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Ratner, Gilmartin & the MAS Onassis Medal: selective memory, glitzy gala, and enduring dismay

NYT Styles, 6/15/14
It was a night, it seems, of selective memories.

On June 11, when the Municipal Art Society (MAS) awarded the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Medal, its highest honor, to Forest City Ratner executive chairman Bruce Ratner and CEO MaryAnne Gilmartin, the company's project were seen in a rosy glow.

The gala helped the organization raise $1 million at the glitzy event venue 583 Park Avenue, according to the chatty real estate business publication Bisnow.

The same night, an event at the more rugged Brooklyn Lyceum, sponsored by the "appalled" Historic Districts Council, didn't raise money, but raised questions--about the Atlantic Yards project, about the city's civic culture (and MAS's role), and about better ways to do development.

The latter event--which attracted about 80 people--featured a showing of the documentary Battle for Brooklyn, dated but still vital, and a panel discussion in which I participated.

The key line from the film was Mayor Mike Bloomberg's supercilious prediction of amnesia, at the March 2010 Barclays Center groundbreaking: "And for those that say it took a long time to get here, yes it did. But nobody's going to remember how long it took. They're only going to look and see that it was done."

That's true for many.

After all, only such sentiment can lead to an award like that given last week. It was the first time the Onassis Medal was ever given to developers outright--Empire State Building owner Peter Malkin shared the award one year, but he got it for greening the building, not more fraught ground-up development.

It was validated in one of the places where New York City's elite looks for validation, the Evening Hours column in the New York Times's Sunday Styles section (right), where Gilmartin appeared with MAS President Vin Cipolla and Board Chair Eugenie Birch.

But with the film, some independent media (like this blog), and some New Yorkers who choose not to forget the changing promises and sketchy process still plaguing Atlantic Yards, amnesia is not complete. Onassis, one HDC organizer said of the award, "would rise from the grave."

(Update: as of March 2014, Forest City Ratner was listed as a corporate sponsor of MAS, at the $10,000-plus level. As of September 2014, Forest City had bumped up to the $25,000-plus level, joined, for the first time as an MAS contributor, by the Brooklyn Nets.)

Building the mythology

Bisnow suggested:
Bruce gave Brooklyn a chance when he built MetroTech Center in the '90s, and he and MaryAnne are turning the borough into a frontier again via the revolutionary high-rise, modular residential development at Atlantic Yards, not to mention Barclays Center. 
That's a nicely Ratneresque view of the world. Yes, the heavily subsidized MetroTech was key to a transformation of Downtown Brooklyn.

But Brooklyn is way too big to have been saved by MetroTech--remember, historic districts (and thus "brownstoning") and immigration surged decades earlier.

The unacknowledged modular delay

Also, somehow the celebratory discussion--by MAS and others--of Forest City's modular plan ignores that the first building is one year late, and Forest City's new joint venture partners/overseers, the Chinese government-owned Greenland Group, has decided that the next three towers will be built through conventional means.

I previously observed that MAS was a victim of awkward timing, choosing to give the award before they learned about the significant hiccup in the modular strategy. Apparently no one is choosing to remember.

The DNC and the Olympics, really?

According to New York Social Diary, Birch "told the guests that both a national political convention and the Olympics were very real potentials for Brooklyn in the near future."

Oh, really?

via New York Social Diary
We know about Mayor Bill de Blasio's pursuit of the 2016 Democratic National Convention.

However, his administration has emphatically passed on a bid for the 2024 Olympics.

Respecting architecture?

"We need to respect architecture w/a capital A," Ratner declared, according to a tweet from Times reporter Matt Chaban. "Are we proud of what we do? That drives every project."

For those who remember MetroTech and the Atlantic Center Mall, that's bunk. Remember,
Kurt Andersen's 11/20/05 New York magazine Imperial City column saluting and Atlantic Yards architect Frank Gehry stated:
Until now, most of Ratner’s buildings have ranged from the uninspired to the bad, like his shopping center across from the Atlantic Yards. Even he admits the Atlantic Center mall is “not up to snuff. Philip Johnson did a first design, but I made a decision not to use him. I have to blame myself. I’ve been talking for ten years about trying to use ‘design architects’ instead of ‘developer architects.’”
"Best way to respect a building is to put a panel of grills under each window that will drip rust & get warped over time," snarked Stephen J. Smith (aka Market Urbanism) in response to Chaban's tweet.

