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Announcing award for Ratner and Gilmartin, press release buffs the developers, ignores inconvenient facts (+ de Blasio praise)

Tonight, as reported, Forest City Ratner's Bruce Ratner and MaryAnne Gilmartin will at a fundraiser get the Municipal Art Society's highest honor, while the Historic Districts Council will host a counter-event, the showing of the Battle for Brooklyn documentary and a panel discussion, which includes me.

I haven't previously written about the puffy press release, The Municipal Art Society Of New York To Honor Bruce Ratner And MaryAnne Gilmartin.

It deserves some close reading.

Leading off

The press release begins:
Vin Cipolla, President of The Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS), today announced that 2014 Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Medals will be presented to Bruce Ratner, Executive Chairman, and MaryAnne Gilmartin, President & CEO, Forest City Ratner Companies (FCRC). MAS will pay tribute to Mr. Ratner and Ms. Gilmartin for their longstanding commitment to New York City and the organizations and partnerships that make it a more just and equitable place, and in recognition of their efforts to promote world-class design, architectural innovation and public art.
Their longstanding commitment to New York City? That's a great place to do business, especially if you've built up political connections.

Their commitment to the organizations and partnerships that make it a more just and equitable place? Does that refer to Forest City's strategic charitable contributions, as well as the company's support of the MAS, which is giving it the award? (Such conflicts might nix other kinds of awards.)

Note that this is the first time any developer has won the Onassis award outright. Previously, Empire State Building owner Peter Malkin shared the award; he was credited not for ground-up development but for greening the classic tower.

Their efforts to promote world-class design, architectural innovation and public art? Well, their efforts to promote world-class design are rather belated and strategic, given prominent earlier efforts like MetroTech and the Atlantic Center mall.

Forest City's modular building strategy is surely architectural innovation, but--and this is poor timing for MAS--the first modular tower is a year late, and Forest City's new joint venture partner, the Chinese government-owned Greenland Group, has decided the next three buildings will be built via conventional construction.

As for public art, well, there's a new sculpture at the arena plaza, as well as digital art at the oculus, but it requires blinkers to focus on such strategic spending without noticing that Forest City could have spent even less to fulfill its contractual obligation to hire the Independent Compliance Monitor required by the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA). Which it didn't.

Praise from the mayor

The press release continues:
Mayor of the City of New York, Bill de Blasio, commended the honorees, saying, “Bruce Ratner and MaryAnne Gilmartin have both played key roles in revitalizing Downtown Brooklyn and enhancing New York City’s iconic skyline – it literally would not be the same without them. Their developments exhibit the highest standards of design excellence and architectural innovation, and they continue to expand economic opportunity for thousands of New Yorkers.”
Ok, key roles in revitalizing Downtown Brooklyn and enhancing New York City’s iconic skyline. But de Blasio's to-the-hilt support for Atlantic Yards was based on the affordable housing, and nothing's been delivered yet.

Their developments exhibit the highest standards of design excellence and architectural innovation? Only some of them and, as noted, the latest innovation is not so successful.

They continue to expand economic opportunity for thousands of New Yorkers? That vague phrase could mean anything, but Atlantic Yards was predicated on specific promises of full-time jobs, subsidized housing, and contracting for MWBEs. If we had that Independent Compliance Monitor, we might be reminded how little they have delivered.

And no, the thousands of part-time jobs at the arena don't count, especially since Forest City won't discuss the average weekly compensation or the benefits available. Also, one key element of the CBA, a coveted pre-apprenticeship training program, is now subject to a federal lawsuit by participants who say they were promised construction jobs at Atlantic Yards and union cards.

A major fundraiser

The press release continues:
The Onassis Medals will be presented at a black-tie fundraiser co-chaired by David M. Childs, Chairman Emeritus of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and Larry A. Silverstein, Chairman of Silverstein Properties, at the landmarked 583 Park Avenue on Wednesday, June 11, 2014. Contributions will support MAS and its mission to advance holistic urban planning, preservation and design solutions that enhance the quality of life across New York.
Note that Childs, a former Chairman of MAS, in March 2010 was reported as having consulted with Ratner on the arena design, and had discussed working on one of the residential buildings.

