Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Robin Pogrebin's Series Less Than Landmark Journalism.

"It's the way government is," Robert Tierney, the chairman of the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission, told reporter Robin Pogrebin this morning in the fourth and final installment of her series on the embattled agency. “It’s making choices and, without unlimited resources, having to make those choices and being able to do some things and not do other things.”

For Tierney, that represented a bold and provocative admission. For the rest of us, it wasn't nearly enough after wading through Pogrebin's unsatisfying and inconclusive series.

By allowing Tierney to pass off the mistakes of his commission onto the perils of bureaucracy, Pogrebin let a wonderful opportunity for true investigative journalism to slip through her grasp. After promising a detailed examination of the ways in which the commission caved to development interests -- despite vociferous objections from neighborhood activists and preservationists -- she allowed her antagonists to shroud themselves in vague excuses and simplistic observations. Instead of holding them truly accountable -- and by extension, the Mayor who appoints the commission members, and is himself beholden to the city's powerful real estate interests -- Pogrebin left the city's true power structure virtually unmentioned, and off the hook.

Considerable reporting went into Pogrebin's stories, and at times her narrative came to vivid life -- most especially when she detailed the debates over treasured New York buildings like the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the Dakota Stables, and St. Vincent's Hospital. In each case she outlined the divergent interests of developers and activists, and quoted critics who labelled the Landmarks Preservation Commission a tool of the developers. She shed light on a process that gotten surprisingly little attention from the city's press corps.

But nowhere in her 7.671-word series did Pogrebin ever land a a genuine blow against the commission, let alone those who critics allege control its vision.

Where do Mayor Bloomberg's responsibilities -- and priorities -- lie in relation to the commission's agenda? That's an issue left virtually untouched by Pogrebin, even though the Mayor appoints the commissioners and is responsible for the choice of Tierney, a selection that many who Pogrebin interviewed consider dubious. Deputy Mayor Patricia Harris spoke on the Mayor's behalf, and only in response to email questions. Pogrebin ends up quoting her only once, and in the final part of the series, when at last the connection between the commission and the real-estate industry is raised as a political issue involving the Mayor:

“The real estate industry controls the agenda in the city,” said Tony Avella, a city councilman from Queens. “If they don’t want something to happen, it doesn’t happen. They pull the strings from behind the scenes, whether in rezoning reform or landmarking. It’s just incredible how much influence they have.”

“The direction comes from the mayor, and the mayor’s pro-development,” Mr. Avella added.

Patricia E. Harris, the first deputy mayor, who oversees the commission, counters that the administration has been vigilant in protecting the city’s landmarks. “We don’t think about development without thinking about preservation,” she said in an e-mail message. (She agreed to reply only to questions submitted in writing.) “During a time of unprecedented growth, preservation has always been front and center.”

Even as preservationists argue that development has trumped preservation under Mayor Bloomberg, some architectural historians suggest that the traditional divide between the two should be rethought.

That's where that topic begins and ends, with no real reporting to illuminate either Avella's accusation, or Harris's response.

In sum, Pogrebin's series alleges that the commission often drags its heels on preservationist demands, thus tacitly allowing landmarking efforts to fail. She liberally quotes activists who make this charge, in this intance regarding the demolition of Dakota Stables:

“The commission had no intention of designating Dakota Stables,” said Kate Wood, the executive director of Landmark West!, a preservation group. “They waited until it had been torn down. It was clearly too late for them to do anything meaningful.”

“It was all so carefully orchestrated,” she added. “It was politics. It was all just theater.”

Tierney denies the accusation, of course. So where are we left, as readers? Sadly, in the same unfortunate position as those who raised the objections -- uncertain about what forces truly led the commission to act as it did in allowing Dakota Stables to be demolished. There's no tick-tock to guide us through the decision-making process; Pogrebin hasn't found sources within the commission to share its methods. And so, instead of performing an investigative function, Pogrebin only pokes gently at the commission with the weapon of an outraged activist.

It's true that Pogrebin touched on all the major controversies that have surrounded commission decisions in recent years, including the vocal debate over the status of 2 Columbus Circle. But all she did was to repeat the highlights -- all of which has been covered in far more detail elsewhere, including the contention that Mayor Bloomberg himself pushed that project through over the objections of preservationists. A June 30, 2005 story by Pogrebin herself reported that "[Mayor] Bloomberg has stood steadfastly, if quietly, behind the chairman" in a dispute that tagged Tierney as a supporter of the building's renovation.

But the allegation that the commission was doing Bloomberg's bidding has been made before, perhaps most prominently in a famous New York Times Op-Ed essay, "The (Naked) City and The Undead," by novelist (and highly vocal commission antagonist) Tom Wolfe in November of 2006:

Last year, as he had ever since 2003, Mayor Bloomberg made it clear that he wanted a 40-year-old white marble building the city owned at 2 Columbus Circle, designed by Edward Durell Stone for Huntington Hartford’s short-lived Gallery of Modern Art, replaced by a glass box proposed by the Museum of Arts and Design, to fit in with the behemoth glass box of the nearby Time Warner Center.

What were the true behind-the-scenes dealings among the Mayor, his appointee, Tierney, and those responsible for the new museum design, in allowing that development to take place? You won't find out from Pogrebin's stories. Too often she allows her sources to speak in generalities, such as this meaningless platitude from one commission member in this morning's piece:

“This is the real world, where there are pressures,” said Christopher Moore, who voted with the majority and has served as a commissioner since 1995. “And sometimes you have to give squares to get squares.” What's he talking about? We'll never know.

At other times she lays out assertions without specifics, such as in the thesis statement that follows Moore's comment:

Yet some preservationists and politicians assert that, under a mayoral administration that has emphasized new construction — from behemoth stadiums to architecturally bold condo towers — big developers have too often been allowed to lead on the dance floor. Some accuse the landmarks commission, charged with guarding the city’s architectural heritage, of backing off too readily when important developers’ interests are at stake.

Other issues cripple Pogrebin's efforts, including the odd division of the series into four overlapping and indistinct parts, with its fundamental thesis saved for today's conclusion. She never delves into significant biographical detail about Tierney, even though he's clearly the driving force behind the commission's most controversial decisions. And for a series about landmark buildings and architecture, her descriptive powers leave a lot to be desired; the most lyrical language she can summon to describe the Dakota Stables is a reference to its "round-arched windows and serpentine ornamentation." That doesn't exactly make a case for preservation. When she refers to the West-Park Presbyterian Church at 86th and Amsterdam as "a ruddy Romanesque Revival bulwark," you almost want to run over there and tear it down yourself.

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