And, as I pointed out in a follow-up tweet, Ratner in 2008 also said, "The architecture is important, but it's not that important."

That was when he getting rid of Frank Gehry. Only after a leaked rendering of the hangar-like arena shamed Ratner did the developer hire SHoP to put that rusted medal skin on the building. Forest City construction chief Bob Sanna described the decision as being made "for public reasons" (in other words, to win over critics).

Might anyone wonder why Ratner says what he needs to say to the audience he needs to win over?

Other praise: BdB and Gehry

According to Chaban, de Blasio gave "Bruce Ratner a big shout out" in a video at the gala, while Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen was in attendance.

In the video, according to Chaban, Gehry was apparently full of love for the developer: "I love working with Bruce [Ratner] because we're both foodies, and we get to eat a lot and get fat."

The MAS on Atlantic Yards, 2006 and 2009

It was not long ago, in 2006, that the MAS resolved to improve Atlantic Yards and formed a coalition, BrooklynSpeaks, to pursue that end.

It was some five years ago, on 7/30/09, where MAS representative Stuart Pertz spoke at a public hearing on the revised Atlantic Yards plan. Some of MAS's concern has not been realized--a traffic nightmare has been avoided, thanks to public/private planning, a smaller-than-expected arena, a slower-than-planned buildout, and fewer fans from New Jersey.

But other issues remain. And, Pertz described an existing--and now persisting--problem: "Most important, ESDC must develop a mechanism for accountable, effective governance."

The City Club and the MAS

Pertz, an architect and former member of the City Planning Commission, is no longer affiliated with the MAS, but rather the resurrected but still small City Club of New York, which promises:
A watchful eye over a changing city.
Informed and fair.
Free of political, business or philanthropic domination.
Unafraid to speak.
Willing to fight.
As one audience member at the HDC panel last week noted, the City Club is holding a panel June 23 on new approaches to community-based planning.

The City's Club's coordinating committee includes several people with MAS ties, including MAS Director Emeritus Kent Barwick, Pertz, and former staffer Jasper Goldman, who worked on the MAS response to Atlantic Yards.

Another member is attorney Al Butzel, who successfully represented the BrooklynSpeaks petitioners in the lawsuit that led to a court-ordered Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement

It's interesting to contrast the City Club's somewhat pugnacious mission with the MAS's mission, which embodies more potential contradiction:
MAS fights for intelligent urban design, planning and preservation through education, dialogue and advocacy.
...Working to protect the best of New York’s existing landscape, from landmarks and historic districts to public open spaces, MAS encourages visionary design, planning and architecture that promote resilience and the livability of New York.
As we've learned, the achievement of "visionary design"--Forest City's Barclays Center, 8 Spruce Street, the Times Tower--can require hardball tactics.

The MAS shift

At the HDC event, activist Michael D.D. White, who writes the Noticing New York and Citizens Defending Libraries blogs, said--in contrast to some other critics of the MAS award--that he didn't think the organization was paid off, but rather was taken over.

White said he'd sat at a charity dinner next to an MAS director some years back, "who told me a group of directors was going to take over MAS and change its direction... One of the reasons was they wanted to change the way MAS is attacking the Atlantic Yards project."

Now I haven't heard that corroborated elsewhere, but the evidence certainly shows a change in posture.

The Onassis award, observed Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB) co-founder Daniel Goldstein at the HDC event last week, validates Forest City's work.

"It's just another establishment organization in the city that has given them cover," he said, citing the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Brooklyn Museum, and other recipients of Forest City Ratner largesse. (Most of the money at the gala was given by guests, not Forest City itself.)

"That's why it's great MAS took a critical stance on the project, and now they pretend they never even did it," Goldstein said. He noted the page describing five principles for the project to work for Brooklyn. "Some of us tried to post that on their Facebook page, and it got deleted." (Still, some critical Facebook posts remain.)

A bad blueprint

"I was particularly outraged, in part because it helped organize BrooklynSpeaks, which tried to negotiate a better deal," observed Ron Shiffman, former head of the Pratt Center for Community Development, a DDDB board member, and a winner of the Jane Jacobs Medal, which is administered by MAS.

He cited the efforts by BrooklynSpeaks to get increased affordability and better urban design. "They tried to meet with Ratner and get concessions," he said. "They never did."

