Brooklyn Arts District Plods Ahead

Despite delays and the cancellation of high-profile plans, the BAM Cultural District in downtown Brooklyn is slowly but surely moving forward. Envisioned as a hub of artistic activity clustered around the existing Brooklyn Academy of Music, four projects are scheduled to break ground later this year.

The district was originally organized around a master plan completed in the year 2000 by Diller Scofidio + Renfro and the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, and included an Enrique Norten-designed glass library shaped like a boat prow, and a new theater by Frank Gehry and Hugh Hardy of the New York-based H3 Hardy Collaboration. Those plans changed significantly over time due to a lack of funds, changing players, and shifting ideas for the site.

More modest interventions are now taking shape and were revealed in late March at a presentation hosted by the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, which is involved in the redevelopment effort. All of these projects “are far enough along in the pipeline” that they are not affected by the economic downturn, according to Katie Dixon, the partnership’s director of planning and development for arts and culture.

Two significant projects, both designed by Hardy, are expected to break ground later this year. One is the renovation of a former Salvation Army building at 321 Ashland Place into the 263-seat BAM Community and Education Theater, or Fisher Building; the project is part of a $300 million expansion plan. The other project is a new $59 million, 299-seat venue for the Theater for a New Audience. This latter facility was the project that Hardy originally designed with Gehry, but the site has since changed, and Gehry is no longer involved.

In addition to these new performing arts venues, New York-based Leeser Architecture is overseeing a renovation of the 1919 neoclassical Strand Theatre building at 647 Fulton Street, which currently houses the nonprofit Urban Glass and the arts and media organization BRIC. Working with a budget of $17.3 million, Thomas Leeser says he intends to create a new “urban lobby” for the building by pushing parts of the façade back from the street and adding expanses of glass, in addition to reorganizing the interior space to better serve its occupants.

In regards to keeping costs down, Leeser says “you don’t redo the entire façade, just the pieces that you need. Everything that you can reuse, you reuse.” Anticipating that he will soon receive all necessary approvals from the city, Leeser expects construction will begin this fall and take up to two years to complete.

The overall scheme for the district is about more than spruced-up buildings. Landscape architect Ken Smith has designed streetscape improvements for sections of Lafayette Avenue and Ashland Place running through the site. The plan includes a custom paving pattern that evokes manhole rings, as well as black powder-coated cobra-head streetlamps installed closely together, all on one side of the street to create a canopy of sorts. They are low-cost moves that “will create a place,” explains Smith, noting that the first phase of construction should begin within the next year.

While these projects are moving forward, it’s a different story for two other big projects proposed for the district—the mixed-use Brooklyn Arts Tower by StudioMDA with Behnisch Architects, and a new mixed-use facility containing housing, retail, and cultural spaceby Enrique Norten with development firm Two Trees Management. “They are our most challenging projects,” admits Dixon. “There’s not very much to talk about at this point. The city is still trying to figure out what they can do.”