Monday, January 15, 2007

Times profile of planning chair Burden maintains AY myth, suffers curious cut

From a front-page Times profile today of City Planning Commission Chairwoman Amanda Burden, headlined Once at Cotillions, Now Reshaping the Cityscape:
Since her appointment in 2002 by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, Ms. Burden has played a powerful behind-the-scenes role in shaping plans at ground zero, in limiting the size of the Atlantic Yards development near Downtown Brooklyn, and in helping push through the High Line project...

Limiting the size of the Atlantic Yards development? How about "providing cover for a token reduction to which the developer had basically agreed?"

(The photo from the Times is telling, since it shows Burden listening to her boss rather than vice versa.)

Some criticism re AY--sort of

An early version of the article, available online until about 11:30 p.m. last night, contained the following passage:
At a recent forum on urban planning, for instance, Ms. Burden portrayed herself as a champion of neighborhoods and of preserving the texture of blocks, but dismissed criticism of the Atlantic Yards development project as “nostalgic or infantile.” Ms. Burden’s comments were later criticized by Atlantic Yards opponents, who contend that the project is grossly out of scale with the low-rise streets surrounding it.

Actually, Burden's comments in October were even more contradictory. She praised Atlantic Yards even though it represents far more the Robert Moses version of planning she claims to eschew than the Jane Jacobs mantle she claims to have taken up.

As I reported, Burden said (and not so grammatically), “Planning today is noisy, combative, iterative, and reliant on community involvement. Any initiative that does not build consensus, that is not shaped by the… public review process, will be an inferior plan and, deservedly, will be voted down by the City Council and I.”

But Atlantic Yards, as a state project, bypasses the public review process that includes the City Council, and Burden's role is only advisory.

AY mention excised

Even that paragraph with mild criticism of Burden regarding Atlantic Yards was excised for the final edition of the Times.

Sure, articles get cut for space all the time. Often the cut comes straight from the bottom, as in a story last month about revised Atlantic Yards revenue estimates. Print readers were denied a skeptical quote about the Empire State Development Corporation's calculations.

Sometimes editors will cut an example from an interior part of a story, as with today's example of the missing Atlantic Yards paragraph. But it's curious--or is it just random?--that both cuts had the effect of dampening criticism of the Atlantic Yards project.

Micromanagement

The Times article today offers two paragraphs about Burden's concern with details:
But she has engendered the hostility of many developers and others tied to the city’s powerful real estate industry, who bristle at what they see as her micromanagement of the appearance and even the shape of their buildings...
But many developers, who, associates say, will not speak publicly for fear of jeopardizing their projects, complain that she is imperious and arbitrary, using her seat in government to dictate the angles at which their buildings sit in the skyline or to mandate the use of overpriced architects.


The critics may include executives from Forest City Ratner, because the Department of City Planning--even though it has little power regarding the overall size, layout, and concept of Atlantic Yards--has offered numerous comments and criticisms regarding details of the plan, including the placement of street-level retail.

[Addendum from Kurt Andersen in the 11/28/05 issue of New York magazine:
It’s a state-supervised project, so the City Planning Commission has the power only to recommend changes, not command them. Yet when Gehry spoke with me one recent Saturday, he’d just hung up with Amanda Burden, the planning chair, and was a little exasperated by her bluestocking micromanagement: “She wants retail on every inch, and she’s talking about how the doors open . . . ” While I appreciated his irritation, it also made me think Burden is doing her job. Such is the to and fro of the process.

But let's not go too far. Burden certainly didn't mandate the use of Frank Gehry for Atlantic Yards; Bruce Ratner, who'd seen Gehry's presentation for the Times Tower competition, made that decision on his own.

Also, even though Borough President Marty Markowitz had called for the reduction of Gehry's 620-foot Miss Brooklyn to below the height of the 512-foot Williamsburgh Savings Bank, Burden's department in September explicitly endorsed the height of Miss Brooklyn. It was left for the developer on 12/20/06, on the day of the approval by the Public Authorities Control Board, to announce that final "concession."

Thoroughness?

The Times article closes with this valentine:
Ms. Burden’s work has allowed her to mostly escape the tag of socialite, although her name has remained a boldface staple of the society pages, especially through her associations with high-profile men including her second husband, Steve Ross of Time Warner, and her former companion, the talk show host Charlie Rose.

“Amanda has been surrounded by high energy, talented people all her life and she understands how to be effective,” said Mitchell L. Moss, a professor of urban planning at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University, who is close to the administration. “There’s very few people who combine her looks and brains and know-how in the same package.”

But there is also her thoroughness, boosters say, a trait that has become a hallmark of her current role, where she said she requires that all the commissioners visit the entire site of any rezoning before voting on it.

As a result, weekends often find her jumping into her car to visit the communities where the commission is proposing changes.

“That’s the hardest thing about the job is learning every block,” she said. “Every one of those 65 rezonings, every one, I know them all. And I don’t think you should be allowed to propose reshaping a community unless you know it.”


Except Atlantic Yards does not derive from a rezoning, Burden has held only one rather scripted commission meeting concerning the project, and she's never answered questions from the public regarding AY.

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