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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?


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