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Amanda Burden gets buffed (again) in the Times; what's missing: where things didn't work out as promised (BK waterfront, Downtown Brooklyn), where the city punted (Atlantic Yards), and the failure to plan

City Planning Commissioner Chairwoman Amanda Burden a mostly laudatory profile in today's New York Times Metropolitan section, Amanda Burden Wants to Remake New York. She Has 19 Months Left., which lets the protagonist claim, “I like to say that our ambitions are as broad and far-reaching as those of Robert Moses, but we judge ourselves by Jane Jacobs’s standards."

The writer, real estate reporter Julie Satow, gives a nod to a few critics of Burden, but not author Roberta Brandes Gratz, who demolished that supposed Jacobs/Moses duality in her book The Battle for Gotham, or others who've blanched at Burden's arrogance.

Nor is there any sober criticism from a mainstream figure like Alex Garvin--who, the article reveals, was Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff's choice for the post Burden got--who has consistently warned that the city has failed to support "the public realm," parks and transportation improvements that would more organically support and drive growth.

There's a lot in the article about Burden's elegant appearance and Social Register background, but the reporter ignores or forgets several examples, including Atlantic Yards, Downtown Brooklyn, the Fourth Avenue rezoning, Yankee Stadium, and the Williamsburg-Greenpoint waterfront, where things didn't work out as Burden planned or professed. (Here's an epic critique of Burden, from Noticing New York's Michael D.D. White in September 2008.)

Nor does Burden's cheerleading for eminent domain, as with the Columbia University expansion or the (very different-than-planned) Willets Point rezoning, get a nod.

The summary

The article states:
Since 2002, when she was appointed to head City Planning, she has overseen the wholesale rezoning of the city, with 115 rezoning plans covering more than 10,300 blocks; by the end of her administration, the department is expected to have rezoned about 40 percent of New York, an unprecedented number.
On Ms. Burden’s watch, the Brooklyn waterfront has been transformed from a landscape of derelict industrial structures to one of glossy condominiums and parkland, the abandoned elevated railroad track that runs through Chelsea has been converted into the popular High Line park, and the once-desolate Hudson Yards neighborhood is poised for a rebirth as a commercial and residential hub.
“Creating fine-grained open spaces in combination with remaking the city’s land-use blueprint is what I’m most proud of,” Ms. Burden added, perched on a seat at the enormous round table that dominates her well-worn second-floor office at 22 Reade Street, zoning maps on the wall behind her, a photo of the Williamsburg-Greenpoint waterfront in Brooklyn propped in the corner.
Of course, with Battery Park City, where Burden earned her stripes, the open space came first. With Atlantic Yards, the (permanent) open space would come last. And the Williamsburg-Greenpoint waterfront rezoning has not delivered the open space promised, as Capital New York's Dana Rubinstein wrote three days ago and local Community Board 1 rezoning chair Laura Hofmann warned in March 2008.

As for Downtown Brooklyn, it was rezoned to spur office development. Instead, it spawned luxury condos. So much for planning to anticipate demand. So much for Burden's 2007 claim that Sen. Charles Schumber's report calling for office space was "prescient."

MAS: AY down the memory hole

Satow reports:
Her fans say that Ms. Burden is a visionary who will leave behind a much-improved city. “There is no question that under Amanda’s leadership, New York has experienced a renaissance,” said Vin Cipolla, president of the Municipal Art Society [MAS] of New York, “with more development of parkland, waterfront and infrastructure over the last 10 years than in the 100 years before it.”
Note that the MAS, under Cipolla's predecessor Kent Barwick, offered a mend-it-don't-end-it plan to improve Atlantic Yards and helped create BrooklynSpeaks, "an initiative to reform the Atlantic Yards plan to ensure its urban design integrates with surrounding neighborhoods, includes affordable housing that meets the community’s needs, has an effective transportation policy, and involves the public in its future decision-making."

Not only does the Times not mention any of that, the MAS left BrooklynSpeaks because it went to court--and won, at least so far.

Some criticism: gentrification

Satow reports:
But critics say that the sum total of Ms. Burden’s ambitions will be a gentrified city that no longer has a place for working-class New Yorkers.
“The overall effect of the city’s rezonings has been incredibly dramatic in terms of the creation of expensive, market-rate housing and typically middling at best in terms of affordable housing,” said Andrew Berman, the executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.
....But others say it merely created a boom market for real estate without any real benefits for the local community. “The High Line didn’t create any new affordable housing, only condominiums for the rich, and the park itself has no open spaces for kids, but is more something for tourists to walk through,” said Miguel Acevedo, president of the tenants’ association at the Robert Fulton Houses, an affordable-housing development in the neighborhood.

Burden provides a boilerplate response:
Ms. Burden argues that gentrification is merely a pejorative term for necessary growth. “Improvement of neighborhoods — some people call it gentrification — provides more jobs, provides housing, much of it affordable, and private investment, which is tax revenue for the city,” she said. On her watch, the administration has undertaken financing 165,000 units of affordable housing by 2014, of which more than 130,000 have been built, and has created projects like Via Verde, the handsome, eco-friendly subsidized development in the South Bronx. “We are making so many more areas of the city livable,” she said. “Now, young people are moving to neighborhoods like Crown Heights that 10 years ago wouldn’t have been part of the lexicon.”
(Emphasis added)

Note that 130,000 affordable units have not "been built" from the ground up. As the Times reported two years ago, "In 2005, the city said it would build 92,000 units and preserve 73,000 by 2014. Now, it expects to build 60,000 and preserve 105,000."

More importantly, the article scants an essential issue: as wide variety of critics and observers have pointed out, the City Planning Commission and the Department of City Planning have much more to do with rezoning and with design than actual planning for coordinated growth.

The myth builds

The Times reports:
Ms. Burden, who is also chairwoman of the City Planning Commission, is known for her laser focus on detail, and no project is too small for her attention. When an old concrete piling and makeshift pier at Stuyvesant Cove Park, a sliver of green along the East River from 18th Street to 23rd Street, was threatened with demolition, “I contacted Amanda and asked for help,” said Mark Thompson, chairman of Community Board 6, whose district covers the area. “She actually came down, sat at the site, realized why we loved it, and decided to save it.”
Well, yes, and no. Burden has been criticized for such attention to detail, and in this article gets criticized by Julia Vitullo-Martin of the Regional Plan Association, who thinks Burden's interest in contextual zoning keeps things too small. (Interestingly, Vitullo-Martin is also a critic of Atlantic Yards.)

More importantly, Burden has also punted on democratic responsibility for a project like Atlantic Yards, saying that because "a predominant amount" of the Atlantic Yards site was owned by the state, it was OK to bypass City Council review.

Who's planning for?

Unsurprisingly, given the focus of the article and the background of the reporter, the article ends with a question of how, "For developers, the clock is ticking."

What about the rest of us?

The article lets Burden buff her myth:

While Ms. Burden still has much to do in her nearly 600 days remaining in office, she is taking a reflective look at her accomplishments. “We have tried to diagnose the DNA of each neighborhood; I have spent a lot of time in the streets, talking to communities,” she said.
When did she come and speak to Brooklyn about Atlantic Yards?


  1. It's interesting that the Bloomberg-Burden era coincided with the stolen election era of George W. Bush. The country has been in a state of shock and disorientation since September 11, 2001—and these socialite cannibals have taken full advantage of the sense of helplessness and powerlessness that New York, and indeed much of the country, has felt since those three ass-clowns took on their respective offices. She is a sickening, pretentious fool who majored in Animal Psychology (!) at Sarah Lawrence. She got him elected and she got to redecorate New York in Chanel. What a legacy, eh?


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