmet rights above, there is none left available. Second, These spaces typically have low/minimum ceiling heights with a lot of plumbing transfers from the apartments above, no retailer will accept these spaces without severe discounts.
    I saw a map recently regarding the zone for suspending parking minimums in downtown brooklyn. It contained a finger extending down fourth avenue, however I don’t think the parking minimum change is to address this zone. Going forward this is critical. Because of the subway under the street any excavation requires MTA approval which is very slow and usually made very expensive by bans on driving piles and some tie-backs for shoring. This is why developers bring parking up above ground.

  • Fourth Avenue is not included in the area being discussed for reduced parking minimums. Study area map:
    http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcp/pdf/dwn_bk_ped_park/study_area.pdf

  • Adrienne

    Retail space for what? Another Rite Aid? Only conglomerates would rent these spaces. Let’s not feed into the “Malling of America.” Perhaps more trees and greenery would be a good idea to encourage walking and help negate carbon monoxide.

  • NeoGrec

    I agree that the redevelopment of 4th ave has been a massive disappointment. A master plan was needed. It would have involved traffic calming, greening the avenue, a retail component, and sensible design regulations (eg. no HVAC systems on the ground pumping hot air out onto the sidewalks!).

    Given the size of the some of the new apartment buildings, there was an opportunity — now squandered — to attract some high end retail that could serve affluent Park Slopers but, in the past, hasn’t been able to find commercial spaces of sufficient size, like Crate & Barrel, Room and Board, Best Buy, Whole Foods, Trader Joes etc. What a botched job. Amanda Burden is as Manhattan-centric as her boss Daddy Bloomberg.

  • The avenue’s vibrancy?!?!

    I can’t think of any avenue in the New York less vibrant than 4th ave.! It has been a s++t hole for decades and now has a second chance with the new zoning. So what if not every building has retail, just go around the corner to 5th ave, which has great retail. There are many other avenues without retail that are wonderful; Park Ave in Manhattan and Ocean Parkway to name a few.

  • Houston in Manhattan used to be awful, but new commercial/residential developments have improved it substantially. Nobody loves walking on sidewalks adjacent to busy roadways, but ground floor retail even occupied by Duane Reades and Whole Foods, make neighborhoods much more “livable.”

  • Houston in Manhattan used to be awful, but new commercial/residential developments have improved it substantially. Nobody loves walking on sidewalks adjacent to busy roadways, but ground floor retail even occupied by Duane Reades and Whole Foods, make neighborhoods much more “livable.”

  • The story is only half the tragedy. The other half is the city’s rolling over and helping Ratner build his arena — an architectural abortion and a planning travesty abetted by roundheels at DOT. He uglified a neighborhood that was turning around all by itself, and the area will never recover. A fitting anchor for Fourth Avenue as it approaches Ratnerville.

  • The story is only half the tragedy. The other half is the city’s rolling over and helping Ratner build his arena — an architectural abortion and a planning travesty abetted by roundheels at DOT. He uglified a neighborhood that was turning around all by itself, and the area will never recover. A fitting anchor for Fourth Avenue as it approaches Ratnerville.

  • Yepper – it’s ugly. Missed opportunity – yes. That said, it seems like things are happening on Fourth. Ugly never held back development — look at Williamsburg.

    As a side note – I think Fourth Avenue was the first street in Brooklyn to be paved for cycling enthusiasts.