As the financial challenges to Bruce Ratner’s proposed development at Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards site intensify, the landscape architect who helped glamorize the project in urban planning circles seems to be moving to the sidelines. Philadelphia-based Olin, which designed a masterplan and landscaping for the 22-acre site, has suspended work until the developer can secure financing, which is growing more difficult in today’s lending environment.
The past few weeks have left Ratner’s proposal—which some neighborhood groups have depicted as a juggernaut—looking less and less inevitable. A judge refused Forest City Ratner’s motion to dismiss a longstanding lawsuit challenging the state’s use of eminent domain law to take land in the project footprint. That decision, said Forest City Ratner spokesperson Joe DePlasco, could delay construction by six months. “We had hoped to close in November and break ground in December,” DePlasco told AN. “Assuming the state wins the case, work on the arena and the first residential building starts then.” But even if he wins in court, the developer may not find a lender willing to support the controversial project. All of which leaves Olin’s future role difficult to pinpoint.
“Olin completed a masterplan for Atlantic Yards that we believe was a serious response to the great need for large amounts of affordable housing with adjacent well-designed, environmentally-responsive public landscape,” said the firm’s spokesperson Rick Mitchell. “The current economic turmoil points to the truth that plans of such scope almost inevitably are realized over several economic cycles and must both be able to endure as well as be flexible to change.”
Laurie Olin declined to comment further, but it’s possible that someone else will use his plan in developing future parcels. “Olin was contracted to do master planning for the entire development and schematic design for the Arena Block, both of which were successfully completed,” said Mitchell. The firm does not follow the current status of Ratner’s other proposed buildings, Mitchell added, “but assumes they will go ahead as the market allows.”
At the moment, then, Frank Gehry remains on the job designing the project’s centerpiece, the Barclays Arena and one residential tower, while Olin awaits a cue. “Laurie Olin will continue to work on the design of the public space,” DePlasco told AN. “The planned eight acres of public space have always been part of phase II. So the expectation is very much that he will continue to do that work.”
Even if Atlantic Yards does build a second phase with Olin on the design team, though, the project may represent another sort of coda. Another architect, who asked for anonymity, told AN that working with Gehry’s proprietary software and idiosyncratic methods has become financially difficult for the Olin office. “I heard that when Laurie was passing ownership of the firm to the other partners, and they wanted to make it more solvent and profitable, they basically had to stop working on Gehry projects,” he said.