Something About Amanda

The recipient of the 2011 Keystone Award was Amanda M. Burden, FAICP, Hon. AIA, director of the New York City Department of City Planning and chair of the New York City Planning Commission. The Keystone Award is a national honor presented each year by the American Architectural Foundation (AAF) to an individual or organization from outside the field of architecture for exemplary leadership that increases the value of architecture and design in our culture. The winner of the Keystone Award shares AAF’s vision of a society in which architecture enriches lives and transforms communities. Past recipients include Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, Rick Lowe, Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., the Office of the Commissioner of the Public Buildings Service of the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), the Pritzker Family, Save America’s Treasures, the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), and former Miami Mayor Manuel A. Diaz.

Amanda Burden does masterfully what any driver of change should do: she looks ahead and anticipates. But as the director of the New York City Department of City Planning and chair of the City Planning Commission, she has been entrusted by Mayor Michael Bloomberg with doing the impossible. She’s spent the last nine years anticipating the future of a full-fledged, mega-scale, perpetual motion machine. From New York City’s garrets, neighborhoods, factories, and office towers, the most culturally diverse collection of people anywhere churn out novels and fashion, tremendous food, boatloads of money, and the intellectual capital that invigorates the world.

It’s a job that would overwhelm most people. Any local will tell you it takes the better part of a lifetime to even begin to comprehend the forces that drive this multilevel urban machine in all of its wonders. Most of the cabbies and food cart operators whose experience at the street level has enlivened their senses of what makes the city great will never have the power to do much about it. In contrast, most who have the authority to shape the future through the powers of public policy live in many ways separated from the city. Amanda Burden is different.

“She lives a place,” explains Ann Pasternak, president and artistic director of Creative Time, a New York-based non-profit arts organization. “She walks from door to door and watches how people engage with a place, and she listens. Zoning maps are certainly important but only a small percentage of the picture. Because she is a great listener and so open-minded and so curious, she’s also creative. She’s looking for solutions that may not be expected.”

This fascination with New York City’s close to 200 neighborhoods allows Commissioner Burden to grasp the need for things that might elude the classic planner whose focus is solely zoning maps. At the same time, it gives her the creative vision required to see where there is the potential for economic development to occur and what needs to be done to make it happen.

“Amanda is an urbanist,” says Elizabeth Diller, FAIA, a principal of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, whose firm played a major role in a number of projects that Commissioner Burden directed, including the High Line and the redevelopment of Lincoln Center. “She understands large-scale urban issues. But, she doesn’t really see urbanism as a standalone discipline. She appreciates that architecture is one of the building blocks of great urbanism. She involves herself in a project in a way that’s so intimate that she knows what’s going on to the inch.”

This amazing ability to see into the future seems to have colored Commissioner Burden’s career choices. From the time she was a young woman, she began assembling the kind of experience that would one day lead her to chair the Planning Commission.

“I always knew I would be in public service, from the time I was a little girl,” she says. “And in 1976 I started working for my first mentor, William Holly Whyte.” Whyte was a New York City urbanologist, researcher, and teacher. His Project for Public Spaces was one of the first attempts to document what makes public spaces successful. His 1980 classic text, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, examined such things as whether men or women use parks more, the role of food vendors in making a plaza successful, and which types and sizes of benches and chairs work best.

“He taught me that you could measure the health of a city by the vibrancy of its streets and public spaces. I saw how much people needed public spaces and how important they were to city life. And I said to myself, ‘this is how I can do public service. If I can help shape cities and public spaces, I will have achieved something fabulous for the city.’ And this really became my dream.”

In 1979, after a year at the architecture and planning firm Gruzen & Partners, Commissioner Burden became the vice president of architecture and planning for the New York State Urban Development Corporation. When Mario Cuomo became governor in 1983, she became the Battery Park City Authority’s vice president for planning and design.

The project’s 92-acre site was created with earth that came from the excavation of the World Trade Center. “It was just a pile of sand then,” she says. The Cooper, Eckstut Associates’ master plan, developed under her direction, became a perfect test bed for many of the ideas she had accumulated since working for Mr. Whyte.

