Skip to main content

What would Jackie think? MAS to honor Forest City's Ratner and Gilmartin with highest award, the Onassis Medal

Following on its myopic (juried) award to the Barclays Center as "Best Neighborhood Catalyst," the Municipal Art Society (MAS), that venerable urbanist organization, is giving its highest honor, the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Medal, to Bruce Ratner and MaryAnne Gilmartin of Forest City Ratner at a fundraising gala June 11.


According to the MAS, "the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Medal is presented to individuals who, by their work and deeds, have made an outstanding contribution to New York City. The medal bears Mrs. Onassis’ name in recognition of her tireless efforts to preserve and protect New York’s great architecture."

Click to enlarge; source here
Honorees themselves need not be preservationists like Jackie Onassis, who helped save Grand Central Station and modernist Lever House, and fought unwise projects.

The MAS honors "individuals and organizations that have made an extraordinary impact on the quality of New York’s built environment, as she did, out of a dedication to a more glorious New York City."

Ratner and Gilmartin surely aren't preservationists, having demolished renovated and renovation-worthy industrial buildings for Atlantic Yards.

They're likely being honored for recent signature buildings--the Times Tower, 8 Spruce Street, and the Barclays Center--which certainly have a major impact on the quality of built environment. (The award has not yet been announced via press release, but it is fairly widely known, including via the website of the event planner.)

It's just that that the impressive buildings come with serious baggage.

An architect has called the firm “among the most ruthless and difficult developers in the city.” Regarding Atlantic Yards, I call it the Culture of Cheating.

"Our company is really what I call a civic development company," Ratner likes to say. "And every project that we do has to have some civic component." Except "civic" is a fuzzy term, and  Ratner has made two self-sabotaging--if rather little-noticed--statements that back up charges of cheating:
  • he repudiated the ten-year Atlantic Yards timeline endorsed by his company and the state
  • he claimed that high-rise, union-built affordable housing isn't feasible,  though that's what he long planned and the state approved twice
Just yesterday, the Times published a long investigation into the ties between Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and the recently-indicted nonprofit kingpin William Rapfogel.

Ratner has had a key, secondary alliance with the two, giving money to a Silver committee, raising money for Rapfogel, hiring Rapfogel's son, and getting the inside track, though ultimately unsuccessful, on a key piece of land.

A new step for the MAS?

The MAS--an organization whose work I generally admire--has not shied away from honoring distinguished New Yorkers, business executives among them, who have wealthy friends willing to attend a major fundraising event.

Still, as far as I can tell (analysis below), Ratner and Gilmartin are the first developers to win the Onassis award, and the first real estate executives to win it outright.

The only remotely comparable winner, in recent years, was Peter Malkin, owner of the Empire State Building, who shared the 2009 award with an eminent architect, Robert A.M. Stern.

But Malkin was, in a sense, honored as a preservationist for greening the ESB.

By giving the award to Ratner and Gilmartin, the MAS seems to be taking a new step, recognizing builders with grander ambitions.

There's a logic to that: affecting New York's built environment today likely involves construction even more than preservation.

But construction is complex and politically fraught in a way that surpasses most preservation battles, at least those fought from the preservation side.

So, to honor Ratner and Gilmartin, who are certainly accomplished, requires a willingness to ignore the baggage.

Public, private, and the Culture of Cheating

Then again, before the award was renamed for Mrs. Onassis, the winners included Robert Moses, the unelected master builder and power broker of 20th century New York, whose legacy remain enormously contested.

Even so, Moses, who broke a lot of eggs to make his enduring omelets, was doing so as a public official.

Forest City Ratner's impressive buildings come with many eggs broken in the pursuit of corporate profit.

The Barclays Center fundamentally represents a dodge; that plaza so crucial to its image and function is temporary, an artifact of the failure to build a planned office tower, without which the project likely would not have been approved.

The much-hyped Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement--the results of which are quite mixed (delayed housing, lawsuit over job training, regular disbursement of free tickets, curious arena meditation room) contains a fatal failure: Forest City Ratner has been unwilling to pay for the Independent Compliance Monitor the agreement requires.

Forest City's search for cheap capital has led to participation in a federally approved program called EB-5, recruiting immigrant investors in 2010 and this year with clearly dishonest pitches.

