Newsletter Subscription
Print Subscription
Change Address
News
06.08.2007
A Second Act for the Bam Cultural District

When the Brooklyn Academy of Music decided to throw its cultural heft into remaking its then-dingy neighborhood, it did so the BAM way, i.e., con brio. With a master plan from Rem Koolhaas’ OMA and Diller + Scofidio, and renderings of a state-of-the-art new public library by TEN Arquitectos, the future looked glamorous. And while it took almost nine years, new architects, scaled-back projects, and some political shifts, several significant pieces of the plan are about to go forward. By Alan G. Brake. 

When the Brooklyn Academy of Music burned to the ground in 1903, the New York Times opined, “In short, there has hardly been a great public movement of national import but the old Academy has been at one time or another its principal focus.” BAM quickly relocated from Brooklyn Heights to its present location on Lafayette Avenue in Fort Greene where it has enriched the city’s cultural life for more than a century. Over the last ten years, however, BAM has added an unusual element to its portfolio of offerings, and that is neighborhood redevelopment.

In 1998, Harvey Lichtenstein began to move out of his position as the institution’s director, and looked outward at the neighborhood. It wasn’t pretty: The 1970s and 1980s had not been kind to Fort Greene and downtown Brooklyn, and one of the most respected performing arts organizations in the country found itself surrounded by a nondescript mix of parking lots, liquor stores, and not much else. But with a location near commercial hubs and lots of subways, there seemed to be no reason why the area couldn’t come back. Lichtenstein formed the BAM Limited Development Corporation (LDC) as a catalyst for the transformation of the ten or so blocks immediately around the theater into an arts district. The organization hired New York’s Diller+Scofidio and the Rotterdam-based OMA to develop a conceptual masterplan in 2000. Two years later, it held a competition for a Visual and Performing Arts (VPA) branch for the Brooklyn Public Library; the jury chose TEN Arquitectos, and images of an ship-like building were published everywhere.

But things seemed to slow down soon after, and there wasn’t much news from the intersection of Flatbush and Lafayette Avenues. In 2004, WORK AC quietly took over the planning job. “The Diller +Scofidio/OMA masterplan still provides the basis for what will be built,” says principal Dan Wood. Wood founded WORK AC after leaving OMA and continued to be involved in the project. The main innovation of the latest version is shifting the site of the Theatre for a New Audience, a respected Shakespearian company, to Layfayette Avenue, next to the Mark Morris Dance Center and catercorner from BAM, opening up space on Lafayette for a substantial new park with the working name Grand Plaza. Toward the end of the process, WORK AC brought in Ken Smith’s firm to consult on open space and streetscape plans. The Grand Plaza will act as a front door for three of the major cultural institutions, making it a sort of Lincoln Center stitched into the fabric of brownstone Brooklyn. Parking will be built under the plaza and will match the existing number of spaces. “The modified plans allows us to create a park where you want to be, not just a remnant patch,” says Christian Gabrial, a designer at Ken Smith Landscape Architecture.

After the masterplan was complete, the teams switched roles to further develop the open space and streetscapes, with Ken Smith’s team as the prime consultant and WORK as the subsidiary. “A lot of time and energy are going into the streetscape, which will have a key role in pulling the district together,” says Louise Eddleston, a designer at Ken Smith. “The district is primarily residential and with more units of housing going in it will remain that way.” She says the short blocks and intimate scale of the neighborhood have to be understood and used to their best advantage. The firm will present schematic designs to the Economic Development Corporation in the Fall, and hopes to get the contract to build the project.

This is more likely to happen than it would have been even a year ago: Last year, the city, frustrated by the lack of action on the VPA and other projects, stepped in and moved the BAMLDC under the umbrella of the larger and more powerful Downtown Brooklyn Partnership (DBP), which includes business improvement districts for Metrotech and the Fulton Street Mall. DPB has close ties to deputy mayor Daniel Doctoroff, and this has clearly contributed to the recent up-tick in development activity in the district. “There was a sense in early 2006 that the city needed to step up, not just in terms or time, but also in terms of high-level attention,” says Joe Chan, the DBP president. “Coordinating development with cultural groups is a lot more complicated than private developers.”

The move is yielding results. Though the VPA library was recently declared all but dead by the Department of Cultural Affairs Commissioner Kate Levin due to lack of fundraising on the part of the Brooklyn Public Library, several other significant projects are moving forward in the district. Along with the streetscape design, a revised design for the Theatre for a New Audience is in the works by Frank Gehry and the H3 Partnership, and the department of Housing Preservation and Development just concluded an Request for Proposals for a new mixed use building that will house Danspace, the contemporary dance incubator. All of this is happening in the shadow, metaphorically speaking, of Forest City Ratner’s controversial and gargantuan Atlantic Yards development.

But curiously, the fighting around Atlantic Yards seems not to have affected plans for the BAM cultural district, at least thus far. “It’s sort of an elephant compared to an ant,” says Wood. “The BAM cultural district can fold into an existing neighborhood, whereas Atlantic Yards will generate its own.” From the beginning, too, BAM LDC also worked with community groups, local churches, and elected officials to address concerns about rising rents and over development. “There was a call for many opportunities for input,” said Chan. “Gentrification and displacement is the greatest fear.”

Chan, however, sees Atlantic Yards and the cultural district as complementary projects. “Both projects emphasize the development of mixed-income communities,” he says. “They are a part of changing perceptions about Downtown Brooklyn and about catering to diverse and inclusive tastes for art, culture, entertainment, and sports.” Gabrial adds, “The cultural district operates within a web of existing neighborhoods, including Fort Greene and Downtown Brooklyn. It’s really a linchpin project.”

While coordinating multiple city agencies and cultural groups and meeting fundraising goals has somewhat slowed and altered development, the district’s largely positive reception in the community speaks to the thoughtful and neighborly scale of the project, as well as a flexible, piecemeal approach. The subtle way in which increased cultural programming,open space,and higher density are being woven into the neighborhood could prove to be a model for the borough and beyond. It also shows that Brooklynites aren’t averse to change, they just don’t like to get steamrolled.

Alan G. Brake is studying history and theory at The Yale School of Architecture.