ULI Issues Thin-Skinned Response to Criticism
As a journalist, I regularly say some strong things about buildings and urban planning, although not without the anxious feeling deep inside that my big mouth will someday get me into trouble. And, as it turns out, not entirely without reason: sometimes, I can lose work because of my opinions. Wherein hangs the tale.
The Los Angeles Chapter of Urban Land Institute -- how shall I put it? -- un-hired me as a documentation writer. I, among other writers, had been approached by the institute to provide written documentation of the two institute’s continuing education seminars. After vetting and hawing and hemming, I was selected for the writerly task. The fee probably wasn’t going to be a fortune, but it was a paycheck for a self-employed person during the slowest economic recovery in anyone’s memory, and it would have helped.
Now, in this blog and other places, I have written critically -- very critically, but not uncivilly -- about the some of the dubious qualities of LA Live as an example of urban design. I argued that this sports, entertainment and hotel cluster, which fills about 20 acres, essentially makes the southern end of downtown into a private enclave. And as I have written here and elsewhere, the whole $4 billion package is essentially a mousetrap to capture tourists, who may be tempted to stay and spend their money in this Vegas-sized extravaganza, without having ever ventured into the city proper, and then go home and tell the folks they’ve “seen L.A.” I think it’s a bad project, and a co-option of decades of planning by big money.
Then the phone rang a few days ago. On the other end was an executive with the Los Angeles Council of ULI. The person was very courteous, and wanted to speak to me personally.
The person told me, very civilly, that I could no longer serve as a writer-for-hire for Urban Land, because, and this is verbatim, “we can’t use writers who have opinions.“ Opinions, that is, on a multi-billion-dollar project in downtown Los Angeles, the developer of which, Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), looms above other Los Angeles developers like a turkey buzzard among pigeons. (I could have chosen a more flattering metaphor, such as “like an eagle soaring above the meadowlarks,” but I’m feeling piqued.)
Anyway, I politely pointed out to my caller that Urban Land Institute itself had recently given LA Live an award. Couldn’t an award be viewed as opinionary? “It was recognized for certain qualities,” hedged the caller, who seemed uncomfortable. “No, it was given an award for excellence,” I replied, “which is why I wrote that blog criticizing ULI’s decision.“ The caller acknowledged that he/she/it had private opinions about LA Live, but in the official capacity as a Person Without Opinions, kept personal feelings close to the vest. As for my doing any work at ULI, well, I could always volunteer to work on committees. In a gracious l‘envoi, the caller told me to “keep holding our feet to the fire.”
Now, I understand that Urban Land Institute does not owe me a job. And I also understand the potential embarrassment ULI officials would suffer should an irate official with Anschutz Entertainment Group, the developer of LA Live, express displeasure that I was feeding at their trough, so to speak. On the other hand, unhiring me could be interpreted as censorship. How? Imagine, if you will, if I had written a highly flattering, sickeningly effusive review of LA Live? Would that overt expression of opinion have cost me paying work with a non-profit trade group. (Long silence for dramatic effect.) No, I don’t think so, either.
I was punished for having a particular type of opinion about a highly conspicuous project, the developer of which enjoys a favorite-son status in the otherwise stagnant pool that was formerly the development industry in Los Angeles. And that’s the burn. Urban Land Institute, you are a valuable organization that does fine work in advisory city planning in Los Angeles and the rest of the country. If you smell something burning, however, it could be your feet. May I advise you, very tactfully, to keep them out of your mouth.
(Naturally, Morris Newman's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of CP&DR or its editors.)