Wednesday (2)…Rail contractor allegedly pressures architects to oppose AIA transit position

Reports are circulating within the architectural community that Parsons Brinckerhoff, the lead consulting firm for the Honolulu rail transit project, is pressuring architects who have worked on the project to publicly criticize the position of the local American Institute of Architects favoring a light rail system capable of operating at ground level.

At a recent meeting with architects who have gotten contracts to work on preliminary plans, a Parsons VP and Hawaii manager allegedly implied that future work on the project might be linked to architects’ public and political support. According to one description:

Those present were reminded that future work on the project (when it goes into preliminary and then final engineering) would be through competitive selection, i.e, “continuation of your current position is not guaranteed.” After this was said, the team architects were “encouraged” to write letters, op-ed pieces, etc., criticizing AIA Honolulu’s position. And to “help them” do so, PB’s public relations staff would even write the letters and pieces for them.

An email follow-up from Parsons is also making the rounds.

To our architect team members,

Some of you who attended my meeting recently expressed your concern with regard to how AIA has been presenting its position to the public in an unbalanced, seemingly biased way. Since that meeting, some of you have agreed to send letters to various parties, including the City Council. I note that the local AIA calendar has a meeting of its Transit TF on the calendar for this Thursday PM. I’m certain that this is an open meeting. I request that you consider attending this meeting to express your own views about the Honolulu Transit project and how, perhaps, the public stance of the local AIA may not be fairly representative of its entire membership. Thanks for your support of our project. Pls let me know if there is anything our transit team could do to help you. Mahalo,

[name omitted]

But some of those architects working on the rail project strongly support the AIA stance in favor of a true light rail system able to operate at street level as well as on raised guideways. The city’s favored system requires an all-elevated track, even when aesthetic, environmental, and financial factors call for a different approach.

So is it ethical for Parsons to be pressing architects working as consultants on the project to take public positions in support of the city’s past decisions, even if that runs counter to their best professional judgement?

It perhaps isn’t a surprise that architects associated with the AIA see this as exerting improper and undue pressure. That doesn’t seem unreasonable when the company controlling many millions of dollars in future design contracts “requests” that you take certain action. That could certainly be construed as undue pressure, in my view.

Your tax dollars at work.


14 responses to “Wednesday (2)…Rail contractor allegedly pressures architects to oppose AIA transit position

  1. Ian, this is the second or third time you’ve posted blog entries about anonymous architects complaining about the rail system. Frankly, it’s hard to give much credibilty to anonymous sources. Too much like a whispering smear campaign for my taste.

  2. And as a follow up, if these anonymous architects don’t like an elevated rail system, why did they accept engagements working on the rail system? How ethical is it to take money from a client & then complain about the client’s project?

    As a rail supporter, this really ticks me off. We had the vote, and the project the city was working on was an elevated rail system. Where were these at-grade architects then? Why wait until now, when we are so close to finally — finally! — breaking ground on rail? I smell an ulterior motive

  3. I agree with the above comments. Why wait until now, when we are so close to FINALLY breaking ground on rail!!!

    I am just so disgusted with these architects and their petty whining. We on the west side have waited long enough. Let the work begin!

    • To gigi-hawaii: I think you’re off track.

      Why wait until now? Because AIA was officially and unofficially told that discussion of specific technologies was not appropriate earlier and should wait until the EIS process was complete, presumably because the EIS would identify pros and cons of the different options. Then, when the questions were subsequently raised, the response was that it was all being done “too late”. The window for discussion was closed by the city with its “premature…too early…now too late” approach. This is confirmed by public records, cited here earlier. And I think what we’re hearing from AIA is not what you call “petty whining” but a pretty informed set of comments on the most widely used type of system and the desirability of considering it as an option before finally committing to the all-elevated option. I agree that there are other interests out there that want to scuttle the rail project. That is not the AIA position, to the best of my knowledge.

  4. I guess those of us who live in town and are HUGE rail supporters but are really concerned about noise, sight lines, and integration of this system into our lives should stop complaining too? I really do want rail — want it badly. But I also think that systems such as Portland’s seem to make so much more sense than an elevated track.

  5. Parsons is representing itself honestly. The same can’t be said of architects who willingly take money from Parsons for a project and then badmouth the project.

  6. Public discussion is an important aspect of large public projects. However, the time for the discussion about at-grade vs. elevated was years ago. The project was clearly defined as an elevated system when those architects bid to work on this project. If they had fundamental concerns about the plans, they should not have taken the work. If you don’t believe in something, you should not spend the majority of your day’s efforts working on it. So, those architect firms that have a problem with the elevation should take themselves off the project – that’s where the ethical responsibility lays.