“Bruce wants to bring in different architects, good architects, to do each of the residential buildings,” Childs said, which contradicted Forest City's previous insistence that marquee architect Frank Gehry--against his request--design them all.

Holistic urban planning? C'mon, nobody--even those who think the Atlantic Yards project is worth it--thinks it represents "holistic urban planning." Consider this criticism of Atlantic Yards, issued in June 2006 by Kent Barwick, then president of MAS, which at that time was trying to mend Atlantic Yards:
For the MAS however, one issue is paramount, which is the involvement – or in this case the absence of involvement – of citizens in deciding the future of their own communities. Today the great majority of major development projects under way in New York City are undertaken by autonomous state agencies with no meaningful local review process. Whether this is a great project or a flawed one, no local elected official will ever get a vote. That’s just wrong. We are committed to a meaningful role, not just a reactive one, for communities... We hope you will agree, whatever your view of Atlantic Yards, that New York needs a system that involves rather than alienates citizens.
MAS presentation, June 2006
That critique led MAS to form the group BrooklynSpeaks, aimed to improve but not kill Atlantic Yards.

As to preservation and design solutions that enhance the quality of life, that's of course a judgment call. In 2006, MAS was calling for the preservation of existing buildings on the Atlantic Yards site.

What would Jackie say?

The press release continues:
The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Medal, MAS’s highest honor, is presented annually to individuals or institutions whose work or deeds have made outstanding contributions to New York City. The medal, launched in 1950, was renamed in 1994 to commemorate Mrs. Onassis’ efforts to champion and preserve New York’s great architectural treasures.
Note that outstanding contributions to New York City is by no means congruent with efforts to champion and preserve New York’s great architectural treasures, so that requires a bit of a shift.

In March, I wrote: "What would Jackie think? What about Jane Jacobs? We know what Robert Moses would say: 'If the ends don't justify the means, what does?'"

The Historic Districts Council stated that "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."

It's inherently speculative to claim what the dead would do, of course. Note that MAS President Vin Cipolla claimed, "As a person interested in design and a vital New Yorker, she certainly would have been involved in the decision, and I think she would be pleased with Forest City.”

(Update: in January 2014, the MAS announced that "David Rockwell and Vin Cipolla Launch Media, Entertainment and Hospitality Incubator.")

Also, as the Post reported, What Jackie Taught Us author Tina Flaherty defended the honor: “Jackie Kennedy was not against progress. She believed in beauty and wanted us to protect it where it exists, and where it doesn’t exist she wanted developers of taste to create it.”

The MAS principles

Others might identify significant flaws. After all, the MAS in 2006 issued principles regarding Atlantic Yards that, in the main, have not been followed.

Streets have been eliminated, existing neighborhoods haven't been respected (according to the MAS formulation), and it's unlikely that a real public park will be created.

As for promoting lively streets, well, the Flatbush Avenue retail is far more successful than the Atlantic Avenue retail.

One positive is that the streets have not been choked so far, thanks to provision and promotion of transit, a smaller arena than originally planned, and far fewer visitors from New Jersey. (The jury's still out on hockey.)

And neighbors have experience significant disturbances.

A preservationist resigns

Also, author, filmmaker (Brooklyn Matters, etc.), and preservationist Isabel Hill shared with me the letter she sent MAS resigning from its Preservation Committee:
This letter serves as my formal resignation from the Preservation Committee of the Municipal Art Society, an action I am taking with much consideration and regret. I have been involved with MAS for over 25 years and have been proud to be allied with an organization that has had a strong and significant voice in our city—standing up to power and spearheading critical preservation efforts.

But today, I am increasingly disappointed and, truthfully, shocked at the actions at MAS, specifically relating to Forest City Ratner. I feel that the most recent announcement that MAS will be awarding the Jackie Kennedy Onassis Medal to Bruce Ratner and Mary Anne Gilmartin flies in the face of all that MAS has worked for and stands for. What Bruce Ratner did in the Atlantic Yards Project can not be overlooked. Using his influence and connections, he circumvented the public process and by-passed critical planning principles, as former MAS President Kent Barwick, has enumerated. With taxpayer money, he purchased and demolished historic buildings, many of which had recently been renovated. I scratch my head to try to understand how these things, and MAS's earlier designation of the Barclay's Center as a Neighborhood Catalyst, line up with the work of MAS.

