Welcome to Brooklyn


In “The City in History,” Lewis Mumford described how the first great cities of Athens and Rome succumbed to the disparity of a city’s subcultures and accumulation of wealth for the privileged classes. Three weeks ago an article appeared in the New York Times about the developer David Lichtenstein; I started to wonder if the sunburst over Brooklyn will fade as those with similar track records and motivations determine its fate. Mr. Lichtenstein's company, The Lightstone Group, has taken over a project on the banks of the Gowanus Canal originally put forth by Toll Brothers. The city granted Toll Brothers a zoning variance in 2009 for its 447-unit condo development, but the company backed out after the canal was designated an EPA Superfund site. Lightstone stepped in last year with a new proposal for a 700-unit rental property with pretty much the same design. The city decided that the new proposal was a minor modification and signed off on it, ignoring a plea from our local councilmember, Brad Lander, to reconsider the entire project in the wake of flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy.

Lightstone initially presented its proposal last year at P.S. 32 in Carroll Gardens. It was a meeting full of vitriol and adolescent behavior by some of those who opposed the project. One family stood up and spoke movingly on the need for more affordable housing in the neighborhood. A handful of people offered qualified approval, with the hope that more discussions would be forthcoming on the project’s design, size, and response to inevitable flooding. Those of us who have spent considerable time studying the neighborhood are acutely aware of its potential for greatness. Hopefully, this development is not just a financial opportunity cloaked in feel good set asides for moderate income families, but also a civic one that should strive to be something greater.

On the brighter side, marvelous things are unfolding in Brooklyn. My son’s soccer and lacrosse teams recently opened their spring seasons on the new Pier 5 athletic fields below Brooklyn Heights. Wrapped on three sides by water with breathtaking views of New York Harbor and downtown Manhattan (and the occasional soccer ball floating into the East River), these fields are one of best venues for sport in our city, and possibly the country. Two weeks ago, our family attended our first Brooklyn Nets game in Barclay’s Arena. The only team in professional sports whose geographical identity is actually smaller than a city, the Nets are coached by P.J. Carlesimo, a firebrand coach once famous for sporting Latrell Sprewell’s handprints on his neck. The tickets were purchased through P.S. 58, an elementary school in Carroll Gardens selling tickets to raise money for their programs. The Nets field a team of talented players who, though not exactly household names, are playing great basketball in an arena clad in rusted steel and digital screens.

Beautiful soccer fields, a home borough basketball team, and community fundraising – these reflect the core values of Brooklyn. Its sadly neglected waterways and neighborhoods tethered to the residual effects of 20th century industry need new development and community infrastructure. The rather dry and mediocre solution in Lightstone’s project places the city’s lack of a 21st century urban vision in stark relief. Is this really the best the city and private development can do in a neighborhood rich with texture, history, and its fair share of challenges? Our borough and our city deserves better.

posted by David Briggs