Monday, October 19, 2009

Two profiles of Amanda Burden make and miss the same points about City Planning (and Atlantic Yards)

Two profiles in the past week of City Planning Commission (CPC) Chairwoman Amanda Burden take the same tack: she's led rezonings and, to her credit and (anonymously-sourced) discredit, has become a micromanager on design issues. Meanwhile, Mayor Mike Bloomberg has left her significant latitude.

Those themes can't be disputed, but both articles miss a larger issue and a smaller one. They fail to note how the CPC has become diminished, unable to truly plan, and they fail to explain how Burden has been (mostly) a loyal foot soldier for Mayor Mike Bloomberg's Atlantic Yards plan.

The New York Observer called Burden Proprietress of the Skyline.

Crain's New York Business headlined its article Look who remade New York: Planning commish Amanda Burden has rezoned a fifth of the city, championed good design and driven developers nuts.

Developers' award

The profiles seem keyed both to CPC's milestone 100th rezoning under her auspices, as well as Burden's being named the winner of the Urban Land Institute’s J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development. (The Urban Land Institute is a developer's organization; among the members is Forest City Enterprises, parent of Forest City Ratner.)

The press release for the award cites, among other things, "her plan... for Coney Island, which will preserve the iconic amusements in perpetuity and catalyze the development of a 27-acre year-round amusement and entertainment district along the famed boardwalk," as well as the West Chelsea/High Line plan.

Well, the Coney Island plan was hardly supported by planning groups like the Municipal Art Society (whose former head, Kent Barwick, praised Burden in Crain's), and groups devoted to the amusements area consider hotels south of Surf Avenue--as allowed in the plan--to be a disaster.

The CPC doesn't plan

However much Burden is willing to wade into aesthetics, the City Planning Commission can't plan on a broad scale.

“When I started working in the city in 1970, the City Planning Commission drafted the capital budget for the city of New York and a five-year plan," longtime urban planner Alexander Garvin observed in October 2008.

"That was taken away in the charter revision of 1975. I believe we need a capital investment strategy," Garvin said. "I think it’s high time we started spending money and stop trying to get private property owners to do things that we the city should be doing, whether it’s building schools or improving our streets.”

A foot soldier on Atlantic Yards

Second, Burden has been a loyal foot soldier for Bloomberg's Atlantic Yards plan.

The Nichols press release states:
Ms. Burden's approach to urban planning is straightforward: to grow and transform the city one block at a time, in a way that respects the heritage and character of each neighborhood. This means making multiple visits to each block considered for rezoning, to talk with those who live and work there, and to observe how they use public spaces.
When it comes to Atlantic Yards, that's poppycock. Burden has not made any visits to Prospect Heights to talk about how the project--like, say, an enormous surface parking lot--might affect their lives. She has not commented on the extreme irony of having that parking lot bookended by a historic district.

And, though she has weighed in on the arena design, the "b-market," and the heights of buildings, the CPC has only an advisory role, since Bloomberg, with no public protest from Burden, allowed the project to proceed outside the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) and instead be overseen by the state--a process that, in hindsight, former Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff admits was a mistake.

Keep in mind that Burden also has perpetuated the myth that "Atlantic Yards was a gaping hole in the heart of Brooklyn,” as she said in February 2007.

Did Burden link the Ellerbe Becket design?

The Observer's Eliot Brown reports:
And, arguably by her indirect doing, the avant-garde local design firm SHoP has a big new job, co-designing the planned new Nets basketball arena in Brooklyn after she made clear her disdain for a functional design (the speculation among many involved, which she declined to comment upon, is that she leaked renderings to The New York Times, provoking a scathing architectural review).
Hmm--if Burden or her office had not been involved in the leak, wouldn't she simply have denied it?

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