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When architects meet autocratic clients, when's time to walk?

A New York Times architecture column today, headlined I’m the Designer. My Client’s the Autocrat., takes on the question--raised by Daniel Libeskind--about working for repressive regimes:
Some architects argue that it is unrealistic and self-serving for them to presume that they can transform a society or distance themselves from a patron’s conduct.
“Sometimes architects like to think they’re above the political fray,” said Frederic M. Bell, the executive director of the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects. “I think that’s a little bit disingenuous. Sometimes it’s very difficult to take commissions from countries with positions with which one disagrees.”

While Forest City Ratner is not Communist China, that still reminds me of a couple of AY-related quotes. Frank Gehry in January 2006 said, "If I think it got out of whack with my own principles, I’d walk away."

Asked if any of his previous projects involved the use of eminent domain or eminent domain abuse, and whether that be enough to make him walk away from Atlantic Yards, he responded, "No comment."

When to walk

This past March, New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, responding to reports of a truncated arena-only project for the foreseeable future--one that Forest City Ratner in May asserted was incorrect--suggested that "Mr. Gehry, on the other hand, could walk away."

As I observed, Maybe Forest City Ratner should release the gag on Gehry and let him talk to Brooklynites about how the project fits with his principles.

He did walk once, from the Playa Vista project in California, even though Ouroussoff, then writing for the Los Angeles Times, had said it was too late. Still, the critic acknowledged the role of the architect: "Gehry's reputation lends the entire project an air of respectability. In effect, he gives Playa Vista the imprimatur of the architectural and artistic establishments--communities one traditionally associates with high ideals."


  1. “Maybe Forest City Ratner should release the gag on Gehry and let him talk to Brooklynites about how the project fits with his principles.” Interesting suggestion!

    What if ALL the Atlantic Yards gag orders were released and what if people who could talk started talking and spoke the truth?

    What if not only Frank Gehry spoke honestly about principles but also landscape architect Laurie Olin? We remember reading in an article about Laurie Olin that appeared in the July/August issue of the Penn Gazette that a “recent non-disclosure agreement between” Ratner “and the Olin Partnership prevents the display of site plans and drawings in this story.”

    Then there are the gag orders that Forest City Ratner includes as part of its business strategy: These gag orders must be signed if anyone is to be given recompense when they are being relocated because of Atlantic Yards. The gag orders specifically prevent the dislocated from any participation in criticism of the Atlantic Yards. The agreements require them to praise the developer, while preventing them from funding opposition groups. (See: New York Post “Tout of Bounds” I suggest that legislative and judicial eminent domain reform initiatives should pronounce these gag order and nondisclosure agreements void as against public policy. Some politicians like City Council Speaker Christine Quinn side-step the responsibility of dealing with eminent domain abuse. Still even when they support the use of eminent domain to force private-to-private owner transfers in the name of economic development they give lip service to the idea that eminent domain “should be used carefully and cautiously and it should only be used when there is an overriding greater good in the interest of the city.” The kind of cautious scrutiny Quinn recommends is not possible when the transparency of the process is obfuscated and public oversight prevented through the use of these gag orders.

    Columbia University uses such gag orders in pursuit of its own eminent domain abuse. It is therefore ironic that Columbia’s President Lee Bollinger is taking the summer off to work on a book about free speech. (See: Columbia Pulls a Kelo, New York Sun, Op-Ed, By MICHAEL WHITE, December 20, 2007,

    What if Bertha Lewis and ACORN, ostensibly proponents of affordable housing and the public good were freed from the gag order agreements they signed that gave away the store to Bruce Ratner and company? (See: Would they then be free to say that, just like the Yankees, Ratner should not get more than a billion dollars in IRS loophole financing for his arena? Would they then be free to say that the project is too big, there shouldn’t be a one-developer monopoly or that the public subsidies should be distributed elsewhere for greater equity and better leverage that would produce more housing sooner?

    What if the Brooklyn Museum were freed from the silence and obliviousness to the community that comes from taking money from Ratner and having Ratner people on their Board? (See:

    What if union workers were not funded to unthinkingly support a project which is against the community’s (and their own) interest? (See:
    When the community held its May 3, 2008 “Time Out” rally calling for a freeze on the Ratner demolitions from which there is no prospect of recovery, the paid-to-protest construction workers blockaded Pacific Street to stop community residents from going to the rally. The community’s “Time Out” rally had all the proper permits, the construction workers had no permit to be on Pacific Street or to be blockading the community’s expression. The construction workers’ harassment and attempted silencing of the community was not prevented by the police but the blockade had little effect since the members of the community walked the blocks necessary to get around the blockage, coming instead from the north.

    What if Forest City Ratner itself stopped being so relentlessly uninformative and obfuscatory about the project so that we knew how much subsidy they think they are getting and how much more they want? What if we had all the information we needed from FRC about the ostensible public benefit that is supposed to make the Forest City Ratner abuses worthwhile?

    What if our politicians were better informed?

