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Ouroussoff on Atlantic Yards and Hudson Yards: The Gray Lady’s Guide to Contemporary Civics

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Nicolai Ouroussoff

By Martin Filler, Guest Blogger

Among the root causes of the mess America now finds itself in, one of the least discussed is the seemingly extinct notion of conflict of interest. Not so long ago, even the appearance of impropriety was enough to prevent the double-dealing now commonplace in every sector of public life. In 2004, when Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia was condemned for not recusing himself from a pending case that involved his hunting buddy Dick Cheney, he huffed, “If it is reasonable to think that a Supreme Court Justice can be bought so cheap [sic], the Nation is in deeper trouble than I had imagined.”

A large part of the blame for the electorate’s cynicism about this and other related issues lies squarely with the establishment press, which is not immune to the corruptions of cronyism. Although there are worse things to worry about now, The NY Times‘ coverage–or non-coverage–of the controversial redevelopment of Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards is symptomatic of how conflicts of interest have undermined once-respected institutions.

On Mar. 21, the Times ran two pieces about cutbacks to the Atlantic Yards scheme due to the weakening economy, by architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, and by Metropolitan Desk reporter Charles V. Bagli. Ouroussoff’s critique made no mention of the somewhat pertinent fact that the project’s prime mover, Bruce Ratner, was also developer of the new New York Times Building. To learn that, you needed to read Bagli, who, in a classic example of “bury the lede,” got around to that disclosure only near the end of his 1,400-word piece.

Since he succeeded Herbert Muschamp in 2003, nothing Ouroussoff has written (with the possible exception of his calling Yoshio Taniguchi‘s MoMA expansion “exquisite”) has incensed me more than his claim that anticipated contraction of the monstrously overloaded Atlantic Yards complex “feels like a betrayal of the public trust.” I could hardly stop sputtering “Betrayal!…Public Trust!”

Let’s talk for a moment about public trust and the Times, forgetting Judith Miller‘s compromised WMD reportage and a few other postmillennial lapses. Ratner’s ties to the Times’s majority shareholders, the Sulzberger dynasty, long predate their recent collaboration. In 1996 Ratner was made a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art at the behest of its then board chairman, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, father of the current Times publisher. Can it be mere coincidence that the Newspaper of Record has done its best to ignore the considerable public resistance to Ratner’s Atlantic Yards?

For those of us who oppose that boondoggle because it would destroy one of the city’s few remaining economically and racially diverse neighborhoods, this unexpected turn of events seems no less than a deus ex machina. Although Ouroussoff hailed Gehry’s ensemble as “an urban Gesamtkunstwerk” it is among his worst designs, a throwback to the steamroller urbanism one thought had died with Robert Moses.

What a difference six days make. In a Mar. 27 column gallingly headlined, “Profit and Public Good Clash in Grand Plans,” Ouroussoff denounced the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s granting development rights for its Hudson Yards site in Manhattan to Tishman Speyer, whose design proposal, by Murphy/Jahn, was as bad as any of the other contenders’. Like former Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger (aka the Great Equivocator), Ouroussoff morphs into high indignation mode only when it’s safe. He’s entitled to like or dislike whatever he chooses. But for the sadly compromised Times to deliver lectures on the ethics of urban redevelopment is hypocrisy pure and simple.

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