So it is with deep sadness that I resign from the Committee.
MAS core principles and Forest City's mixed-use success

The press release continues:
Genie Birch, Chair of the MAS Board of Directors, said, “Bruce and MaryAnne’s many accomplishments embody MAS’s core principles in numerous ways, and we are pleased to recognize them for their commitment to the future of New York. Their 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.”
Will innovative investments in modular building techniques have a positive and lasting impact, and serve as a model for the entire development sector? That's premature, as I've noted.

What about Forest City's acute understanding of the ways that mixed-use development and urban revitalization projects contribute to the healthy and sustainable functioning? That's an interesting statement, especially coming from Birch, who's a distinguished urban planning professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

It's hard to know exactly what that means, since you could focus on examples that show Forest City in more and less flattering lights.

Yes, the arena takes advantage of a public transit nexus. However, one of the major goals of the mixed-use Atlantic Yards project was to eliminate the blight caused by the below-grade railyard, and that has been put off for years.

As architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote:
That the world has come around to Jane Jacobs’s way of thinking is indisputable, but this has hardly brought us to the promised land. Not the least of the price we pay for having so many of Jacobs’s views become the common wisdom is the extent to which they are now co-opted by real-estate developers and politicians... The term mixed use, which started as a sharp-eyed writer’s observation of what underlies an organic urban fabric, has become a developer’s mantra. Indeed, who could have envisioned the day when politicians and developers trying to sell New York on a gigantic football stadium beside the Hudson River would propose surrounding it with shops and caf├ęs so that they could promote it as an asset to the city’s street life?... In the 21st century, the danger is not with those who oppose Jane Jacobs, but with those who claim to follow her.
Note that Gilmartin, in fact, calls herself a follower of Jacobs, and has suggested that the Atlantic Yards modular plan is the "modern redux of Jane Jacobs." Goldberger cautioned:
What Jane Jacobs really taught wasn’t that every place should look like Greenwich Village, but instead that we should look at places and figure out their essences, that we should try to understand what makes cities work organically and to think of them as natural systems that should be nurtured, not stymied. I think of her less as showing us a physical model for cities that we need to copy and more as providing a model for skepticism.
That seems to reflect the 2006 version of MAS's relatively mild criticism.

Birch, at a November 2008 MAS panel I covered, was criticized by some in the audience for saluting China's dramatic investments in infrastructure while casually acknowledging "they’ve displaced a few people in doing."

“We have to find ways to create the infrastructure we need,” Birch responded, not unreasonably. “We need inclusiveness, we need decision-making, but we need ways to get to decisions that will balance citywide needs with neighborhood needs. And that’s something we have not figured out how to do.”

But Atlantic Yards is not an infrastructure project at its core. However much an arena--run for private profit--appeals to the larger Brooklyn and New York market, it's hard to believe Atlantic Yards stands as an example of good decision-making.

Impressive new buildings

The press release continues:
Mr. Cipolla continued, “Forest City Ratner Companies has developed some of the most architecturally distinct new buildings in our city, including Renzo Piano’s New York Times Building and Frank Gehry’s 8 Spruce Street. 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.”
Yes, Forest City has produced some architecturally distinct buildings, each of which comes with a questionable back story, from the use of eminent domain for the Times to the use of subsidies for 8 Spruce Street to, well, a Culture of Cheating for Atlantic Yards.

As for whether the Barclays Center is a neighborhood catalyst, that, I wrote, is very much in question. Yes, it has led to new stores and restaurants, but that has not necessarily benefited existing merchants.

Moreover, the arena has had a clearly non-catalytic role regarding the most important change in its neighborhood: the delayed plan to build over the adjacent Vanderbilt Yard.

Board service

The press release continues:
Mr. Childs noted, “Our honorees’ leadership as Board members of such important civic institutions as Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Weill Cornell Medical College, Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Museum of Jewish Heritage and other vital community, educational and business partnerships has enriched New York on myriad levels. It is my honor to be a part of an event with MAS honoring these innovative thinkers and doers.”
As I've noted, board service, however worthy, does not a Jackie Onassis award make.