  7. If you are working fo rthe Project you should support it. It is ethical to ask somone working on a project to support it. Noone is forcing anyone to do anything.

    Maybe architects should worry more about the large building that are going to go up in Kakaako that will completely obstruct makai views? Aren’t architcest working on those project too?

  8. Of course the water table may be too high, but if I had my druthers, I’d put all of the trains underground — like the subways in New York City, where I lived for 5-1/2 years. That would quiet everybody, wouldn’t it?

  9. Different Anonymous

    Maybe part of the problem here is that Parsons is not merely asking its subcontractors to support the project the way it is now, it is also economically threatening its subcontractors into criticizing the project’s opponents. Parsons is also offering to ghost write those criticisms for the subcontractors.

    I can see refraining from criticizing the project at public hearings, but to be required to attack someone whose viewpoint you actually agree with just to keep the job is overreaching by Parsons. I don’t think the latter was in the RFP for the subcontractors.

    I also think it’s a bit much in this economy to require a subcontractor to completely agree with the design of a project in order to work on it. If you’re an architect and you believe that a building you are helping design (for example) is not structurally sound or is dangerous, don’t work on it. If you think that it is safe, but think it would be better if the overall design was a little different, why should you be precluded from taking the job? I don’t agree with everything that my boss does — should I have to quit my job in protest if things aren’t all exactly the way I would do them?

  10. I agree with rlb_hawaii.

    Notwithstanding these architect’s ethics, they may be violating their legal responsibility as contractors, because they are frustrating the purpose of their employer.

    BTW: It may well be that not all architects are mindless, simps following AIA’s every word. The AIA would have the City dig a trench for its at-grade proposal from Ewa to Diamond Head. Common sense dictates that such a proposal would have a significantly greater impact on the land and physical environment than a few pillars in the ground. Some architects could conceivably disagree with that approach.

  11. Think it through. Really

    Then again, maybe some architects have been feeling lots of peer pressure from the AIA leadership to support an unworkable at-grade scheme that overlooks lots of reality. If you’ve seen their fantasy illustration of light rail and buses going downHotel Street together, you know they’re not exactly thinking this one through all the way.
    I have no idea whether your correspondent accurately recorded and reflected what was said at the meeting he described, but I see absolutely nothing untoward in the email that allegedly followed.
    Perhaps it’s true that “the public stance of the local AIA may not be fairly representative of its entire membership.”
    Stop trying to see the worst, because maybe it’s just not there.
    If you’re looking for sleaze in the rail fight, you need to take a hard look at the failed push to bring the first phase to University Avenue (and not to the University of Hawaii), the failed push to bring it down Salt Lake Blvd. and create a new stop in Mapunapuna, and the failed push for rubber-tire-on-concrete that was absolutely for the benefit of a single potential vendor. The local media is completely useless in reporting on the real rail controversies.
    Where have you been?

  12. I am an architect, however not a member of the AIA. I support rail. I do not support the concept that Mufi is forcing on us.

    Ian is right. First it was too early to comment on the issue of design and then it was too late.

    It is time to realize that the elevated rail concept is too expensive, say by 1/2 a billion dollars. The flexible light rail option that the AIA supports is cheaper, more attractive. It will allow some portions to be elevated and others to be at grade.

    The current EIS is likely to be challenged in court because it does not adequately address project alternatives. The environmentalists will likely be blamed for stopping rail. The project leaders are the ones to blame. They have tried to fast track a complex project and they will get caught for being out of compliance with the law.

    I support rail. Let’s do it right the first time.

  13. a professional opinion

    Kimo – I’m with you. I wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning if I considered it unethical collaborating with people on projects that I wasn’t in full agreement with. In fact thats the reason I do get out of bed – too make a difference. Transit – done correctly- is a terribly important catalyst to redirect a deeply imbedded self destructive development pattern. The current routing of the elevated does not serve nearly the population an ongrade system could. The Makai route terminating at Ala Moana both is not central to Honolulu’s population and doesn’t extend into the urbanized areas where it is critical that it should due to its impact. Connecting modes of transit to augment the system will be insufficient and deter potential users. The elevated approach has, hands down, proven to not be urban friendly as light rail is in reinvigorating neighborhoods. Unfortunately constructive voices in the process are labeled the “opposition”. In a truely informed process it would be just one more constructive voice.
    But I have good news – simply put, we are not entirely off track. The light rail vehicle option, capable of both elevated and on grade segments, solves all these isses. The route then can be modified once in Honolulu, split into any number of spurs to Waikiki or the University, or even Makiki and and actually do what it has to. This wouldn’t require a new EIS for the initial phases – wouldn’t slow the progress and we could start to put Honolulu on the road to recovery. Why is no one discussing an appropriate hybrid technology? I can only assume the people that should have no interest in listening.

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