Sunday, January 11, 2009

Was the billion-dollar arena a feint? And why isn't Gehry talking?

So, why did the cost of the Atlantic Yards arena escalate from $637.2 million in December 2006 to $950 million in March 2008?

Remember, last March, the $950 million figure appeared in the New York Times without explanation. The number, I wrote last December 2, just didn't compute, given that there was no similar announced escalation in the cost of the project as a whole.

Was it simply a consequence of rising construction costs and expensive Frank Gehry details aimed to sell suites and sponsorships? Was it part of an effort to gain even more tax-exempt bonds? Or was there a plan to announce an overambitious arena, with the intention of later cutting back?

Past example

I don't know, but there's at least one example of developer Forest City Ratner floating news in the New York Times in order to later pursue a plan already in its pocket. Remember a 9/5/06 New York Times article, placed unaccountably on the front page, touted a possible minor scaleback in the project. Most of the cuts, I later reported, had been on the table for months.

In that article, the Times presented a picture of a prima donna architect:
But according to executives briefed by the developer, Mr. Gehry has objected to any changes in his design for Miss Brooklyn.

Not quite. Gehry had already proposed a reduction from 620 feet to 595 feet and, three months later, acceded to Forest City Ratner's agreement to bring the building in at 511 feet, one foot shorter than the Williamsburgh Savings Bank.

Last May, when Miss Brooklyn was redesigned, with the more utilitarian B1 placeholder name taking precedence, Gehry was no prima donna, dutifully declaring:
The design for Miss Brooklyn, which we now call Building One, has become very special for me.

What's going on now?

Gehry's never had a chance to explain publicly why the cost of the arena went up. He hasn't even been quoted in a press release saying it's "very special to me"--a sign that he may be at odds with the developer. He hasn't said what his role is now or whether he still has staffers working on the project.

Could it be that one contingency was always a cheaper arena, one based on a concept by Gehry but with his role diminished?

We don't know, but a good start would be for Gehry to speak publicly. "They have to meet me as an equal," he said in 2006 of his relationship with clients.

Right now, his clients are speaking via press releases, and he's not saying anything at all. That doesn't sound very equal.

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