Ratner Will Bring Us Closer Together


Our claim from July that Atlantic Yards would be the densest census tract in the country seems to be sowing some confusion, which is just as well, because we never really said that.

What we said was that Atlantic Yards would be twice as dense as the densest census tract in the country, but nothing about it being its own census tract. The 22-acre project spans four census tracts, as you can see from the map above, which we have borrowed from NoLandGrab, an opposition blog. The red parts are where Frank Gehry’s skyscrapers and arena will go.

Because all of this confusion made us curious, we went ahead and calculated what effect the new population would have on the densities of those four census tracts. No, none of those tracts will become the densest in the nation, but one of them, 129.02, which will host the basketball arena and three skyscrapers, would apparently leap into the ranks of the 100 densest tracts.

We got interested in census tracts when we were trying to find a way to quantify the impact of putting 16 skyscrapers next to, behind, and in front of one another over five city blocks. These would be twice to four times as tall as Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village and occupy one-quarter the space. Was there another neighborhood–or sub-neighbohood– anywhere near that dense? Blogger Norman Oder answered “no,” but only in terms of major New York apartment complexes. Ron Shiffman, an urban planner, went further, declaring that Atlantic Yards would be “the densest residential community in the United States”–but when we asked him how he did it, it sounded like he pretty much just eyeballed it.

It turned out Shiffman had a good eyeball, however. We verified his claim by taking the number of residents that Forest City expects will live there (15,000 to 18,000), dividing by the project’s size (22 acres), and then multiplying that by 640 (the number of acres in a square mile). The answer clocks in between 436,363 and 523,636 people per square mile.

We figured that census tracts, usually consisting of four- to five-block areas with some sort of unity of character, would be the appropriate measure by which to compare Atlantic Yards. So we imported Census 2000 data into an Excel file (careful–massive text file), and then divided the second column (population) by the sixth column (land area), and then used the sorting function to order the data from highest to lowest density. (Consult the key to determine which columns are which.) Here are the first 200 results (the entire set is too large). At the top of the list you will find the densest tract in the country, located between 131st and 133rd streets, Broadway and Riverside Drive, in West Harlem, with a density of 229,713 residents per square mile. That’s just half as dense as Atlantic Yards will be.

It even turns out that the population of Atlantic Yards will be packed in tighter than the Lower East Side’s 10th Ward was in 1900, which had a density of 433,986 people per square mile. (Of course, Gehry’s buildings will spread out the population vertically in a way those tenements did not.)

3333 Broadway.jpg
Broadway and 131st Street, the current winner, as seen by Google Earth.

If Atlantic Yards is not its own census tract, will it have much effect on the census tracts that it overlaps, considering that they extend another five or so blocks into Brownstone Brooklyn? Tract 129.01 would stay about the same, since Forest City will put just two mixed-use towers there with maybe a few hundred apartments. In Tract 129.02, using estimates from the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (see Chapter 4, p. 49), the project would increase the population from 2,125 to 6,325, swelling the density from 42,163 to 125,496 people per square mile, and raising its ranking from the 1,231st densest tract in the country to 97th.

We apportioned the rest of the new population on the basis of how much square footage Forest City plans to build where. Tract 161, we believe, will grow from 2,568 people to 6,798, or from 37,820 to 100,118 people per square mile, boosting its ranking from 1,430th place to 220th. (The E.I.S. population projection for the entire project is just 13,996, which is lower than Forest City’s, but then again both estimates predate the proposed 8 percent reduction.)

Inside Census Tract 163.jpg
Life in the 113th densest census tract in the country. (Drawing by Laurie Olin.)

Tract 163 would apparently grow from 3,175 to 8,416 residents, or 121,795 people per square mile, bringing it from 1,074th place to 113th place nationally in terms of density.

In other words, if you add two blocks of 200- to 650-foot tall high rises on the northern tip to five blocks of modest brownstones to the south, the average concentration of inhabitants in these three census tracts will double or triple.

Curiously, a couple of developers have told us that the high density itself probably won’t scare away buyers, but that Ratner will have a hard time selling million-dollar condos on the 20th, 40th, 58th floors of these buildings when the occupants won’t even get good views of the water. Sure, maybe they will catch a glimpse of New York Harbor in the distance, but most of what they will see around them will be the silver-painted roofs of low-lying brownstones.

Matthew Schuerman

Ratner Will Bring Us Closer Together