“It was revolutionary in modern times to connect a major site to the city by extending the street grid through it. The previous plan had been a megacity without streets, almost like a battleship hooked to the side of Lower Manhattan.” On the contrary, Commissioner Burden specified design details at the micro scale, such as making sure the railing at the esplanade was just low enough for a clear view of the Hudson when sitting at the water’s edge. She also specified that the sea wall would be made of the same black Canadian granite chosen by William S. Paley, her late stepfather, for the headquarters of his corporation, CBS.

In the 30 years that have elapsed since Commissioner Burden took the Battery Park City job, the project has become one of the most successful new urban developments anywhere, financially as well as from the standpoint of those who visit and, most importantly, those who live there. It proved that good architecture and urban design is not only satisfying from an aesthetic and functional point of view; it also stimulates long-term economic success.

“Her work at Battery Park City, with its parks and the esplanade along the river, really shows that she understands how the city knits together,” says Rick Bell, FAIA, executive director of the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

While still working at the Battery Park City Authority, Commissioner Burden earned a master’s degree in city planning from Columbia University, graduating in 1992. She resigned from the Authority in 1993 to become a member of the New York City Planning Commission and took a job as the director of planning and development for the Manhattan Community Court Project. She designed two award-winning community court facilities where low-level, non-violent offenders receive a range of essential social services as part of their arraignments and sentencing.

“She was the one,” says Mr. Bell, “who said that there needs to be dignity and respect given to a fare-beater, even if what you are doing is giving him a slap on the wrist.”

In 2001 Michael Bloomberg became the mayor of New York, and in January 2002 he made Commissioner Burden chair of the Planning Commission and director of City Planning. Mayor Bloomberg is a pragmatist whose vision aligns beautifully with her priorities. As Commissioner Burden recalls, “In terms of design, he always said, ‘good design, great design is a priority for the city. It is essential for physical and economic and social wellbeing.’ He said we had to raise the bar for what’s expected, for both public and private development.”

That appointment enabled Commissioner Burden to achieve things she had been dreaming of for decades. The city’s zoning manual was rewritten to eliminate its enigmatic language. Her planning department took New York City by storm, re-examining neighborhoods that hadn’t received attention in decades. Plans for Coney Island in Brooklyn, Hudson Yards on Manhattan’s West Side, the Rockaways in Queens, Port Morris in the Bronx, and St. George in Staten Island show the commitment of both Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Burden to improving life in all five boroughs.

Her personal, boots-on-the-ground examination of each of these sites has changed the way Department of City Planning staff approach their jobs. It gives their opinions great credibility at community board and City Council hearings. In the last eight years, the Department has accomplished over 100 neighborhood rezonings, which include over 9000 blocks. Many areas were down-zoned to preserve neighborhood character, concentrating new residential and commercial development around transit hubs.

An Image of Harlem's Apollo Theater

In 2008, new zoning was put into place for Harlem’s historic 125th Street to strengthen it as a regional business district and bolster its role as an arts, entertainment, and retail destination. Photo by NYC Department of City Planning

“I learned from Amanda to walk every block, but also to understand what the long-term interests of the city are. Sometimes things conflict, but there’s a way to talk through that and bring all the stakeholders to the table,” says Vishaan Chakrabarti, AIA, the Marc Holliday professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. He worked for her as director of planning for the Borough of Manhattan.

“Not everyone walks away with 100 percent of what they want,” he continues, “but I think the process of making everyone feel heard, from community members to local officials, is a real art form. Amanda is the master of that art form.”

Commissioner Burden also brought a level of scrutiny to the design and development approval process that it had never had before. Mr. Bell says, “Architects who go into her office with their drawings expecting either accolades or an easy conversation are challenged. Some complain, and that’s good. She knows when people are cutting corners and taking the easy way out, claiming it’s the economy. And she knows that precludes design quality. But, she insists on design quality and she gets it.”

Both Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Burden will be remembered for saving the High Line, an abandoned rail line perched on steel trestles 30 feet above street level in Chelsea and the Meatpacking District. For nearly 45 years, it enabled freight to be shipped for miles along Manhattan’s West Side without interrupting traffic. Gradually, wildlife and native plants reclaimed the platform after it was abandoned in 1980, transforming it into an accidental, man-made park that was, unfortunately, accessible only to trespassers.

Landowners had called for the demolition of the abandoned tracks and supporting structure so that the land under the High Line could more easily be developed. But two neighborhood residents, Robert Hammond and Joshua David, were inspired to take a stand. They co-founded Friends of the High Line, but they needed a powerful ally with the creative vision to see what could be. They found one in Commissioner Burden.