Forest City's work, Ratner's resume

The press release continues:
Mr. Ratner is the Executive Chairman of FCRC, the New York-based real estate development company which he started in 1985. As one of the largest urban real estate developers in the country, he has developed forty-four ground-up projects in the New York City area over nearly thirty years. Mr. Ratner is the majority owner and developer of Barclays Center, home of the Brooklyn Nets and the centerpiece of the first phase of the transformative Atlantic Yards development, which will include 6,400 residential units and has already begun to positively impact the cultural landscape of the city.

In addition to Barclays Center, Mr. Ratner recently completed several critically-acclaimed buildings including New York by Gehry, a residential apartment building designed by architect Frank Gehry, and The New York Times Building, designed by architect Renzo Piano. Mr. Ratner’s MetroTech Center, an eleven building corporate campus, is occupied by over 18,000 workers and has often been credited with helping spur the renaissance of downtown Brooklyn. Mr. Ratner currently serves on a number of boards including Weill Cornell Medical College; Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center; and the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, where he serves as Chairman-Elect. His civic involvement in New York City extends back to the Koch Administration when he served as the Commissioner of the Department of Consumer Affairs before beginning his career in real estate.
Mr. Ratner is a graduate of Harvard College and the Columbia University School of Law. He holds honorary degrees from Brooklyn College, the Pratt Institute and Long Island University.
It's interesting to see the use of the term civic involvement, since Ratner likes to use the ineffable term "civic developer" to describe his work.

Gilmartin's background

The press release continues with resume-type information about Gilmartin:
MaryAnne Gilmartin is President and Chief Executive Officer of FCRC. She has led the development of some of the most high profile real estate projects in New York City, including Barclays Center, the new state-of-the-art sports and entertainment venue and the centerpiece of the $4.9 billion, 22-acre mixed-use Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn.
Ms. Gilmartin oversaw the development of The New York Times Building, designed by world-renowned architect Renzo Piano and New York by Gehry, the tallest residential building in the Western Hemisphere, designed by award winning architect Frank Gehry. In addition to these projects, she has managed the commercial portfolio at MetroTech Center in Downtown Brooklyn, which consists of 6.7 million square feet of Class A office space.
Ms. Gilmartin graduated summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa from Fordham University, where she also completed her Master’s Degree in 1990. Ms. Gilmartin began her real estate development career as a New York City Urban Fellow in 1986 at the Public Development Corporation (now the NYC Economic Development Corporation). Her role grew into the policy area of the agency where she worked on corporate retention, including structuring deals to keep companies in the city.
Ms. Gilmartin serves as a Board Trustee for the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM); a Member of the Board of Governors of the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY); an Executive Committee Member of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership and as a Member of the Industry Advisory Board of the MS Real Estate Development Program at Columbia University. She previously served for more than seven years on the New York City Ballet Advisory Board.
Ms. Gilmartin has been recognized as a top professional in her field by New York Women Executives in Real Estate (WX) as its 2007 “Woman of the Year;” by Crain’s in 2007 as one of New York’s Most Influential Women; and again, in 2011 and 2013, by Crain’s as one of New York’s 50 Most Powerful Women.
Quotes from the winner: Ratner

The press release continues:
Mr. Ratner said, “The Municipal Art Society has been a part of the fabric of New York for more than a century, and I am deeply honored to be a recipient of this prestigious award. I have spent the better part of my life doing my best to serve this wonderful City and its people, so it is gratifying to be recognized for that work.
I have spent the better part of my life doing my best to serve this wonderful City and its people!

Ratner works for a company, to quote CFO Bob O'Brien, which has an "ultimate goal, to drive shareholder value."

Quotes from the winner: Gilmartin

The press release continues:
Ms. Gilmartin said, “I have admired The Municipal Art Society as a respected authority on thoughtful approaches to city-building for many years. Receiving the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Medal is a great honor, as its recipients have embodied the qualities of extraordinary New Yorkers who also, simply, love this City. I am delighted to be among them.”
For many years? Did that start before or after the MAS's 2006 criticism of Atlantic Yards?

If the latter, did it wait until the MAS withdrew from BrooklynSpeaks before the latter helped organize (along with Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn) a successful lawsuit that forced a Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement? Did it start when Forest City sponsored the MAS Summit and Gilmartin got to speak there, unrebutted?