Tuesday, June 03, 2014

On night Ratner/Gilmartin get Onassis Medal, "appalled" Historic Districts Council plans showing of film, panel discussion (including me)

The news that the Municipal Art Society (MAS) is giving its highest honor, the Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis Medal, to Forest City Ratner's Bruce Ratner and MaryAnne Gilmartin does not sit well with the Historic Districts Council, a group that, unlike MAS, is focused specifically on preservation.

It announced that it's "appalled" and has scheduled a counter-event--a showing of the Atlantic Yards documentary Battle for Brooklyn and a panel discussion (including me)--on the same night, June 11. More details below.

Defense and criticism

From coverage in Capital New York:
Margaret Newman, M.A.S. executive director, defended the organization's honoring of Ratner and Gilmartin.
"M.A.S. is honoring Forest City Ratner Companies for their extensive body of work, their ongoing vision, as well as for their commitment to the future of New York," she said. "FCRC's focus on addressing our city’s lack of affordable housing through innovative investments in modular building techniques will have a positive and lasting impact, and serve as a model for the entire development sector. Forest City Ratner’s acute understanding of the ways that mixed-use development and urban revitalization projects contribute to the healthy and sustainable functioning of communities across the region and the country has benefited cities – and citizens – from coast to coast.
She also argued that "FCRC has led the revitalization of a key part of New York, Downtown Brooklyn, starting with MetroTech Center and culminating with our city's first 21st century arena, entertainment complex and neighborhood catalyst: Barclays Center."
Forest City Ratner had no comment.
But Ron Shiffman, a Pratt Institute professor, Atlantic Yards critic and a recipient of the Jane Jacobs Medal, which is administered by M.A.S., argued that the nonprofit's pursuit of money was clouding its judgment.
“It says that they needed money,” said Shiffman. “But there’s a point at which principle has to trump need when it comes to these kinds of things.”
Well, Forest City can be honored for its buildings, but, as I've previously explained, you have to ignore how they got there: the end justifies the means. 

Consider how Gilmartin claimed Atlantic Yards represented "massive blight," while the New York Court of Appeals dubbed it "relatively mild conditions of urban blight principally attributable to a large and, of course, uninhabited subgrade rail cut"--which, I might add, looks to be developed last in the construction sequence.

More reasons for skepticism

The modular citation is unfortunately timed: MAS made the decision to give the award before learning that the first tower would be delayed a year, until December 2015, and that Forest City Ratner's new joint venture partner/overseer, the Chinese government-owned Greenland Group, would decide that the next three towers would be built through conventional construction.

Also, the salute to affordable housing must be contextualized by a recognition of how hard Forest City sold such benefits to the public but kept delaying it.

It's not committed to affordable housing. It's committed to making the profit it needs, and affordable housing happened to fit. If Forest City were truly committed to affordable housing, it would have lobbied for tax reform and other public policies.

The headline in the Capital New York article is Ratner award sparks intra-preservationist fight, but the MAS, which has a preservation component, is not as focused on preservation as the HDC.

As I wrote, Forest City's record doesn't necessarily fit with the Municipal Art Society's efforts to create a "more livable city by advocating for excellence in urban planning and design, a commitment to historic preservation and the arts, and the empowerment of local communities to affect change in their neighborhoods."

While the signature Forest City buildings honored in the invitation--the Barclays Center, the New York Times Tower, New York By Gehry--arguably represent excellent urban design (if not urban planning), it's hard to say they represent a commitment to historic preservation nor the empowerment of local communities.

The relevance of Battle for Brooklyn

The film, which ends as the arena is being constructed, can't tell the full or up-to-date story. But it's still valuable.

As I wrote in my review, "Having observed much of the story in real time, I found Battle most valuable in the camera’s witness to the palpable insincerity and cold-blooded indifference of the developer-government alliance."

That's still true. And I don't think Jackie Onassis would have liked it.

Thing is, Forest City has embraced historic preservation when it met their financial goals. In the case of Atlantic Yards, they ignored it. Originally, they didn't plan to build on the southeast block of the project site, a block that could have been restored. Then they decided it was financially necessary.

The announcement
Historic Districts Council is appalled that Forest City Ratner is being awarded the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Medal‏
New York- The Historic Districts Council, the citywide advocate for New York's historic neighborhoods, will present the film Battle for Brooklyn (2011) followed by a panel discussion with planning experts and community advocates on the ongoing community concerns related to the Atlantic Yards Project on June 11, 2014 at 6 PM at the Brooklyn Lyceum, 227 4th Avenue, Brooklyn. This event will take place on the same evening that Bruce Ratner and MaryAnne Gilmartin of Forest City Ratner, developers of Atlantic Yards, will be honored by the Municipal Art Society with the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Medal for their contributions to New York City.
As an organization devoted to preserving New York City’s physical character, HDC is appalled by the decision to honor what Forest City Ratner has done to our city. Conflating the company’s record of bulldozing neighborhoods with Mrs. Onassis’s pivotal role in preserving New York City’s Landmarks Law is something HDC feels should not go unnoticed. We thought about screening the film directly on to the side of the building where the award is being presented to demonstrate how FCR treats New York City’s neighborhoods, but decided instead to use this opportunity to host a conversation about communities, development and the future of the area in and around downtown Brooklyn.
The panel speakers include Michelle de la Uz, Executive Director of the Fifth Avenue Committee; Daniel Goldstein, Co-founder of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn; Norman Oder, Journalist, Atlantic Yards Report and Ronald Shiffman, Pratt professor. The event is free and open to the public, but RSVPs are required and space is limited. For further information please contact bharmon@hdc.org or 212-614-9107.

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