Gehry or not, Brooklyn needs this arena

Gehry or not, Brooklyn needs this arena
Ellerbe Becket

Bruce Ratner’s bid to save his Atlantic Yards basketball arena by simplifying its design was predictable, but for our part, we’ll stick with consistency: Whatever serious reservations we’ve had about the larger Atlantic Yards project, the plan for the arena — though no longer the grandiose one envisioned by Frank Gehry — still merits support.

The arena remains what we have always said it is: a fundamentally vital civic project in the right place at the right time.

Now the timing better fortifies our long-held position. In the current economic climate, it would be foolhardy to walk away from both the economic development opportunity and heightened civic identity offered up by the arena and the Nets.

One need not be a hopeless romantic to appreciate the value of a professional sports team to a city like Brooklyn — which would be the fifth-largest in the country were it not shackled to the larger Gotham. Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx and even Nassau County have their own major league teams — and the vibrancy that come with them — so it is appropriate that Brooklyn gets some of the action, too.

Die-hard opponents of the arena were quick to pile on this week when Ratner, buffeted like everyone else by the shattered economy, shelved Gehry’s beautiful, though impractical, designs.

Ratner allies, most notably the New York Times, proved themselves to be fair-weather friends in this regard. Though the so-called Paper of Record had been a longtime cheerleader — and objectivity-averse supporter — of the entire Atlantic Yards project, the Times prominently displayed its architecture critic’s denunciation of the new arena design. While no one is happy with the new utilitarian Ellerbe Becket blueprint, we refuse to give up on Brooklyn’s arena.

Our past support for the arena was not solely contingent on the Gehry design, which was like fine lingerie. Replacing the lingerie with cheaper pajamas doesn’t detract from what lies underneath.

Unlike the Times editorial board, we live here — and we are still drawn to the prospect of the Nets coming to Brooklyn in an arena that will energize the area around it.

Are there caveats? Of course. Ratner and his MTA allies must not allow the land around the arena site to become large parking lots. The transit agency, which is negotiating with Ratner to give the developer a break on his development rights to the Vanderbilt rail yards, must get something in return: a commitment to a sensible development that does not allow the arena to become a suburban-style black hole. Or, better still, the MTA should sub-divide Ratner’s superblock and solicit new bids on each site.

And state officials must reject Ratner’s current plan to have a basketball arena that can’t also be configured for pro hockey. That’s just foolishness.

But these are smaller issues. The debate over the larger Atlantic Yards project will continue for some time, but its future arguably rests as much on the city’s ability to reignite its economic engine as it does on that debate. Meanwhile, game time for the arena is now.