    Real estate professionals mutter derision under their breath about the stupidity of the Atlantic Yards venture and how replete it is with squandered opportunities for real public benefit. - As I wrote Mayor Bloomberg in May 2007: “As a real estate development and public finance professional, I can find no shortage of colleagues who seriously question what you are doing with Atlantic Yards. Few believe you or various other elected officials truly understand how bad the proposed Atlantic Yards project is or the terrifically negative legacy it will represent. The consensus approaches unanimity. Nevertheless, there is a desperate shortage of professionals who are willing to express their extreme concerns directly to you.” The letter I got back from the Bloomberg administration, obdurately obtuse and filled with inaccuracy, virtually proved my point about what the administration did not understand. (See: Last month, Bloomy was offering a boilerplate defense of AY

    What will happen when real estate professionals start honestly speaking their minds publicly about this project? The project looks like it is dying. As its prospects wane the prospects of the better alternatives to replace it will wax. - Remember when people looking out for their own interests wouldn’t surface their privately held thinking to publicly criticize George W. Bush? With lame duck status come the inevitable shifts. Imagine the pent-up criticism that may one day come bubbling forth about Atlantic Yards!

    What about the politicians like Christine Quinn whose silence on Atlantic Yards is almost as if they signed a gag order? Does anyone think that anyone can get through an entire campaign for Mayor, City Comptroller, Public Advocate, City Council or Brooklyn Borough President without speaking about Atlantic Yards? Does anyone think they can actually succeed in such a campaign without speaking out against by far the incredible boondoggle and misdirection of resources embodied in the proposed megadevlopment? And, would anyone want to win an election and govern a city so debilitated and hamstrung in proper direction of resources as the city will be if Atlantic Yards ever gets underway? What about the money for Moynihan Station, the Seventh Avenue Subway extension, and so many other projects like the extension of the East River promenade and creation of a badly needed public space and park south of the United Nations?

    The project is on the ropes but now we know that the U.S. Supreme Court itself won’t kill it. The Court will remain silent. We will be left with just the echoing words of the Court’s last furnished guidance in the Kelo case though not brought home to bear on these particular facts. The Supreme Court said in the Kelo case that eminent domain should not be abused by coloring it with pretextual public purpose. It said that development plans that are“of primary benefit to ... the developer” and at best “only of incidental benefit to the city"should not be allowed. It said that the highly discernable evidence of “impermissible favoritism” which we have in the case of Atlantic Yards is not to be allowed. Justice Kennedy, (essential to the Supreme Court’s majority) stated a test. He said that “benefitting” the developer should not be "the primary motivation or effect of” a “development plan" as it was in the case of Atlantic Yards.

    Perhaps it was a trifle too soon, but one day the U.S. Supreme Court will amplify and explain its Kelo decision, drawing the line that cannot be crossed with reference to a specific case other than Atlantic Yards. Atlantic Yards may not provide the facts in that case, but this is New York- I doubt that there will ever be a case where the abuse will be as well documented as when the scholars and intelligentsia of New York are through with the fodder that Atlantic Yards as poster child provides. This will generate textbooks that will stand alongside Robert Caro’s “The Power Broker.” Atlantic Yards will be studied in schools of government, economics, real estate and urban planning. Every mistake and misjudgment of our public officials will be dissected in delicious detail for posterity. The Atlantic Yards case may not be the case that gets to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the extremity of it all will be fuel for the case that does.

    Are politicians like Christine Quinn just hoping that if they wait long enough that the Atlantic Yards megaproject will just go away? Die of its own accord? Maybe it will. Does that mean that they are working behind the scenes to help the project along in its demise? Maybe they are doing things quietly behind the scenes and in the process Christine Quinn is honoring what is, in form, a gag order, a promise to Mayor Michael Bloomberg that she would support the project. Maybe while he is still in power she feels she has to honor that agreement, the quid pro quo being his support for her candidacy for Mayor.

    What if Bloomberg allowed others to speak their mind, let them out of their ill-advised political contracts, Christine Quinn included? Those contracts were made when Bloomberg himself did not know what he was approving and assurances he gave others about what was involved were probably inaccurate. Bloomberg has apparently acknowledged that if he lived in the neighborhood, he, himself, wouldn’t want to see Atlantic Yards built. The Atlantic Yards megadevlopment was handled for Bloomberg by his Deputy Mayor for Development, Daniel Doctoroff. When Doctoroff departed office Doctoroff admitted that Atlantic Yards should have gone through the ULURP public review process so that issues could “be aired in an appropriate way.” It was, indeed, wrong to side-step the ULURP process to deprive the public of their say. (See: Wednesday, December 12, 2007, After Doctoroff admits AY should've gone through ULURP, will Bloomy, Burden follow? Bloomberg and his administration have essentially admitted that Atlantic Yards is even more of a failure than simply the lack of public review because when Doctoroff left office the December 6, 2007 press release announcing his departure did not list Atlantic Yards among his accomplishments, notwithstanding the extreme comprehensiveness of the release. (See: the press release “Mayor Bloomberg Announces Deputy Mayor for Economic Development and Rebuilding Daniel L. Doctoroff Stepping down at Year’s End- Doctoroff Has Spearheaded City's Economic Development Agenda for the Last Six Years”- See also: December 06, 2007, Doctoroff's resignation draws praise, but AY is conspicuously ignored

    Above all, let’s take the gag order off the public. This is still an unapproved project. It still hasn’t been defined and it is without funding. Let’s give the public an opportunity to say whether this project of which no one is proud should be funded, who might be acceptable as its developers, whether the design is good enough, whether the density should be so extraordinarily extreme, whether they think that public should consent to the wresting away and closing of streets and avenues, what they think of Forest City Ratner’s abuse of eminent domain, and whether sufficient benefit has been negotiated for all the $2-3 billion subsidy that is proposed to be given.

    Michael D. D. White
    Noticing New York


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