50 Favorite Places #14
April Fool! No, the condos that have sprouted like so many 12-story mushrooms along Fourth Avenue in Park Slope aren’t actually among my favorite places. In fact, I think they’re hideous. But one’s dislikes can reveal as much as one’s likes, or possibly even more, and so I’m devoting this post to them – and in particular, to thinking through just why I find them so awful.
Fourth Avenue was ugly before the 2003 rezoning that loosened building height restrictions in its Park Slope section. A wide street that draws speeding cars and occupies a kind of demilitarized zone between and across neighborhoods, it was never designed for strolling. Of course, it wasn’t designed to be ugly, either. In the late 19th century, it was Brooklyn’s answer to Manhattan’s Park Avenue: long, smoothly paved, well-lit, with a lushly landscaped median. (Check out the vintage photographs and illustrations here.) But the construction of the subway tunnel that runs below the avenue meant those landscaped medians had to go, and in the decades that followed, carriages and bicycles were eclipsed by automobiles, and ugly happened. First there were the gas stations and auto repair shops, then the big box stores, and finally: condos.
Despite florid and totally unbelievable statements from developers about their visions for a revitalized Fourth Avenue, the rezoning was a capitulation to ugliness. If we’re going to have an ugly street, the reasoning went, let’s at least make it an ugly street with housing. (It’s more complicated than this, of course, and the contribution of all those towers to the availability of affordable housing is debatable.)
If you rezone it, they will build. First they built towers with aspirational names, like the Landmark, the Novo, the Argyle and the Crest. Then they ran out of names, and just slapped them with street addresses (like “500 Fourth Avenue,” famous for raining concrete from its balconies onto the sidewalk below). At this point, there’s a tower on almost every block between Union and 15th St, with construction sheds stretching as far north as Warren and as far south as 20th St.
In keeping with the ugliness of their setting, these towers are themselves ugly – bland and graceless and interchangeable. But their worst sin, in my opinion, is the way they present themselves at street level. While I haven’t done a comprehensive survey, my impression is that the most common uses of the ground floor are:
- Blank facade concealing a parking garage (as in the photo at the top of this post)
- Medical clinic
- Chain store (often a Starbucks)
- Vacancy (while the developer tries to persuade a medical clinic or chain store to pay extortionate rent)
These days, the dead streetscape makes social distancing easy – I’ll give it that. Has Fourth Avenue finally found its calling, as a street designed for a plague?