Sunday, February 12, 2006
Atlantic Center mall: promise, reality, & NYTimes amnesia
A Real Estate section article in the 6/27/93 New York Times headlined "Perspectives: Bradlees at Atlantic Center; Retailing Opens a New Front in Brooklyn" focused on the emerging plans for the Atlantic Center mall, which ultimately opened in November 1996. It stated:
Mr. [Stanton] Eckstut, the architect, noted that all the stores would be entered from the street rather than from an interior mall and would use building materials compatible with their Brooklyn surroundings.
"We're determined to build a store that is sympathetic to its urban environment, not just a suburban store plopped down on a city street," said Paul A. Travis, executive vice president of Forest City Ratner.
Now the plans did evolve--at the time Forest City Ratner was talking about a 150,000 square foot Bradlees store on two levels, and was also planning another two-level retail facility, with 120,000 square feet. The Atlantic Center mall contains 393,713 square feet. But the design may be an even more dramatic change. The L-shaped mall, just to the right of the Atlantic Terminal mall at the top left of the map showing the Atlantic Yards site, is open to the public only along its southern and western flanks. The two tilted rectangles above the bottom half of the mall outline are the subsidized Atlantic Terminal I buildings.
As noted in Chapter 4 of my report, an article about the developer’s much-derided Atlantic Center mall (Rethinking Atlantic Center With the Customer in Mind; 5/26/04) quoted only FCR's Bruce Ratner to explain away the mall’s design:
Although critics have long called the mall an eyesore and complained about its seemingly incoherent design, there are reasons for its structure and layout, reasons embedded in both the perception and the reality of race, class, economics and crime in late 20th-century Brooklyn.
Planned and built in the early 1990’s, when the area there -- at the crossroads of Fort Greene, Prospect Heights and Downtown Brooklyn -- was just beginning to emerge from a cocoon of high crime and bleak prospects, the center was intended not as an oasis but as the target of a kind of consumer dive-bombing: customers would dart into one place, grab what they needed and quickly leave.
The isolation of stores and lack of gathering locations inside the building was intentional, said its developer, Bruce Ratner of Forest City Ratner, driven by the needs of skittish national retailers and the notion that urban malls had failed because they became magnets for loitering teenagers who frightened the shoppers away.
“It’s a problem of malls in dense urban areas that kids hang out there, and it’s not too positive for shopping,” Mr. Ratner said. “Look, here you’re in an urban area, you’re next to projects, you’ve got tough kids.”
Adding that it was not an issue of class or ethnicity, he said: “You know it’s kids that cut school. In the burbs, a 15-year-old can’t get to the mall without his parents. Here, it’s a little different.”
Forgetting the past?
The Times did not quote any critic who might have argued, contradicting Ratner, that the mall’s design did in fact involve issues of class and ethnicity. Nor did the article quote the 1993 reportage from the Times that promised a very different retail design. At the time of my report, I hadn't seen that 1993 article either but, then again, I don't work at the Times nor have an inhouse library to help with research.
In fact, a look back at the 5/26/04 Times article shows that it exclusively concerned the mall's much-criticized interior design:
Instead of open, multilevel atriums where dozens of storefronts are easily captured by the naked consumerist eye, there are vast expanses of nothingness and dead corridors leading, it seems, to nowhere. In place of furnished common areas offering respite between purchasing bouts, there are broad stretches of shiny institutional floor tile and walls left bare save a hodgepodge of clown-colored signs advertising stores that no longer exist, or that cannot be reached without wending a route of circuitous switchbacks, or leaving the structure entirely.
Forest City Ratner has since renovated the interior, and modified the exterior sections where shoppers enter. But the blank walls remain, a contrast to the Atlantic Terminal mall, pictured above. The north wall of the Atlantic Center mall is in the background; there's a retail store at the corner, beneath the blue vertical signage, but that's it.