The developer who destroyed, then built over, big swaths of Brooklyn snagged top honors — for his historic preservation work.
Preservationists at the Municipal Art Society issued their most prestigious award to Forest City Ratner’s chairman Bruce Ratner and head Maryanne Gilmartin on Wednesday night. Advocates that take exception to the builder’s biggest projects, Atlantic Yards and MetroTech Center, which have replaced and are slated to replace more than a dozen primarily low-slung blocks with hulking skyscrapers and the Barclays Center arena, are fuming at the decision.
“Forest City Ratner Companies has been bulldozing and demolishing huge tracts of land,” said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, a preservationist group that spun off from the Municipal Art Society in the 1980s. “They’re creating these places that are not places at all.”
The award, named for former first lady and dedicated preservationist Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, is the society’s highest honor. In a statement, the group explained that the medal recognizes major players in the evolution of the city.
“MAS’s highest honor is presented annually to individuals or institutions whose work or deeds have made outstanding contributions to New York City,” the statement says.
Forest City developments have been a boon to the city, according to the society’s chairwoman, Genie Birch.
“Bruce and MaryAnne’s many accomplishments embody MAS’s core principles in numerous ways,” said Birch. “We are pleased to recognize them for their commitment to the future of New York.”
Community groups say that, far from being an exemplar of responsible development, Forest City Ratner embodies the worst sort of politically connected real estate speculator, gobbling up public money to use vibrant neighborhoods as its personal sandboxes.
“If the future is using eminent domain, hogging subsidies, and crushing a neighborhood, then New York’s future isn’t very bright,” said Daniel Goldstein, a co-founder of the anti-Atlantic Yards group Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn. “And this award validates everything they’ve done.”
In a 2006 presentation, then-president of the Municipal Art Society Kent Barwick condemned the mega-development that has vacuumed up hundreds of millions of dollars in public subsidies. And he knew his audience well.
“Those who write headlines may want to know MAS’s conclusion. ‘Does this project work for Brooklyn?’ And I will tell you that as it currently stands we don’t think it does,” he said.
Today, Goldstein contends that nothing has changed in terms of Forest City’s lack of respect for the existing Prospect Heights neighborhood Atlantic Yards continues to encroach on.
“It violated those principles then, and it does now,” he said.
Bankoff concurred, saying that the honor makes a mockery of the street-level values Jacqueline Kennedy was known for.
“They demolished historically and architecturally important buildings. They pushed people out with the promise of affordable housing in the future which has not been seen,” said Bankoff. “This was top-down planning. Jackie was speaking from a community perspective.”
The only possible reason to heap preservationist praise upon a company notorious for leveling neighborhoods is to keep the donations pouring in, Goldstein said.
“They are giving their biggest award to a major fund-raiser for the organization,” he said. “It’s pretty disgusting to sell out core principals for a black-tie affair.”