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The Times takes a look at the Municipal Art Society, but gets the Atlantic Yards angle wrong

In a New York Times article today headlined New Leader Seeks Stronger Voice for Art Society, the Municipal Art Society is criticized for not speaking as loudly and effectively as it once did on urban design and preservation issues, such as when it helped save Grand Central Terminal. (They wanted to tear down Grand Central Terminal!)

So Vin Cipolla, who's replacing longtime leader Kent Barwick, is challenged to rebuild the membership, revenues, and board of MAS--and to speak louder.

And that touches on Atlantic Yards, but the Times doesn't understand MAS's role regarding AY, leaving out the organization's failure to address the process behind the project.

(The Times assigned the article to its architecture reporter, who hasn't covered AY, and places it in the Arts section, though coverage of urban design and preservation issues would go better in the Metro section.)

A big voice?

The Times reports:
Vin Cipolla, 53, who replaced Kent Barwick as president of the society earlier this year, said it would be taking a stronger public position on development on the far west side of Manhattan and placing Moynihan Station on the site of the James A. Farley Post Office Building on Eighth Avenue at 33rd Street. “We have a responsibility to our members and donors and to the citizens of New York to be a big voice on those subjects,” he said.
What that big voice is going to be is unclear from the article, though Cipolla states on the MAS web site that the organization will more narrowly focus on "preservation and sustainability, planning for all New Yorkers, and place-making and visioning."

Changing times

The Times reports:
But in an era when activist bloggers and neighborhood preservation groups have proliferated — and when two mayors more associated with development than preservation have been elected to two terms each — some advocates on both sides of the preservation debate see the society as something of a dinosaur. Committed preservationists in particular say that it hasn’t been aggressive enough lately, on issues like the redevelopment of Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn and of 2 Columbus Circle.
Wait a second. The criticism of MAS's role on AY doesn't come so much from "committed preservationists" as Brooklyn activists like planner Ron Shiffman, who said the MAS critique "falls short because it avoids discussing the process issues and attempts to apply a design solution to a fundamentally flawed and ill-conceived plan."

And there's no such thing as "the redevelopment of Atlantic Yards," because AY was never developed in order to be redeveloped. Atlantic Yards is a project, not a place.

The AY debate

The MAS role in Atlantic Yards gets defended:
Mr. Barwick said the society had taken the initiative on several occasions, for example in protecting Times Square from what it saw as overdevelopment in the ’80s and in re-imagining the Atlantic Yards project to include city streets there. He also said criticism comes with the territory in the advocacy business.

[Preservationist] Mr. [Anthony] Wood conceded, “You had to be pretty gutsy to go out and take a leadership role” in favor of preservation during the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations. “They may have felt there were some battles they couldn’t win.”

Mr. Barwick put it differently, arguing that the society’s mission is not always to fight. With Atlantic Yards, for example, many “felt this is a perfectly good place for development,” he said.
This is oversimplified. First, the MAS came significantly late to the Atlantic Yards debate, beginning in June 2006 as the project approached approval in the next six months.

Then again, MAS did take the initiative by offering a sophisticated critique of urban planning issues, such as the function of open space, thus helping fill a vacuum in the discussion.

However, additional streets were a feature of the UNITY plan alternative, announced more than 18 months earlier. And, while criticizing superblocks, MAS accepted a superblock for the arena.

Despite Barwick's quote, Atlantic Yards has never been an issue of development versus no development; the issue was whether pragmatism versus principle, whether better future process could redeem past bad process.

MAS, by forming BrooklynSpeaks, gave that a shot, but now many of the groups in BrooklynSpeaks have gone to court, in recognition that their "mend it don't end it" strategy got them nowhere with the state and the developer.

MAS ties

I'd be interested to learn how Cipolla and the MAS board plan to avoid the complications Barwick described in an interview:
We have ties to Bruce Ratner. He and I were in the Koch Administration together. Several of my trustees were personally friendly with Bruce and members of the Ratner family. We had a number of trustees who were former Koch people. So there was a feeling on our part, yeah, everyone likes Frank Gehry as a person. And Laurie Olin was a very fine landscape architect who has done a lot of fine work in the city and elsewhere.

So we weren’t dealing with the usual schlock, let’s-rape-the-site-and-get-out-as-quickly-as-we-can developers, using anonymous architects and landscape architects. There was clearly a greater set of ambitions here.

Yes, there were greater ambitions, though many of those ambitions have been jettisoned along with Gehry and (apparently) Olin.

Those personal ties and the respect for Gehry/Olin, however, obscured the process issues. Ironically enough, Barwick knows the process is bad; he famously suggested that AY might be "this generation's Penn Station," a quote absent in the Times.

Shouldn't MAS and allies have concerns about the role of consultants like AKRF, which can find "blight" in cracked sidewalks and thus smooth the way for eminent domain?

What about Jane Jacobs?

However legitimate the criticisms, I think the Times sells MAS short by not acknowledging its organization of a major exhibit on urbanist Jane Jacobs and sponsoring regular forums (I was on one panel) reflecting on the latter-day implications of her work. That's a major, ongoing contribution.


  1. When I interviewed Kent Barwick for the November 2006 Civic News, he talked almost exclusively about how the planning process mandated by the city charter had been circumvented by ESDC in the Atlantic Yards Project.
    To quote from the article:

    “There is disappointment, annoyance, and anger because there hasn’t been any way for anyone to have a voice,” he said. “Who’s listening to the people living around Atlantic Yards? There’s nowhere for them to go and talk, and what processes there are have been anti-democratic and frankly discourteous, and no one should be astonished that many people are angry and disaffected.”

    As a result of the way Atlantic Yards has been mishandled, said Barwick, “a lot of people ended up either in an organized cheering
    section or sending in $10 donations to fund a lawsuit against eminent domain. I’m not demeaning either of these positions, but it’s not exactly a public approval process leading to a better project.”

    The article generated some criticism of Barwick for his apparent defense of the use of eminent domain and, as you point out in your entry, how Barwick and MAS were coming so late to the battle. The sense I got in interviewing Barwick, however, was one of resignation tempered by real politik. Barwick knew as well as anyone how resistant ESDC and the Bloomberg administration were (and are) to Community Based Planning, a cornerstone of MAS's philosophy. MAS had spent hundreds of hours attempting to bring community input to planning for the World Trade Center site, and had gotten absolutely nowhere. Barwick now seemed to be picking his fights, saying that the ESDC and Bloomberg were juggernauts that could not be stopped on Atlantic Yards but might be tempered in their zealotry. To quote further from the article:

    Barwick does not think it is too late to salvage at least part of Atlantic Yards. "I don’t think this project
    is substantially designed in its later phases," he said, pointing out that it could be a decade before construction begins on much of the housing and retail space even if the ESDC rubber stamps the project this fall. "Battery Park City and Riverside South got redesigned several times before they got built," observed Barwick.

    "There’s no reason a new governor couldn’t open up the process and get good design people involved. Even neutral architects I have talked to give a failing grade to the developer’s plans for open space, retail space, circulation,
    and the like. I would like to see the governor create a board above suspicion that has the trust of the public to guide the project from here on out."

    The article concluded:
    "Get the process right, Barwick argues, and good ideas will follow. Get the process right, and Atlantic Yards could still be saved from itself.

  2. Here's the link:


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