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On the Doctoroff legacy: praise, a grudging admission, and some AY debate

The announced departure of Dan Doctoroff, Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, spurred debate and discussion yesterday on his legacy and comparisons with Robert Moses—and a dogged Brooklynite wouldn’t let a Doctoroff defender get away with diminishing the city’s role in the Atlantic Yards project.

Good listener?

During an interview with Doctoroff yesterday morning on WNYC radio, host Soterios Johnson pointed out divergent views of the deputy mayor, and Doctoroff responded—as he had done in the past regarding Atlantic Yards—that he’d gotten better at listening.

SJ: Deputy Mayor, you’ve been something of a lightning rod at City Hall. Many have lavished praise on you for getting things done in spite of the city’s legendary bureaucracy. But others say you favor private developers over the wishes of local communities, and they point to the proposed West Side Stadium, the Atlantic Yards, and Red Hook as just a few examples of that. What’s your response to that?

DD: I would tell you we have done 78 rezonings covering about 16 percent of the land that’s not parkland in this city, over the course of the six years, and we’re 78 and zero. Look, I think that, with respect to the stadium, people had legitimate objections; we had a different point of view. We lost, we moved on, we worked with the community to develop a plan that five people have bid on with respect to the railyards on the West Side. But I’ll take a little criticism for maybe not being as good a listener as I could’ve been, at the very beginning, but I think we’ve really learned.

The legacy of PlaNYC

Later, Doctoroff said that the Bloomberg administration’s long-term planning initiative was his major legacy: PlaNYC is the thing I’m proudest of-- hundreds of people worked on it, inside government, outside government, thousands of people made comments that were incorporated into the plan. It really is the answer to meeting the challenges we face going forward…

As noted, PlaNYC 2030’s recommendations for developing over railyards differ significantly from the Atlantic Yards process.

Majora Carter's criticism

On the Brian Lehrer Show yesterday, guest host David Cruz began with a soundbite from Bloomberg: He leaves an extraordinary record of accomplishment, and unlike Robert Moses, he did it by working with communities, not bulldozing them.

Then he repeated a Doctoroff quote: But I’ll take a little criticism for maybe not being as good a listener as I could’ve been, at the very beginning, but I think we’ve really learned.

But Majora Carter of Sustainable South Bronx, who’s battled Doctoroff over big box stores and plans for a jail in her neighborhood, had a very different perspective.

MC: I thought this could be a great day for the future of the city of New York to recognize just how important small scale planning is… that actually takes into account what New York City really wants and needs. I look at it as a great opportunity.

Cruz asked about the timing of the resignation.

MC: Honestly, it doesn’t really matter to me… I think there’s just enough time to show that listening to people and recognizing that big doesn’t always mean better when it comes to developing this city, and there’s a great opportunity here…

She explained that “we were asked to leave” discussion of major projects in the Bronx, such as Yankee Stadium, because her organization disagreed with the city policy.

Cruz asked whether Bloomberg’s assessment was accurate.

MC: Absolutely not. It was either the way Dan decided it would happen… if they didn’t, it didn’t really matter…

Robert Moses-lite?

Cruz asked about the Moses comparison.

MC: I’ve heard Dan say that he’s a little bit of Moses and he’s a little bit of Jane Jacobs—y’know, you can’t really compare the two, a person who’s really interested in small-scale development, the way cities are organically developed, and someone who did bulldoze people. It’s kind of being a little pregnant. You either are or you’re not. I would have to say, he might have been Moses-lite, but the real underpinnings were still there, that it’s either my way or no way at all.

Actually, Jacobs was not interested only in small-scale development, but she didn’t support “cataclysmic” projects.

Carter also described Doctoroff as having “been absolutely disdainful of manufacturing in this city.”

Proactive approach re AY?

Cruz asked his second guest, Mitchell Moss, professor of urban planning and policy at New York University, about Doctoroff’s legacy.

MM: Dan Doctoroff came in when the city was at its nadir after 9/11, there had been a general gloom about whether the city would ever recover… Under Dan Doctoroff and Mike Bloomberg, we saw a new impetus to rebuild downtown, to reinvent it, but most of all, they took a future-oriented approach to economic development, and we have to remember, in New York, other economic development deputy mayors have been reactive, they kind of wait for the private [inaudible] to come in and ask for gifts. Dan said, ‘This is what we should be doing.’ He was a proactive guy. When you’re dealing with economic development in New York, if you just wait for things, it’s too late. We have to give him credit for the need to finally rezone the waterfront in Brooklyn as well as the West Side in Manhattan… I think it’s important to also note that he did something very important, he stopped foolish, wasteful projects like the new Stock Exchange.
(Emphases added)

That proactive posture may be true for much of Doctoroff’s work, but Atlantic Yards doesn’t qualify.

Andrew Alper, then president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, testified at the 5/4/04 City Council hearing that “they came to us, we did not come to them. And it is not really up to us then to go out and try to find a better deal.”

And city planning official Winston Von Engel said at a 3/16/06 Brooklyn Borough Board Atlantic Yards Committee meeting that the city had not been looking at making use of the MTA's Vanderbilt Yard, given its focus on Downtown Brooklyn rezoning.

An AY critic on air

Cruz opened up the phones and got an earful from a caller from Cobble Hill named Natalie.