One snowy winter’s day in the late 1990s, Mr. Hammond invited her on a tour of this wonder, and she instantly became a convert. “Without her, the High Line would not have been saved,” he says. Mr. Hammond is now the executive director of Friends of the High Line, which operates the park under license from the City. Commissioner Burden is modest regarding her contribution, saying, “At the time I wasn’t even chair of the Commission, and I had no power to save it. But I knew it could be done by structuring a transfer of development rights for the land under the tracks, which would gain the support of the landowners who wanted it torn down. What I didn’t know was that it would become a mecca for great architects and that the value of the land would skyrocket once a rezoning plan was in place.”

In the end, experience has exceeded Commissioner Burden’s expectations. Restaurants, bars, shops, art galleries, and a luxury hotel have sprung up under its span. The High Line has become a destination for people from all over the world and a new economic generator, proving again the value of imagination empowered by great design.

An Image of the High Line and NYC's Skyline

The High Line is not only a unique and exhilarating park but also a catalyst for private investment. It has triggered more than 30 new development projects. Photo by NYC Department of City Planning

The first section of the High Line from Gansevoort Plaza to 20th Street opened in 2009; the second section will open this coming spring; and the third will tie into the planned Hudson Yards development at 34th Street.

Mr. Hammond says, “Her vision encompasses the small and the large, from details like seating and benches to whole rezonings and urban plans. It’s simple as projects move along to just go with the easy way out, the way it’s been done before, and she doesn’t do that.”

In April 2010, Mayor Bloomberg announced the release of Vision 2020, another project that has been stimulated by Commissioner Burden’s vision for New York. It’s a comprehensive plan for the more than 500 miles of the city’s waterfront, and its impact on the overall city will likely rival the High Line’s.

“That is one huge thing that I’m involved in right now,” she says, “and it’s going to really change how people perceive and experience the city. The city’s water is really its sixth borough, and we should spend as much time planning for the water as we do for the land.”

Mr. Bell says, “It was not just her force of will and clear vision but also her design sensibility that stressed integration of public open space and accessibility to the waterfront, including for major recreational uses. The plan lets people get closer to the water and enjoy it more. She sees what people need and is satisfying those needs.”

From the beginning of New York’s existence, not much has slowed the city down. Those who work at jobs such as Commissioner Burden’s can generally be regarded as insignificant blips in its 400-year history, but certainly the impact of projects like Battery Park City, the High Line, and Vision 2020 will be felt for centuries.

But, perhaps Commissioner Burden has been so focused that she hasn’t yet realized what may be one of the most significant aspects of her legacy. She has reinvented the ways in which city planning is done—not just in New York City, but around the world. People who have worked under her leadership are taking positions elsewhere, books and papers will certainly be written about her contributions, and teachers like Mr. Chakrabarti and Ms. Diller are carrying her message to the next generation of design professionals.

“Since the failures of Urban Renewal, the profession has really struggled with the way it works,” explains Mr. Chakrabarti. “We can’t be satellite view, top-down planners. At the same time, purely community-based planning also has its limitations.”

“Amanda represents a new paradigm in the design professions because she strikes a balance. She simultaneously understands the needs of the city on a long-term basis as well as the details and sensitivities of communities where a lot of these changes will occur. She’s been a mentor for our city planners, and I hope she will lead urban design education in a new direction.”

And surely she and Mayor Bloomberg will inspire community groups and governmental officials (not to mention cabbies and food cart operators) to insist on the high-quality design and architecture that has become the trademark of the Bloomberg administration over the last nine years. It has proven to work.

Charles Linn has specialized in architectural journalism for the past 25 years. He has written and edited countless stories for the most prestigious magazines in the field, including Architectural Record, where he was an editor for 20 years. He played a leadership role in the startup of several magazines including SNAP, GreenSource, Schools of the 21st Century, Laboratory Planning and Design, and Architectural Lighting. He is currently a New York City-based freelance writer.

Featured photo courtesy of John Dalton.

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Posted in: Adaptive Reuse, Civic Leaders + Government, Community Engagement, Creative Placemaking, Design Leadership, Economic Development, Keystone Award, Print, Public Spaces
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