Strike Two? Not So Fast

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Thursday, December 18, 2008
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The Vanderbillt Yards await transformation. (Courtesy threecee/Flickr)

The Vanderbilt Yards await transformation. (Courtesy threecee/Flickr)

First Laurie Olin, now Frank Gehry. That was the news earlier this week when the Wall Street Journal reported that the Santa Monica-based architect had laid off “more than two dozen” staffers involved with Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project. What followed was a string of cheers predicting the troubled Brooklyn mega-development’s demise. After all, how could it go on without its signature architect?

While considering this question, I kept thinking of a comment made by Kermit Baker yesterday, during an interview about the abysmal November billings index. Given what’s going on elsewhere in the industry, the termination of a handful of architects may not signal the doomsday scenario the project’s critics would like, and instead may be one more credit-related payroll pause like many others around the nation:

What we’re seeing, as a result of the credit freeze, is a lot of projects, even a lot of good projects, being put on hold. Once the credit markets begin to unfreeze, though, a lot of this work will come back. You know, “Okay. We got our financing back in place, why don’t you get back to work on this.” It’s very disconcerting because these sudden seizures can be very unexpected. It’s hard to own and manage and know how to cope.

Hence the layoffs, largely unforeseen, plaguing firms nationwide, a problem we’ve noted before. Though Baker was not speaking specifically to the Gehry/Atlantic Yards layoffs, he said he was seeing the same sort of “payroll activity” at many of the dozens of firms he surveys to put together the billings index. The upshot to all the bad news, Baker said, is that it is possible that, as credit becomes available again, a number of projects could come back online:

There are some projects that do make sense in this economy. Obviously, the list of ones that don’t make sense has gotten longer and the list of projects that do make sense has gotten shorter. But there was a time when even those projects could not get financing. I expect that to change at some point, hopefully in the near future.

And while financing could very well turn around for the project, as Baker speculates, the Observer is not so sure it will. Furthermore, the Daily News reports today that Gehry and Ratner may not be on the best of terms, as the architect has not been paid for what the paper reports are still unfinished Phase One designs. Still, the point is that, while the layoffs could be another possible death knell for Atlantic Yards, they could also simply be the economizing of one of many architects in dire straits at the moment.

As for Gehry’s office not returning phone calls–something the Daily News and others see as a sign that the project is faltering–don’t read too much into that, either. The firm is notoriously press averse, even on the most laudatory pieces, almost never returning phone calls.

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