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Why Frank Gehry is Brett Yormark's problem (and other FAQs)

The murky news that Atlantic Yards architect Frank Gehry's role has receded, and that an arena would be designed with cost-cutting in mind from its previous $950 million price tag, raises several questions, most of which can be answered only with circumstantial or incomplete evidence.

But that evidence, so far, hints at even more trouble for the project, at least if developer Forest City Ratner can't use Gehry to sell suites and sponsorships.

So, what happened with Gehry?

According to two news reports, though without named sources, Gehry laid off his staffers working on Atlantic Yards. (One commenter asserted the staffers were merely shifted.) One report said it was because he hadn't been paid.

Is Gehry off the project?

According to Forest City Ratner, no.

Is he on the project?

It depends on what we mean by "on." Gehry may still be providing guidance on his designs, but the arena may be out of his hands by now. Forest City Ratner won't specify what his role is.

Is Gehry's relationship with Forest City Ratner strained?

Possibly. He's been more cooperative in the past; last May, when the flagship office tower was redesigned, Gehry dutifully declared:
The design for Miss Brooklyn, which we now call Building One, has become very special for me.

Gehry hasn't said anything similar, defending his current role. When it was reported that landscape architect Laurie Olin was off the project, both Olin and the developer said he was on sabbatical but the relationship was fine.

Then, why hasn't Gehry complained about his (apparent) diminished role?

Unclear. Maybe he's waiting to get paid. Maybe he's expecting to have more of a role. Maybe a contract clause keeps him from speaking out. He said three years ago, "I think if it got out of whack with my own principles, I would walk away."

What's wrong with value engineering to reduce costs?

Nothing. Gehry recognized the issue three years ago. But it may be a little late in the process now. And it may change the design of the arena significantly.

Would it still be a Frank Gehry arena?

Well, surely his name would be on it. The Wall Street Journal reported that "Gehry has overseen the design of nearly every element of the planned Brooklyn arena." So maybe it depends on what changes are made.

How much cost-cutting at the arena is possible?

Unclear. Maybe not so much.

Why is Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz weighing in on arena architecture, saying Forest City Ratner should pursue economies?

Well, likely to provide some political cover for changes the developer wants to make. Design is not exactly the BP's responsibility. And he has previously hailed Gehry's role.

What did Markowitz mean when he said Brooklyn-style stoops might be incorporated in Atlantic Yards towers?

Unless he was misquoted, the only thing he meant is that he really doesn't understand architecture. (Graphic from DDDB.)

Is the cost of the arena an issue to the government?

Not as much as it is to the developer. However, as I contended, there's no way the land underneath the arena could be valued high enough for the foregone taxes to be sufficient to match the PILOTs, or payments in lieu of taxes, needed to pay off a $950 million arena. So public officials might have nudged FCR for a less costly arena, as well.

Is the architecture the Empire State Development Corporation's (ESDC) problem?

Well, ESDC spokesman Warner Johnston said, "The aesthetic choices are Forest City Ratner's."

Really? Aren't there Design Guidelines?

Yes. According to page 6 of the ESDC's Modified General Project Plan:
Each element would be designed pursuant to the comprehensive design and open space guidelines developed by ESDC in consultation with the City and attached hereto as Exhibit B (collectively, as the same may be amended in accordance with the terms thereof, the "Design Guidelines"), which Design Guidelines are being approved in connection with this General Project Plan.

Didn't Gehry's office prepare those Design Guidelines?


What do the Design Guidelines say, for example, about the arena?

Here's part of it:
The street walls of the Arena shall include glass elements having a minimum width of 100 feet and a minimum surface area of 5,000 square feet on each of the Atlantic Avenue and the Flatbush Avenue street walls.

... The Arena fa├žade shall include transparent elements in the Atlantic Avenue and Flatbush Avenue street walls allowing for views into the arena concourse from the adjoining sidewalks.

But isn't Markowitz saying there should be less glass?

Yes. Those Design Guidelines can apparently be amended.

Is there another reason for getting rid of glass?

I think it would remove a security risk evinced at the Prudential Center in Newark.

If Gehry is gone or his role diminished, shouldn't Forest City Ratner be worried?

Well, Gehry was a selling point for a B1 anchor office tenant, for the market-rate housing, and for the arena.

Why is this a problem for New Jersey Nets CEO Brett Yormark?

Well, presumably when Barclays Capital bought arena naming rights, they wanted their name attached to a building designed by the world's most famous architect. Ditto for the sponsors who've already signed on. Those who've bought luxury suites, designed by Gehry, presumably factored Gehry's role into the cost. The unsold suites should be tougher to sell, and it should be harder to attract additional sponsors. And, depending on how things unfold, some who've already signed on may look for an escape clause.

Are elected officials more wary of Atlantic Yards?

It seems so. Mayor Mike Bloomberg yesterday, in his State of the City Address, cited Coney Island, Willets Point, and Hunters Point South as important projects. Atlantic Yards he ignored.

What may be bigger news this week?

The hint that Forest City Ratner may be trying to chintz the MTA out of an upgraded railyard.


  1. nothing new here.

    mighty developer promises an island in the sky.

    said developer waives hands at possibilities while convincing city to bow down with free gold.

    city unable/unwilling to produce MORE free gold.

    mighty developer not so mighty. actually not so much a developer as a broker of other peoples money.

    developer slips into the night leaving devastation upon the city.

    lather. rinse. repeat.

    brooklyn...(and marty)

    punked. again.

  2. "The unsold suites should be tougher to sell, and it should be harder to attract additional sponsors. And, depending on how things unfold, some who've already signed on may look for an escape clause."

    Someone should ask Yormark again about how many suites the Nets have "sold" at the "Barclays Center." I'd bet that if you subtract "sales" to affiliated entities (FCR, Barclays, Jay-Z, etc.), and the Bloomberg Administration's free suite, the real number is close to zero. Of course, we can be sure that Yormark won't be able to provide receipts for all his claimed "sales."


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