Regarding Atlantic Yards, I could go on.

But consider the company's machinations in Yonkers, where it hired a local "fixer" for a no-show job after he got a city council member to change her vote to favor the Forest City's Ridge Hill project. Incredibly, Forest City remained unscathed.

The Times Tower in Midtown was where Forest City, with notable chutzpah, tried to wrangle triple tax-free Liberty Bonds aimed to rebuild Lower Manhattan.

And to build 8 Spruce Street, Forest City not only "blackmailed" the community board (to quote one board member) to gain tax breaks, it stopped construction midway through to play hardball with the unions and used those Liberty Bonds.

"Gotta like that," said an investment analyst, marveling at the developer's ability to gain tax-free bonds without providing affordable housing.

Such behavior--understandable, perhaps, from a corporate point of view--has not been matched by a public sector willing to push back.

That's how Forest City got both the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Empire State Development Corporation to renegotiate Atlantic Yards deals in its favor in 2009.

So the question should be asked: What would Jackie think? What about Jane Jacobs?

We know what Moses would say: "If the ends don't justify the means, what does?"

Previous winners of the Onassis Medal

In 1994, the year Onassis died, MAS renamed its highest honor the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Medal. The winners are listed below, with my annotations regarding their renown:
Dr. Judith Rodin and David Rockefeller, Jr., 2013 (president and board chair of the Rockefeller Foundation)
Joan Ganz Cooney and Peter G. Peterson, 2012 (co-founder of Sesame Workshop/philanthropist and businessman/civic leader)
Diane von Furstenberg, 2011 (preservationist in Meatpacking District, High Line advocate)
Peter L. Malkin and Robert A. M. Stern, 2009 (Empire State Building owner/guardian and architect/planner)
Kent Barwick, 2008 (the "soul of the MAS")
Wade F.B. Thompson and Elihu Rose, 2007 (saving and restoring an armory)
Janet and Arthur Ross, 2006 (philanthropists and parks advocates)
Channel Thirteen, 2005
Agnes Gund, 2004 (arts patron)
George Trescher, 2003 (master fund-raiser)
James Stewart Polshek, 2002 (architect)
Frederic S. Papert, 2001 (president of the 42nd St. Development Corporation and former MAS president)
Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman, 2000 (philanthropists)
Stephen C. Swid, 1998 (MAS chairman who presided over Times Square revival efforts)
Margot Gayle and Robert DeNiro, 1997 (preserving TriBeCa)
I. M. Pei, 1996 (renowned architect)
Brendan Gill, 1994 (New Yorker writer and preservationist)


  1. Anonymous2:07 PM

    What's next for MAS? Will they honored Empire State Development for all the corrupt work they have done over the years?

    Should there be an award for worst Authority?


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Forest City acknowledges unspecified delays in Pacific Park, cites $300 million "impairment" in project value; what about affordable housing pledge?

Updated Monday Nov. 7 am: Note follow-up coverage of stock price drop and investor conference call and pending questions.

Pacific Park Brooklyn is seriously delayed, Forest City Realty Trust said yesterday in a news release, which further acknowledged that the project has caused a $300 million impairment, or write-down of the asset, as the expected revenues no longer exceed the carrying cost.

The Cleveland-based developer, parent of Brooklyn-based Forest City Ratner, which is a 30% investor in Pacific Park along with 70% partner/overseer Greenland USA, blamed the "significant impairment" on an oversupply of market-rate apartments, the uncertain fate of the 421-a tax break, and a continued increase in construction costs.

While the delay essentially confirms the obvious, given that two major buildings have not launched despite plans to do so, it raises significant questions about the future of the project, including:
if market-rate construction is delayed, will the affordable h…

Revising official figures, new report reveals Nets averaged just 11,622 home fans last season, Islanders drew 11,200 (and have option to leave in 2018)

The Brooklyn Nets drew an average of only 11,622 fans per home game in their most recent (and lousy) season, more than 23% below the announced official attendance figure, and little more than 65% of the Barclays Center's capacity.

The New York Islanders also drew some 19.4% below announced attendance, or 11,200 fans per home game.

