New York City planning commissioner Amanda Burden gets the close-up treatment from the Times, and the consensus seems to be that her meticulous attention to detail has created some good public spaces, but has come at the expense of 1. larger planning issues, and 2. pissing off real estate developers who feel micromanaged. The reality is, however, the planning commissioner doesn’t have a lot of power over larger planning issues such as transportation, and what’s more, if a planning commissioner doesn’t piss off real estate interests, she’s not doing her job.
I think a more salient point was missed entirely: Her rigid application of William H. Whyte/Jane Jacobsian principals has resulted in the law of unintended consequences. I noted this in a recent post about the Astor Place condo building, Sculpture for Living, which created a dead block in the heart of the East Village because Ms. Burden’s zoning laws mandated that the building address the street in a largely uniform manner, squandering a great opportunity to remake the surrounding public space. What is the point of meticulous attention to detail if rules are going to be rigidly applied? Adaptability is the key to vibrant street life, which Ms. Burden clearly holds in high regard.
The fundamental disconnect is that Ms. Burden’s job is urban planner, but what she practices is urban design. This is not entirely her fault, as the job of planning in NYC is constrained to zoning. She is exerting her influence in the only way that she realistically can: By wielding the power of approval, she extracts detailed design elements like pounds of flesh from developers, who are the city’s real urban planners by virtue of weak government oversight in the face of strong private property laws. For better or worse, that is the New York way.