MAS’s Kent Barwick Reflects on Promoting a More Livable City

Kent Barwick has a stickball bat hiding in the corner of his office. He swears he does not use it, and who can argue with him? His office is in the Villard Houses in Midtown, and its courtyard is too small for a game. But physical boundaries aside, he would never have the time to show off his skills. Mr. Barwick, a graduate of Syracuse University and a Harvard University Loeb Fellow, is the current president of the Municipal Art Society, a group for which he has served since 1968 as executive director and president; an unlikely stop after being an ad agency creative director. He recently announced that he will step down in 2008. Having also served as Chair of the Landmarks Preservation Commission from 1978 to 1983, he sat down with CityLand to reflect on a long career of tending to the city.

A Golden Age. With more than 3,000 designations during Mr. Barwick’s six-year term as Landmarks Chair, many describe the period as its golden age. Mr. Barwick offers two explanations: Ed Koch and the Supreme Court. Mr. Barwick describes Koch as a mayor who treated the job of Landmarks Chair with respect, and viewed it as a quasi-judicial role, one that the office of the mayor should not interfere with. Koch “was wonderful to work for,” and “accepted that landmarks preservation was like housing, or education, or rights for seniors: a significant subject.”

Prior to the 1978 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Penn Central Transportation Co. v. N.Y.C., where the nation’s highest court upheld the constitutionality of the City’s landmarks law, Mr. Barwick recalls “the fear that the law might be found to be unconstitutional.” This fear served as a deterrent to designation, as Landmarks constantly felt that it was walking on eggshells and should only step in if there was an “imminent danger.” After Penn Central, Landmarks “played catch-up,” designating very obvious buildings and districts, such as the Woolworth Building, the New York Yacht Club, and the Upper East Side Historic District.

The Ambush Syndrome. One lamentation of the designation process that Mr. Barwick recalls is its open-ended nature, which is both “dangerous and irresponsible.” It creates what Mr. Barwick calls the “ambush syndrome,” which affects both developers and preservationists. On the one hand, a developer may, in the middle of the night, knock down a building that it fears would be eligible for designation. On the other hand, the developer may have spent three years on a proposed skyscraper project, only to have the existing building designated, leaving the developer asking why nobody said anything earlier. “The City owes it to communities and developers to provide a reasonable roadmap,” Mr. Barwick says, “so that everything isn’t a last minute big fight.” There are things that “obviously by anyone’s standards” should be protected, and the City “should do a reasonable job of getting to the end of that list.” Making a list would not close the door to all other buildings, Mr. Barwick said, but at least “everything wouldn’t be open all the time.”

One Man’s Trash. When Landmarks designated the Greenwich Village Historic District in the 1960s, it left out all the 19th century factory buildings and early 20th century gas stations because it viewed those structures as “modern intrusions.” A decade later, Mr. Barwick’s commission was amazed that its predecessors failed to notice “these wonderful factory buildings.”

Mr. Barwick is convinced that “there is always room for each generation to discover things that are important.” The irony of this statement can be found in a recent list produced by MAS, documenting important modern architecture. Some of the buildings on this list were buildings that Mr. Barwick actively protested against. One such building, the Marriot Marquis, knocked down “two of the best theaters in New York,” the Helen Hayes and the Morosco. Mr. Barwick is sympathetic, though, and acknowledges that someone who does not remember the theaters might find the Marriot to be an interesting building. “That’s what life’s about,” he reflects.

The Popular Vote. At MAS, Mr. Barwick oversaw many events that won over the populace en route to winning over the courts. Some, like Grand Central Terminal’s preservation, had the benefit of working to save “something that people love.” Others, like Times Square, were tougher to sell. Why preserve an area that has “nothing more than massage parlors, dirty book stores, and X-rated movies?” But by arranging to turn off Times Square’s signs, MAS dramatized its character, and “that is why it worked.”

Change in Advocacy. The top-down approach to advocacy used by MAS in the past has begun to increasingly disappear in favor of a more grassroots approach. For the last 15 years, MAS has focused its efforts on 197-a plans, which, under the City Charter, allow community boards to propose their own future development plans. While “the culture of city government doesn’t pay much attention to community- based plans,” Mr. Barwick believes that as these younger people go on to become Council members and district leaders, the plans will “become much more accepted.” In the end, Mr. Barwick says advocacy today is not so much different from the 60s; it all comes down to the people that get involved. He points out that the people living in Brooklyn brownstones near the Atlantic Yards are just like the people in 1960 that lived in the West 70s, or Chelsea or Greenwich Village: magazine writers, doctors, lawyers, “the professional brains of NY,” as he puts it, and they are being “ignored and ridden roughshod over” by the City and the state. These citizens “are bringing their wits, humor and sense of theater – all the things that have made them successful – to try and get a neighborhood for their future.”

Miles of Water. Mr. Barwick sees MAS’s most transforming event involving the city’s waterfront. Looking over all 763 miles of New York Harbor, he remembers it as “an absolutely stupefying experience” where he could see the scale of the opportunity and how rapidly it was slipping away. Thanks to the Clean Water Act, life is coming back to the harbor, but New Yorkers remain conspicuously absent. Sealed off for years by arterial highways, decrepit piers, chain-link fences and polluted waters, he believes that New Yorkers are “unacquainted” with their waterfront. Despite the changes in the City and in MAS since its 1893 formation, Mr. Barwick confidently remarked that MAS still has “plenty to do” towards its mission: to promote a more livable city. — Clinton Daggan


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