Ratner award sparks intra-preservationist fight

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Bruce Ratner. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
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A venerable preservationist group will on June 11 honor a developer deplored by preservationists, and the resulting intra-preservationist controversy has boiled over into a proper, public scrum.

On Monday afternoon, the Historic Districts Council sent out an email to the press declaring itself “appalled” by the actions of its colleagues over at the Municipal Art Society for their decision to bestow the coveted Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Medal on Bruce Ratner and Maryanne Gilmartin, the executive chairman and president and C.E.O, respectively, of Forest City Ratner Companies, the real estate concern that gave us MetroTech, Atlantic Yards, Atlantic Center Mall and New York by Gehry at 8 Spruce Street.

“Conflating the company’s record of bulldozing neighborhoods with Mrs. Onassis’s pivotal role in preserving New York City’s Landmarks Law is something H.D.C. feels should not go unnoticed,” reads the email.

“It’s not like they’re building great spaces,” said Simeon Bankoff, the group’s executive director, in a follow-up interview.

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He’s not alone in his displeasure.

“Do you want to see a grown woman cry?” asked Arlene Simon, the Upper West Side preservationist and president of Landmark West!, when Capital asked her about the Municipal Art Society's plans. “They’ve lost their way.”

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is widely remembered for the pivotal role she played in the battle to save Grand Central Terminal from a real estate developer’s plans to build a tower on top of it. The society's award in her honor has since been granted to figures as varied as designer Diane von Furstenberg and architect I.M. Pei.

To register its displeasure this time around, the Historic Districts Council will host a screening of a film chronicling Ratner’s Atlantic Yards exploits, Battle for Brooklyn, the same night as the gala. Afterward, the group will host a panel discussion featuring Atlantic Yards critics.

One critic that will not be participating? The Municipal Art Society.

During the height of the Atlantic Yards controversy, the society's leadership criticized Ratner for project delays it said could blight the neighborhood.

“We’re concerned that because the project can only be built when the market is ready, that the area will be blighted with parking and vacant lots until then, which is bad for Brooklyn,” said then-M.A.S. President Kent Barwick in 2008, adding, “Atlantic Yards is looking more like Atlantic Lots.”

Barwick is now a director emeritus.

The June 11 event-tables range in price from $15,000 to $75,000-will be co-chaired by developer Larry Silverstein, who attended the 2012 Jay-Z show that served as the official launch of the Barclays Center arena at Atlantic Yards; and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill architects chairman emeritus David Childs.

“In 1994, the year of her passing, M.A.S. created the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Medal in honor of her passionate efforts to preserve great architecture,” reads the M.A.S. website. “The Municipal Art Society is proud to bestow this annual award upon 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.”

Margaret Newman, M.A.S. executive director, defended the organization's honoring of Ratner and Gilmartin.

"M.A.S. is honoring Forest City Ratner Companies for their extensive body of work, their ongoing vision, as well as for their commitment to the future of New York," she said. "FCRC's 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.

She also argued that "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."

Forest City Ratner had no comment.

But Ron Shiffman, a Pratt Institute professor, Atlantic Yards critic and a recipient of the Jane Jacobs Medal, which is administered by M.A.S., argued that the nonprofit's pursuit of money was clouding its judgment.  

“It says that they needed money,” said Shiffman. “But there’s a point at which principle has to trump need when it comes to these kinds of things.”