Just eight years after the Municipal Art Society (MAS), New York’s venerable urban advocacy organization, controversially honored Barclays Center developers Bruce Ratner and MaryAnne Gilmartin with the group’s highest honor, the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Medal, it will now give the 2022 award to Joe and Clara Wu Tsai, owners of the Brooklyn Nets and the Barclays Center operating company and, in recent years, major philanthropists. The Tsai’s local contributions include $50 million toward Lincoln Center’s renovation (unmentioned so far by MAS), “humanitarian relief during the COVID-19 pandemic,” and, after the 2020 protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, launching a Social Justice Fund, aimed at spending $50 million over 10 years, focused on Black Brooklyn.
It’s part of a new philanthropic phase for the couple, whose billions come from Joe’s role as a co-founder of the Chinese e-commerce behemoth Alibaba. Whether their philanthropy makes the Tsais “extraordinary New Yorkers” (to quote the MAS), or unusually generous nouveau New Yorkers, given their recent (and partial) relocation to the city, might be debated. What can’t be disputed, though, is that to honor the Tsais, and raise significant operating funds, the MAS cannot avoid hypocrisy, as the couple has bought three floors in exactly the type of Manhattan supertall tower that the organization has previously opposed. The MAS has done and continues to do admirable work, but it has sometimes swallowed its principles in the interest of fundraising.
The MAS, which “would litigate when it thought the best interests of the city were threatened, has now become a de-fanged developer and real estate-led organization,” wrote William Menking, editor of The Architect’s Newspaper, in December 2015. (Martin C. Pedersen also weighed in on MAS on this website.) Responding to Menking, MAS Executive VP Mary Rowe cited multiple advocacy efforts and noted that “MAS was the first to call out the ‘Accidental Skyline’ developing along Central Park South—and in other pivotal neighborhoods—by demanding a moratorium on new supertall development.” Indeed, in 2013, the MAS had criticized 220 Central Park South, among other buildings, in its Accidental Skyline report regarding “the cumulative effects that a number of new hyper-tall buildings will have on Central Park.” Now their awardees have invested there.
Until recently, the Tsais’ local philanthropy had been centered around La Jolla, California, where they moved in 2014, while Joe Tsai still spends significant time in Hong Kong. “My first job after law school was in New York [at Sullivan & Cromwell],” Tsai told the New York Post in 2019 after gaining full control of the Nets. “I met my wife, Clara, here. So New York to me is my second home.” He worked in New York from 1990 to 1995.
The Tsais, though coming on strong, may still consider New York that second home. Clara Wu Tsai is on the board of the Bishop’s School, a La Jolla day school from which two of their children graduated and where one is still studying. Last July, recapping the Nets’ tensions with mercurial star Kyrie Irving, the Post stated that Joe Tsai “spends much of his time in Hong Kong.” Starting in mid-2021, limited liability companies reportedly associated with the couple bought three full-floor apartments at Vornado Realty Trust’s 220 Central Park South, designed by Robert A.M. Stern and SLCE Architects. The total cost was $345.5 million. Those purchases came with two studio apartments, apparently maid’s rooms. (Note that only one transaction, worth $188 million, is clearly associated with the Tsais, while they have not denied reports about the other two transactions.)
“There is no question that [supertalls] have become this lightning rod because they are not just luxury housing but uber-luxury housing,” MAS President Elizabeth Goldstein told the New York Times in April 2019, which noted a proposal to penalize projects that use enormous mechanical spaces to stretch in height, thus elevating higher floors.
The MAS, like other organizations bruised by the pandemic, may have to look the other way. As Goldstein stated in a March 27, 2020 message, “The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Medal Gala, which makes so much of our advocacy possible throughout the year, was to be held in late April.” The galas had raised more than $700,000 in 2019 and $1.1 million in 2018. (The MAS didn’t announce results from the 2021 event.) It’s not implausible that the $1,500-to-$7,500 tickets at the upcoming gala might support research and lobbying to restrict the type of tower in which the honorees live.
While the MAS says it “lifts up the voices of the people in the debates that shape New York’s built environment and leads the way toward a more livable city from sidewalk to skyline,“ their awardees don’t necessarily share those ideals. Yes Tsai’s Social Justice Fund seeks to foster “a shared commitment to inclusiveness, justice, and equal opportunity” in Brooklyn. But in his professional life, he defers to the authoritarian government of China rather than lifting up the voices of people there. After all, Alibaba relies on good relations with the Chinese regime, and Tsai has grown fabulously wealthy: his net worth has recently fluctuated below $6 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, though at times before Alibaba’s stock declined, he was worth double that.
When, in October 2019, Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey infuriated Chinese fans by retweeting “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” Nets’ owner Tsai responded—aiming to preserve sponsorships and media deals in China—with a Facebook open letter claiming that “[s]upporting a separatist movement in a Chinese territory” was a third-rail issue, “not only for the Chinese government, but also for all citizens in China.” Last year, he offered a disturbingly casual defense of China’s crackdown in Hong Kong.
So, who’s the Onassis Medal for? Though the MAS history page says the award was established to “honor individuals and organizations that have made an extraordinary impact on the quality of New York’s built environment,” the latest summary is more all-encompassing: “awarded annually to individuals who, through vision, leadership, and philanthropy, have made an extraordinary contribution to New York City.”
That tweak both reflects reality—not all previous winners impacted the built environment—and broadens eligibility. The MAS, oddly enough, also hails Tsai donations unrelated to New York: the Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance, the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute at Stanford University, and the Wu Tsai Institute at Yale University, plus Clara Wu Tsai’s role as founding partner in the REFORM Alliance (to transform probation and parole) and Joe Tsai’s role as a founding board member of the Asian American Foundation. (Also being honored this year is Earl Weiner, “a driving force” in local philanthropy, chairman emeritus of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the Brooklyn Heights Association, and, since 2007, a director at the MAS and the organization’s general counsel.)
Unmentioned, at least in the publicity so far, is the Tsais’ main intervention into the built environment: the You Belong Here/We Belong Here neon signage outside Barclays Center, which, though purportedly invoking the plaza’s role in racial justice protests, as I’ve argued, blurs advertising and art, inveigling potential ticket-holders.
If that neon signage, from the artist Tavares Strachan, gets an MAS salute, we shouldn’t forget that the Tsais didn’t quite embrace the 2020 protests, while the arena was mothballed, but rather acceded to them. As a protest organizer put it, the plaza had been “totally appropriated.”
Meanwhile, the arena company, now owned by Tsai, has a dismal record of providing working escalators and elevators to the transit entrance below. Perhaps they could address the quality of that built environment?
Featured image combines the cover of the MAS “Accidental Skyline” report with screenshots from the Onassis Medal announcement. Image created by the author.