"Today we see MAS abandoning that group, giving an award to Forest City Ratner for what they say is a blueprint for the future," Shiffman said, with anger. "A blueprint for affordability, it's not."

He said the public money being set aside for affordable housing could be be used by community-based organizations to provide housing elsewhere.

He criticized MetroTech and Atlantic Center ("it is a blight, of itself").

"But to give an award around design issues that really builds on the misuse of eminent domain, the misuse of power, the fact that it allowed members of the governor's office and others to yield to one of the greatest lobbying efforts, and the greatest amount of dollars spent to get a project approved in the state, is just fundamentally wrong," Shiffman said. "I don't believe an institution like MAS should compromise their principles just because they needed those dollars, and I find it very offensive.

As to the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), Shiffman said the concept needs a re-think. If there is value to promises of affordable housing, local hiring, and minority contracting, it should be city policy, he said, not "left to the community," whether the groups representing the community be considered legitimate or not.

Where are they now?

The film, completed before the arena was finished, obviously doesn't show the arena and its mostly positive reception by architecture critics and the embrace of the plaza outside it (and the amnesia about the giant office tower promised for the space). Nor does it show the parade of events that have surely helped the Barclays Center win many fans.

Then again, as I noted at the panel, Forest City Ratner's two main point men for Atlantic Yards shown in the film, Jim Stuckey and Bruce Bender, both resigned under mysterious circumstances, Stuckey when (as we later learned) internal allegations of sexual harassment surfaced and Bender before testifying in a federal corruption trial in which Forest City was not charged but certainly did not seem ethical.

Also, one of the main community groups backing the project and featured in the film, Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development (BUILD), is now defunct, after allegations of fiscal malfeasance led to a loss of Forest City funding, though it and CEO James Caldwell remain defendants (along with Forest City executives) in a pending federal lawsuit brought by trainees who said they were promised Atlantic Yards construction jobs and union cards.

Could anything be different?

One audience member asked if there was anything that those fighting Atlantic yards could have been done differently.

I noted a quote from New York Times reporter Charles Bagli, who in 2008 suggested that approval for Atlantic Yards and the two baseball stadiums was tied up in “the history” of the West Side Stadium, “a huge public fight” unprecedented in the city. After that, he suggested, there was “more or less a tacit agreement” among politicians not to fight the mayor on every single thing.

Goldstein said things might have been different had Bloomberg not gotten a third term, or if activists had more money to hire lobbyists.

Michelle de la Uz of the Fifth Avenue Committee, one of the successful plaintiffs in the lawsuit that led to the court-ordered Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, noted that the state agency overseeing Atlantic Yards, in 2010 withheld a key document regarding the project timetable. (After predicting a ten-year buildout, Empire State Development signed a Development Agreement that gave Forest City Ratner 25 years, with few significant penalties, to build the project.)

Had "the government not lied," she said, in 2010 the court should have ordered a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement in in 2010 and thus stayed arena construction. "That was a very significant thing that could have been done differently."

Then again, I said, it's not clear any judge would have had the guts to stop the project at that time.

I observed that, had there been a different configuration on the state Court of Appeals in 2009, with judges who engaged with Justice Robert Smith's dissent in the Atlantic Yards case, the result might have been different.

Author and preservationist Roberta Gratz said, "The press has never been on the right side of most of these big development issues. The stadium was a rarity. The New York Times loved Robert Moses... It will be a rare occasion that you will get a good story in the press."

She encouraged MAS members--numerous people in the room said they were members--to write the organization. MAS is "aware of a lot of discontent, and the more they hear, the better," she said.

Gratz, however, said it was "important not to lionize MAS" for its potential role, since it had an uneven record, including support for the Westway development, which was backed by many in the city's power structure.

Shiffman acknowledged a "desperate need for affordable housing... which I've spent my life advocating, but we shouldn't allow that to bypass local needs." He said the city needed to plan better.

Shiffman suggested that the community response to Atlantic Yards was the right response, but "the real issue is, we collectively need to think about how we finance elections... how we allow our development process to take place... and how we can hold development projects accountable."

That question, and how to build an enduring citizen movement, lingered as time ran out.


  1. I appreciate the update on modular units. This is a very important post. After mentioning that preservationists and MAS members were upset, the NY Times and other outlets dropped the Ratner story, as far as I can tell. Thank you for this.


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