So much for architecture.
Late last week, the developer of Atlantic Yards, the massive insta-neighbourhood planned for downtown Brooklyn, confirmed the rumour that had been swirling since late last year: Frank Gehry is off the project.
The move by Forest City Ratner is the construction-world equivalent of trying to save the patient by killing the patient. Replacing the Toronto-born Gehry's whimsical design of Barclays Center, a basketball arena intended to anchor the controversial mixed-used development, with a banal barn by the Minnesota-based architects Ellerbe Becket, will bring the $1-billion (U.S.) cost down about $200-million.
"The current economic climate is not right for this design," said Bruce Ratner, the chief executive of Forest City Ratner, of the Gehry design, "and with Frank's understanding, the arena is undergoing a redesign that will make it more limited in scope."
Gehry should pour himself a glass of Champagne at the news: He just safeguarded his legacy.
No development gets built without headaches, but the $4-billion Atlantic Yards has given the mother of all migraines to anyone who has dared get involved. Almost six years ago, Ratner bought the New Jersey Nets and pledged to transplant the NBA team to Brooklyn. The last professional team to call the place home, the Brooklyn Dodgers, had decamped to Los Angeles in 1957, delivering a grievous blow to the borough's self-esteem. Ratner's move thrilled local sports fans.
But there was a catch: He wanted to use the Nets as a lever to gain the rights to a huge parcel of land owned by the transportation authority, and to kick out more than 1,000 middle-class families from surrounding apartment buildings he intended to replace with glittering towers.
He brought in Gehry who, saying he was thrilled to build a neighbourhood from scratch, instantly alienated those who already lived in the neighbourhood. They promised affordable housing that would be subsidized by an office complex and market-rate residential towers.
Over the ensuing years, Ratner secured one sweetheart deal after another, including landing the rights to an eight-acre rail yard for $100-million, roughly $50-million less than another firm's bid. But a series of lawsuits over his attempts to have the state exercise eminent domain (a.k.a. expropriation), and other bare-knuckled methods to plant his dream in Brooklyn, left Ratner back on his heels. For a while, the best theatre in the borough was to be had at the numerous community board hearings into the development, as local neighbourhood types faced off against hard hats and those living below the poverty line who believed Ratner's promises about affordable housing.
In time, though, that promise and many others fell by the wayside. The city's Independent Budget Office recently ran a new set of numbers that determined the arena, far from providing an economic benefit for New York, would actually be a net loss for the city.
With each setback, Gehry's master plan for the site, which at one point consisted of 17 buildings, was stripped back until the dynamic unity of his design collapsed. Last year, the Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff practically begged Gehry to walk away so that Ratner could not use his brand name as a fig leaf to build something hideous.
It's clear now that Ratner doesn't have much regard for architecture, no matter his words of praise when he first signed Gehry. His choice of replacement architects, Ellerbe Becket, has a numbing track record of uninspired sports complexes: Their other professional sports arenas include the Memphis Grizzlies' FedEx Forum and the Washington Wizards' Verizon Center, both buildings about as lacklustre as the teams inhabiting them.
With all of the changes to the master plan, New York State should be calling for a new environmental-impact review, which would cause a potentially crippling delay to the project. (Ratner needs to break ground by the end of this year in order to be able to sell tax-exempt bonds.) And will Barclays, which pledged $400-million for 20-year naming rights to the arena, really want to put its insignia on what critics are already calling a tricked-out airplane hangar?
On Friday, the day after Forest City Ratner announced it had dropped Gehry, its parent company Forest City Enterprises held its annual general meeting at the Ritz-Carlton in Cleveland. It was the usual jocular affair of long-time executives cooing soothing words to shareholders, who were evidently so happy with the company's performance that no one bothered asking questions.
Or, rather, only one person did: Daniel Goldstein, a Brooklyn resident and Forest City shareholder, had flown out to attend the meeting. When the time came for comments, he took the microphone and calmly outlined the challenges facing the company in making the project a reality. An executive thanked him and then politely refused to answer any questions, citing ongoing litigation with opponents of the project.
As it happens, Goldstein is one of the major reasons for the litigation. He currently lives in a small condominium building located approximately where centre court would be in a new basketball arena. He, his wife, and their seven-month-old daughter are the only ones left in the building; all of their neighbours left over the last few years after accepting buyout offers from Ratner.
Goldstein, who has no interest in taking the money and running, is the spokesman for Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, a grassroots organization that claims about 4,000 members. He's in favour of development over the rail yards, but he'd prefer to see the land divided into multiple parcels sold off to various developers in order to spread out the risk.
The night before his appearance at the Forest City meeting, hours after the news about Gehry broke, Goldstein and I spoke about the project.
"There's just been a series of broken promises from Forest City Ratner about this project," he declared. "Today's is a bait and switch, and if this new arena is ever built, it will be a monument to bait and switch.
"The arena is now a financial loss for the city," he continued. "No one knows if the affordable housing will happen, how much, or when. The architectural glamour is gone, the commercial jobs are gone because the office towers aren't there. So what is the development, other than an airplane hangar and construction jobs? I mean, construction jobs are important, but you can create them by building anything."