N: I think it’s really sophistry to say that Doctoroff’s only mistake was not working with the community. His biggest mistake was not doing adequate research and planning beforehand and completely ignoring, or not taking into consideration, the effects of pollution, of congestion--

DC: Specifically where, Natalie?

N: I’m talking about Atlantic Yards… it’s relevant to the other developments, also. The tax breaks that, say, Ratner was given are not even what he wanted, they were even more than he wanted, and they will be paid for by the citizens of New York State. The purchase price was too low, there were higher bids. And all of this was rushed through without the kind of serious research—everybody believes in development—but to go against not only the community’s wishes, but not to do serious research is just unacceptable.

Well, it’s not clear that Ratner has gotten more tax breaks than he wanted, and there was one higher cash bid for the Vanderbilt Yard. (Forest City Ratner contends the overall value of its bid was greater, but the issue is murky.)

State role

Moss tried to placate the caller.

MM: Natalie, I’m sure you know that Empire State Development Corporation, the agency that controls the Vanderbilt Yards, which are now called the Atlantic Yards, they're the agency that was able to bypass the normal ULURP and other city processes, and the overwhelming relationship is not with the city and Ratner, but between the state and Ratner, which is why the courts are now ruling on whether the state can use eminent domain…. If you look at what the city has done, it’s rezoning Downtown Brooklyn… we created a residential corridor, we got rid of the adult entertainment shops ..…. The Yards is certainly an issue, but it’s an issue for the state and their failure to deal with the people of Brooklyn.

N: Definitely, but with the mayor's approval, and with the deputy mayor's approval. They have been enthusiastic backers of the Ratner plan. I quite realize that the Empire State Development Corporation did not do its job. But they had tremendous support from the mayor and the deputy mayor.

DC: You're saying the mayor and deputy mayor dropped the ball there a little bit.

N: A little bit? A lot.

Moss tried a bit of changing-the-subject humor.

MM: They haven’t dropped the ball anywhere as much as the Nets guards, who can’t even score.

N: …The traffic has not even begun to be investigated that will be hitting all of the side streets, the main streets. And the traffic in the morning on subways, which are already congested… completely ignored in this rush to give Ratner that contract.

Brooklyn in total?

Moss preferred to look at the bigger picture.

MM: I think it’s important to look at Brooklyn as a total. And Brooklyn has flourished under Mayor Bloomberg and Dan Doctoroff. Look at the rezoning of Fourth Avenue in Park Slope. They took a bunch of gas station and mechanics shops, there’s now housing, there’s a Holiday Inn... You’d never imagine that, in Park Slope. It's important to look at the ways in which the entire Bedford Avenue corridor has expanded so that Williamsburg is now moving into Bushwick. The city has seen a renaissance of Brooklyn in the past ten years. Part of it, it’s important to recognize Marty Markowitz supported the Mayor in 2005, there’s been a new investment in Brooklyn... if you look at Brooklyn as a whole, this is the one borough that’s flourished in new ways that no one ever imagined. Look at the amount of money that's pouring into BAM's cultural center. Joe Chan [of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership] has been given control over $100 million. This is something that no mayor was ever able to figure out how to do, but they’re making Brooklyn come alive in that area.

The Fourth Avenue rezoning is a bit more complicated.

Moss closed by contrasting the administration’s efforts to include more density near the city’s core, as on the East River waterfront, versus decades ago projects like Starrett City and Co-op city, built far from the core. “That's his legacy, allowing growth to occur in places that were basically ignored for over 25 years,” Moss said.

Which is why it’s so important to get it right.


  1. I was listening to the Brian Lehrer show when Mitchell Moss suggested that Dan Doctoroff, (and the Mayor?- He said “City”) was not responsible for Atlantic Yards. The creation of this revisionist history is interesting to watch. First the Mayor puts out a press release fostering the inference by obvious omission that Doctoroff (and the Mayor?) was not responsible for Atlantic Yards. Now, it seems important for Mr. Moss to defend Mr. Doctoroff (and the Mayor?) by affirmatively asserting that Mr. Doctoroff (and the Mayor?) were not responsible for Atlantic Yards.

    The expression goes: “A good idea has a thousand fathers, a bad idea is a b*st*rd.” So politically, has it become clear that we are headed down the road where Atlantic Yards will have no political fathers? A lot of the “great man theory of history” praise being floated for Mr. Doctoroff (and the Mayor?) gives credit to Mr. Doctoroff for the kind of good ideas like the High Line that have a lot of other fathers. But, Atlantic Yards? So if Daniel Doctoroff and the Mayor never supported and don’t support Atlantic Yards enough to mention it in a press release, maybe that means that the City Council never voted the funds for it either- (Is the City Council listening?- Those funds can always be reclaimed to be used instead for worthy projects!).

    So if Atlantic Yards is not the political child of Bloomberg, Doctoroff (and maybe not the City Council since they maybe were never asked for funds), then maybe Atlantic Yards’ only political father is Eliot Spitzer? George Pataki isn’t here to do anymore more fathering of this baby or keep fighting the law suits.

    With Mr. Moss blaming the State, we are left with good old Eliot. And it does sound like blame when Mr. Moss describes the State’s responsibility as bypassing the normal ULURP and other city processes as well as being the reason the courts are now ruling on (shiver) the abusive use of eminent domain.


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