Urban Planning Fan Kent Barwick Channels Jane Jacobs

Location: You’ve been president (twice), executive director and soon-to-be president emeritus of the Municipal Art Society (MAS). Can’t you find another place to work?

Mr. Barwick: Actually, in between those jobs, I’ve had a lot of interesting other jobs. I was executive director of the State Council on the Arts. I was a Loeb Fellow at Harvard. I was the first administrator of the MTA’s adopt-a-station program. And I was chairman of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

This job is always different because of the fact the city is so different. The agenda is very much affected by opportunities in the city—the reaction, bad things that are going on and trying to encourage good things. So it’s far from boring. In fact, it’s always been a fascinating place to work.

Last week, you joined several Brooklyn officials in calling for a new government entity to oversee the planned mega-development at Atlantic Yards. MAS obviously advocates for “excellence in urban design.” What do you have against Frank Gehry?

The sketches I’ve seen for the arena and the interior of the arena, I think that they’ll look striking. I think Ms. Brooklyn is out of scale, unnecessarily, and the way that that collection of buildings is massed, that it needlessly cuts off a significant vista. You know, most of that section of Brooklyn is used to seeing the Williamsburgh Savings Bank.

Atlantic Yards was conceived only from the point of view of the needs of the developer. Frank Gehry is a fine architect. Given the right set of directions and constraints, I think he probably could’ve delivered a great project. That may still happen.

Also, last week, MAS released the results of a poll on the proposed redevelopment of Penn Station as part of the Moynihan Station project. What did people say?

We found that, by and large, public knowledge of the project is very low. What people understood, the general idea of the project, improving the station, they were for it; but they also believed that it was important for the project to be made public, for the public to understand it before the government endorsed it. They didn’t trust the private developers alone to do it right.

Says here in the press release: “Nearly all respondents stated it is important for the city and state of New York to preserve historic buildings and more than 90 percent believe it is important to preserve the Farley Post Office building in particular.” But what about the historic Hotel Pennsylvania? Doesn’t anyone want to preserve it?

Of course, the Hotel Pennsylvania and the Post Office and the original Penn Station were all part of an idea that [architect Charles] McKim had to create a new city on the West Side. So, certainly, those other buildings are significant; I just think in the hierarchy of things, they’re not as significant. Preserving that hotel, which has become very seedy, is not anywhere near as important as reusing the Farley building and creating a new rail station.

Obviously, [Moynihan] would be the catalyst to the development of a new city on the West Side, which is, ironically, what McKim thought about 100 years ago. But now it could happen.

If you add up all the things on the West Side there, from Hudson River Park to the expansion of Javits to the new ferry terminal to the western rail yards to the eastern rail yards to the Hudson Yards city-zoning plan to Farley—you put all that stuff together, you’re looking at a level of development I’ve never seen in New York. It’s really comparable to building St. Louis in an afternoon or something. We’re very hopeful that [Governor] Spitzer will grab hold of it and help make sense of it.

Urban Planning Fan Kent Barwick Channels Jane Jacobs