Public Review of Atlantic Yards, Without the ‘View’ Part

With changes to the design and timetable, Bruce Ratner’s $4.9 billion Atlantic Yards project is back in public review, complete with public meetings, public comment and a vote of the board of a public authority.

Theoretically, this month-long public comment period is meant to review the changed project. But one thing that’s absent in this re-review: renderings, or any other look at the project’s design (which one would assume has changed dramatically since the last approval in 2006, given that star architect Frank Gehry, with his distinctive style, was pulled from the project).

Mr. Gehry has been replaced by arena engineer and designer Ellerbe Becket, and Forest City says that designs are not ready, thus they cannot release renderings of what the new arena might look like (the firm did include some renderings in documents provided to the state, but it insists they do not represent what the arena will actually look like).

At a public hearing Wednesday night on the project, a state official, Darren Bloch, was asked about whether there would be any formal comment allowed on the renderings.

“We do not expect a formal review process by the public,” he said. “We expect to see the renderings by Forest City Ratner; we expect ourselves, the city, to weigh in on those to some degree, but we do not expect a formal presentation to the public to accept comment from that.”

He added the renderings were expected to be presented in the fall (the public comment period on the revised “General Project Plan” closes at the end of August).

The argument of the officials and Forest City Ratner is that the original approval from 2006 provided for design guidelines, and so long as the arena falls in line with those (which they say it will), then they are doing what is required of them at this point.

Back when Frank Gehry was the designer, Forest City and the state trumpeted grand renderings and models well in advance of when they were detailed. Mr. Gehry’s design was a key selling point, of course, and his name came up at most every possible mention of the project.

The issue highlights the inherently misleading nature of renderings in public projects. They are used to sell the public and officials on something that looks appealing, but unlike something like rent payments or certain amenities, developers are rarely, if ever, contractually obligated to build a project as pictured or with a certain architect.

This isn’t to say that developers intended to do a bait and switch from the start—Forest City did pay Mr. Gehry to do advanced designs—but when project economics change, developers look to alter things they have the power to change, and there is no mechanism to ensure a project looks like its rendering.

Public Review of Atlantic Yards, Without the ‘View’ Part