The surprising numbers were disclosed in a consultant's report attached to the Preliminary Official Statement for the refinancing of some $462 million in tax-exempt bonds for the Barclays Center (plus another $20 million in taxable bonds). The refinancing should lower costs to Mikhail Prokhorov, owner of the arena operating company, by and average of $3.4 million a year through 2044 in paying off arena construction.

According to official figures, the Brooklyn Nets attendance averaged 17,187 in the debut season, 2012-13, 17,251 in 2013-14, 17,037 in 2014-15, and 15,125 in the most recent season, 2015-16. For hoops, the arena holds 17,732.

But official…

Is Barclays Center dumping the Islanders, or are they renegotiating? Evidence varies (bond doc, cash receipts); NHL attendance biggest variable

The Internet has been abuzz since Bloomberg's Scott Soshnick reported 1/30/17, using an overly conclusory headline, that Brooklyn’s Barclays Center Is Dumping the Islanders.

That would end an unusual arrangement in which the arena agrees to pay the team a fixed sum (minus certain expenses), in exchange for keeping tickets, suite, and sponsorship revenue.

The arena would earn more without the hockey team, according to Bloomberg, which cited “a financial projection shared with potential investors showed the Islanders won’t contribute any revenue after the 2018-19 season--a clear signal that the team won’t play there, the people said."

That "signal," however, is hardly definitive, as are the media leaks about a prospective new arena in Queens, as shown in the screenshot below from Newsday. Both sides are surely pushing for advantage, if not bluffing.

Consider: the arena and the Islanders can't even formally begin their opt-out talks until after this season. The disc…

Skanska says it "expected to assemble a properly designed modular building, not engage in an iterative R&D experiment"

On 12/10/16, I noted that FastCo.Design's Prefab's Moment of Reckoning article dialed back the gush on the 461 Dean modular tower compared to the publication's previous coverage.

Still, I noted that the article relied on developer Forest City Ratner and architect SHoP to put the best possible spin on what was clearly a failure. From the article: At the project's outset, it took the factory (managed by Skanska at the time) two to three weeks to build a module. By the end, under FCRC's management, the builders cut that down to six days. "The project took a little longer than expected and cost a little bit more than expected because we started the project with the wrong contractor," [Forest City's Adam] Greene says.Skanska jabs back
Well, Forest City's estranged partner Skanska later weighed in--not sure whether they weren't asked or just missed a deadline--and their article was updated 12/13/16. Here's Skanska's statement, which shows th…

Not just logistics: bypassing Brooklyn for DNC 2016 also saved on optics (role of Russian oligarch, Shanghai government)

Surely the logistical challenges of holding a national presidential nominating convention in Brooklyn were the main (and stated) reasons for the Democratic National Committee's choice of Philadelphia.

And, as I wrote in NY Slant, the huge security cordon in Philadelphia would have been impossible in Brooklyn.

But consider also the optics. As I wrote in my 1/21/15 op-ed in the Times arguing that the choice of Brooklyn was a bad idea:
The arena also raises ethically sticky questions for the Democrats. While the Barclays Center is owned primarily by Forest City Ratner, 45 percent of it is owned by the Russian billionaire Mikhail D. Prokhorov (who also owns 80 percent of the Brooklyn Nets). Mr. Prokhorov has a necessarily cordial relationship with Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin — though he has been critical of Mr. Putin in the past, last year, at the Russian president’s request, he tried to transfer ownership of the Nets to one of his Moscow-based companies. An oligarch-owned a…

Former ESDC CEO Lago returns to NYC to head City Planning Commission

Carl Weisbrod, Mayor Bill de Blasio's City Planning Commission Chairman and Director of the Department of City Planning, is resigning,

And he's being replaced by Marisa Lago, currently a federal official, but who Atlantic Yards-ologists remember as the short-term Empire State Development Corporation CEO who, in an impolitic but candid 2009 statement, acknowledged that the project would take "decades."

Still, Lago not long after that played the good soldier at a May 2009 Senate oversight hearing, justifying changes in the project but claiming the public benefits remained the same.

By returning to City Planning, Lago will join former ESDC General Counsel Anita Laremont, who after retiring from the state (and taking a pension) got the job with the city.

Back at planning

Lago, a lawyer, in 1983 began work as an aide to City Planning Chairman Herb Sturz, and later served as the General Counsel to the president of the NYC Economic Development Corporation, Weisbrod himself.