Much as we want to be, The Observer is no real fan of the transformation of the Fourth Avenue from grotty auto shops to shoddy “luxury” apartment buildings. As usual, The Journal‘s Robbie Whelan delivers another brilliant diagnosis for the city’s architectural woes, and this time he focuses in on “Brooklyn’s Burden.”
Sadly, the damage already is done. 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 city finally got wise and passed another zoning change last year, correcting some of these mistakes. But it was too late. Walking along parts of Fourth Avenue today is like walking in the suburbs, bereft of the interaction between pedestrian and building, except for occasionally having to dodge a car darting out of a garage.
It closes with one of the strongest damnations of City Planning boss Amanda Burden, who has been honored by most every planning agency and civic group on the planet: “After Mayor Bloomberg leaves office at the end of 2013, Ms. Burden may be replaced as head of the Planning Department as well as chairwoman of the Planning Commission. Let’s hope her replacement makes his or her mistakes before taking power.”
This was clearly an awful oversight, but how much is Ms. Burden to blame, and how much is this the fault of the system with which she is trapped?
This is precisely why there is a war on landmarks, because so many New Yorkers are clamoring for more historic districts precisely because it is the only means of quality control in the city’s “built environment.” Just a block up the hill is Fifth Avenue, and the start of the Park Slope Historic District, one of the nicest and most expensive stretches in New York.
The historic district was just expanded for the third time, an outcome that makes developers red and blue. But can you blame the neighbors? When left to their own devices, some of these guys can do no right.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Mr. Whelan’s name as “Robby,” not “Robbie.” The Observer regrets the error.