Blaming the Good Guys

Randall Beach, columnist for the New Haven Register, writes about the unbearable loneliness of the Pirelli Building, and before reaching the end of the second paragraph, I can already guess who the villains are: those evil Swedish furniture makers.

Thousands upon thousands of us drive by the vacant Pirelli Building every day; its forlorn billboardy presence prompts wistfulness, curiosity and concern.

When will Marcel Breuer’s historic yet modernist creation be used for something more than to provide free advertising for its current owner, Ikea, to hawk its products?

Robert Grzywacz, the [New Haven Preservation Trust]’s second vice president, said Ikea officials “have no incentive to fix it up, which is unfortunate.”

This raises the troubling question of whether Ikea’s strategy might be “demolition by neglect” — allowing a building to be unused for so long that the owner finally says it can’t be saved.

That would be a convincing argument if it had any correlation to reality. When I interviewed the sales manager of IKEA New Haven and the public affairs rep for IKEA US in late 2008 for a piece about the Pirelli Building, both made it clear to me that it’s a white elephant they would love to sell. The historic status prevents demolition and IKEA has no interest in managing a rental property. They only bought it because no other parcel of land that large existed within New Haven for them to build upon.

The reasons why no one has purchased the Pirelli Building from IKEA aren’t conspiratorial. It’s a large structure, meaning a small company isn’t going to buy it, especially when office space is otherwise readily available. It has flaws, including asbestos, and seeing as it’s been empty since 1997, very likely lacks the internal infrastructure necessary for a modern business. A large company is better off building from scratch. Even in the mid-90s (when I lived in New Haven) the building was only partially occupied, suggesting the deterioration of the upper levels was well underway before it was completely abandoned. If the Pirelli Building is so attractive, why wasn’t it more fully occupied — or occupied at all — before IKEA purchased it in 2002? Why doesn’t Beach blame its decline on the previous owners?

Oh, right. Because the multinational corporation is the Snidely Whiplash in Beach’s preconceived story template.

The only possible futures I foresee for the Pirelli Building are either the city buying it to appease preservationists; or IKEA selling it at a loss to a developer just to get it off their hands. Until then, it’s preposterous to point fingers at the same people who are sustaining the building in the absence of any civic or commercial interest.

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