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Discarded Roberto Clemente Memorial Left Artist in Debt and Angry at City

By Patrick Wall | September 12, 2013 7:56am
 Artist Lewis deSoto said the city's Public Design Commission doomed the project and left him in debt.
An Abandoned Roberto Clemente Memorial Sculpture
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THE HUB — The stainless-steel sculpture would have soared nearly five stories above The Bronx’s busiest intersection, its internal LED lights programmed to glow the color of the Puerto Rican sky.

The 48-foot tower, called El Foro, or “The Lighthouse,” would have been the first memorial to Roberto Clemente since a public plaza at the Hub was named for the baseball legend around the time of his death in 1972.

But as the city begins a $12.7 million renovation of Clemente Plaza this fall, the sculpture will soar only on paper, since the artist withdrew from the project in 2012 after working on it over a period of five years.

The artist, Lewis deSoto, said that although several city agencies backed his plan, the city’s Public Design Commission requested costly and contradictory redesigns that he could not afford to keep making. (Last year, a city audit criticized the mayor-controlled commission for failing to set objective standards or to consider the cost of the changes it orders.)

Now, more than a year after he reluctantly resigned, deSoto said he has been paid only half the termination fee he is owed and that he is still out $6,000 for design expenses.

"That was like five years of work that kind of disappeared," said deSoto, who has created public works in Phoenix, San Francisco, Seattle and elsewhere. "I will never work for the city of New York again.”

The nonprofit SoBRO floated the idea for the memorial in 2008, the same year the city’s Department of Transportation overhauled the Hub intersection, where East 149th Street and Third, Melrose and Willis avenues meet. The redesign expanded Clemente Plaza to about 15,000 square feet.

Mario Bodden, then an assistant vice president at SoBRO, spoke with Clemente’s son, who said the family wanted the memorial to honor the humanitarian side of the baseball Hall of Famer, who died in a plane crash while delivering relief supplies to earthquake victims.

So, rather than baseball stats, deSoto’s design incorporated a poem that the beloved Puerto Rican ballplayer wrote one Father’s Day and a statement he made about improving the world. Its lighthouse look referenced “the guiding figure that [Clemente] has become,” the proposal said.

“That’s why Lewis won — because he wasn’t showing a bronze statue of a guy swinging a bat,” said Bodden, who now works for a Brooklyn nonprofit. “The lighthouse captured the spirit of [Clemente] being that beacon.”

DeSoto signed a contract with SoBRO in 2010. As he developed his design, he met often with Bronx and city officials, as well as Garrison Architects, which was designing seating, planters and a fountain for the plaza.

In April 2011, deSoto presented his design to the Public Design Commission, a mostly mayor-appointed board that must approve any artwork or architecture on city property.

The PDC approved the tower concept, but said the base (then home plate-shaped) was too simple and should be modified, according to deSoto and documents obtained by DNAinfo.

Over the next year, deSoto worked with manufacturers, engineers and city agencies to redesign the sculpture to meet the PDC’s demands.

But when he presented the new plans to the PDC in February 2012, the board reversed itself, saying the new base was too complex and the tower unsound. It also requested a 6-foot-high model, which would have cost $30,000 to produce, deSoto said.

During the intensive two-year design process, deSoto was paid $20,000 by the city, according to a Department of Cultural Affairs spokeswoman.

DeSoto used that money to pay subcontractors, engineers and computer-aided designs, as well as his travel expenses, since he splits his time between New York and California, he said.

Eventually, those funds ran out and he had to sell some personal property to continue to bankroll the project, he added.

“If I continued to work on it,” he said, “I would probably have had to take a job at McDonald’s.”

He withdrew from the project in May 2012. In a resignation letter, he praised the city agencies he worked with, but blasted “the capricious nature” of the PDC.

The PDC referred questions about its review of deSoto's designs to the mayor's office, which did not provide a response.

The same month deSoto resigned, the city Comptroller released an audit — which the PDC disputed — that said the commission reviews designs without using formal guidelines or considering the cost of the changes it requests.

The audit gave one example of a project that was changed three times based on PDC demands, which led to a $3.5 million cost increase.

DeSoto said he expected to receive a $10,000 termination fee after he backed out of the project for the work he completed, which he said is the industry standard. The city paid him a $5,000 fee.

The Cultural Affairs spokeswoman, Danai Pointer, said the contract did not set a specific termination fee and that deSoto would receive no further payments from the city.

Pointer also said that a new artist would be selected to design a Clemente memorial, which will be installed during the 18-month plaza reconstruction set to start this fall.

No part of deSoto’s design will be used, she added.

Bodden, the former SoBRO official who first pushed for a Clemente memorial, said he is hopeful about a new design, but also sad to see deSoto’s vision abandoned.

“Something as grand as that would have made sense to me,” he said. “But it’s a moot point now.”