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On the wrong side of history: how, in hindsight, the Municipal Art Society should have joined the Atlantic Yards litigation, and why the press would have paid more attention

Imagine where we'd be if the Municipal Art Society (MAS), the venerable preservation and planning organization that spawned the BrooklynSpeaks coalition and has advocated for Atlantic Yards reforms, had not chosen to leave that coalition when several of its members sued the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) over its failure to study the impacts of a delayed project buildout.

We might be reading a lot more about the aftermath of that suit, a severe rebuke from the courts to the state and developer Forest City Ratner, and a reminder about the lack of accountability regarding Atlantic Yards.

MAS, which has the ear of city elites (see this 8/6/06 New York Times editorial on AY or its role in debating the expansion of NYU), would have joined the press release--or sent out its own--announcing the unanimous victory April 12 in appellate court by the community coalitions challenging the state.

The New York Times, which has so far ignored the news, would have had to take it more seriously, at least in a news story, if not an editorial.

And MAS would have been on the right side of history in this case, recognizing that BrooklynSpeaks, formed in September 2006 as an alternative to the Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB) opposition strategy, had found negotiation to be fruitless.

(In the lawsuit, one coalition, including three elected officials, was led by BrooklynSpeaks members; the other involved DDDB and allies.)

Finding the middle ground, raising money

The MAS usually represents a respectable middle ground, not an easy position, I'd suggest, between the "development-at-any costs Bloomberg administration" (in the words of the New York Observer's Matt Chaban) and neighborhood residents or semi-idealistic urban planners.

The MAS also has its ties to some real estate developers; both the Related Companies and Forest City Ratner served as sponsors for the Second Annual Summit for NYC last October, and Forest City's MaryAnne Gilmartin made a presentation about the company's new Frank Gehry tower.

That relationship with Forest City came after MAS left BrooklynSpeaks. While I doubt the MAS move was driven by a desire for support from the developer, I'm confident Forest City wouldn't have offered such support had it been facing MAS in court.

The split from BrooklynSpeaks

In January 2010, I asked MAS why it had left BrooklynSpeaks, and was told:
MAS was one of the creators of Brooklyn Speaks, and we are extremely proud of our association with the group. The Brooklyn Speaks coalition has given a powerful voice to community stakeholders concerned with the Atlantic Yards project and its impact on the surrounding neighborhood.
Without commenting on the recent SEIS lawsuit, MAS maintains the same position it had when Brooklyn Speaks was founded: we do not believe that litigation is the best way to improve the project. Because Brooklyn Speaks was so closely associated with the litigation brought by certain of its member organizations, we felt it was inappropriate to remain a member of the coalition.
Through ongoing conversations with ESDC and Forest City Ratner Companies MAS continues to advocate for implementation of the design principles we articulated, with Brooklyn Speaks, when the project was in its nascent stage. We are also continuing to work towards a governance structure that will fully engage local residents and the community.
Generally speaking, litigation is likely not the best way to improve projects. But when dialogue doesn't work, and the state is actively mendacious, litigation may be the best option.

It seems the dialogue with ESDC and Forest City has been rather quiet, as has any discussion regarding a governance structure. I've described the MAS posture as a fundamental question of pragmatism vs. principle. Hindsight suggests that, in this case, principle was the wiser move.

Room for improvement

MAS supplied a significant part of the analysis behind BrooklynSpeaks's critique of AY (such as open space that seems private) as well as BrooklynSpeaks's quite reasonable governance proposal to form a subsidiary to oversee Atlantic Yards, just as subsidiaries have been formed to oversee other long-term projects, such as Battery Park City.

That governance proposal has been attenuated in the legislature, but even that hasn't passed, due in part to Forest City Ratner's opposition.

A comment

Mary Campbell Gallagher sent this comment:
You are too kind to the Municipal Art Society (MAS). The MAS can swing a lot of weight, and if it had supported the Atlantic Yards litigation from the start instead of joining Brooklyn Speaks, we would not be talking about recycling Atlantic Yards hearings now. Brooklyn Speaks never had a prayer of directly influencing Atlantic Yards. I said from the moment that the MAS joined Brooklyn Speaks that if Atlantic Yards got built, in any form, I'd blame it on the Municipal Art Society. Leaving Brooklyn Speaks was just the MAS's last gasp.

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