News
09.23.2009
Letters
It's Not About the Arena

For the last six years, architects and planners have sat idly as our craft has been reduced to window-dressing for Forest City Ratner’s (FCR) Atlantic Yards urban renewal scheme. We have watched silently as design has been used as bait by Mr. Ratner, who has wrought physical destruction and sown false social divisions among the great neighborhoods of Brooklyn.

For the last half-decade, most of us have confused cynicism with realpolitik as we have accepted FCR’s collusion with certain public officials. We sat still as they circumvented the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, thus effectively disenfranchising every New Yorker. And our continued silence equals complicity in their ongoing attempt to abuse eminent domain laws for their undeniably private benefit.

For the last week, we have spent too much time debating aesthetics, when the important Atlantic Yards issues have always been questions of urbanism. There is real tragedy in the fact that some of our best design talent, first Frank Gehry and now SHoP Architects, have been enlisted by FCR in its efforts to run roughshod over the people of New York. At a time when so many architects are already struggling to survive, we can barely afford to sacrifice our standing as a profession on the altars of shortsightedness and narrow ambitions. While SHoP is best known for pursuing a “third way” in architecture, sadly, with this commission the firm has chosen the wrong way.

Our time is up. Those on all sides of the debate agree that the rail yards should be developed, but our challenge as architects and planners is to work for smart growth that benefits the city physically, environmentally, and socially. On this Brooklyn site, it is possible for our profession to play a strong role in shaping a better urban future. We should be leaders in the complex negotiations between developers and communities, rather than hiding behind simplistic claims of realism that create a false choice between resistance to and engagement with the market.

These challenges go beyond ethics to questions of our collective ambition—the ambition to be stewards of, and advocates for, the built environment. In the case of the Atlantic Yards, there is still time, but architects, planners, and critics must collectively commit to redirecting and reopening this debate toward the big issues of urbanism, the environment, politics, and civic life. (See more about our plan at www.unityplan.org.)

For architects, Atlantic Yards is about leadership, accountability, responsibility, and societal obligations.

Atlantic Yards is not, and has never been, about the arena.

Marshall Brown
Director of the Yards Development WorkShop

Ronald Shiffman
Professor
Pratt Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment