Proprietress of the Skyline

amandaburden Proprietress of the SkylineAs the summer was winding down, Hines Interests, the Texas-based firm planning a 1,250-foot slender tower set to soar next to the Museum of Modern Art, visited the Department of City Planning’s Lower Manhattan offices, designs in hand, to seek the approval of Amanda Burden, the agency’s director. The tower, designed by acclaimed French architect Jean Nouvel, was lauded in the architectural community. 

She wasn’t pleased.

“They hadn’t finished the design.” Ms. Burden said plainly in her office last week. “They were asking special permission to penetrate an iconic zone of the skyline, and they hadn’t finished the design. I was stunned.”

Recalling her meeting, she winced as she gestured at a photo of the skyscraper plans Hines presented to her.

“It was an A-frame with a mechanical box in it,” she said of the tower’s top. “And I’m championing this building, and I’m telling everybody this is just thrilling, it’s my favorite building, it’s exciting, and then this is what we saw.

“And I told them, ‘You want special permission to break the skyline. I applaud that. But with what?’”

So Ms. Burden, who is also chairwoman of the City Planning Commission, did what few saw coming: Acting at the commission meeting on Sept. 9, in a clean break, she cut the tower by 20 stories, restricting its height to 1,050 feet. The official reason, according to commission documents: “to minimize adverse effects on the character of the surrounding area” brought on by “highly visible mechanical equipment.”


NOW NEARLY EIGHT YEARS into her tenure, and with the possibility of another four seeming rather likely, Ms. Burden is an increasingly powerful and apparently emboldened force in the Bloomberg administration—one whose often forceful views are imprinted and emblazoned on nearly every major skyscraper, mall, public plaza and large development that rises in city limits.

As a result of her actions within the past half-year, the MoMA tower now cannot rise past the height of the Chrysler Building, and a controversial apartment building planned next to the Brooklyn Bridge in Dumbo took a haircut that developers had resisted. 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).

Acting with relatively free rein in the administration, particularly following the 2007 departure of Dan Doctoroff, the deputy mayor for economic development, she has spread the reach of a historically unhurried department strongly to design of new buildings, streetscapes and plazas throughout the city. At the same time, she has extended her hands into an array of different new pots, using the department to encourage bicycling, to spread supermarkets in low-income neighborhoods, and to force banks to put their offices on the second floors, not on the streets.

“She’s led the transformation of City Planning to an affirmative tool shaping the future of the city as opposed to an agency that reacts to developers’ proposals,” said John Alschuler, chairman of the economic development consultancy HR&A Advisors, which has worked on many of the city’s largest projects. “The sheer scope and scale of their policy reach is very broad.”

Praise is easy to come by, and on Wednesday, she is slated to be announced as winner of the Urban Land Institute’s prestigious  J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development, a $100,000 honor previously awarded to the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and, ironically,  to Gerald Hines, founder of Hines Interests.

Not to say this is all welcomed. Developers and architects often howl—never publicly—of Ms. Burden’s invasive micromanaging, saying she is unfairly using zoning to dictate design, overstepping her role.

Judgment aside, it’s irrefutable that Ms. Burden’s approach has opened a new era of government involvement in the development world of New York City, as she has effectively appointed herself guardian of the skyline and an arbiter of good design. By firmly seeking to control what a building looks like, she has crossed into historically new territory, directing not only general building size and use, but also details of appearance, traditionally the guarded turf of developers and their architects.


BASED ON HER LINEAGE, the 65-year-old Ms. Burden’s ascendance in city government harkens to a departing era in which a set of old, august families and benefactors occupied a far more dominant presence in the city.

Her family tree, indeed, blooms with familiar names, attracting her attention and access to the right parties ever since she was young. Her father was Stanley Grafton Mortimer Jr., an heir to the Standard Oil fortune and a descendant of John Jay, the first chief justice of the United States. Her mother was Babe Paley, a famous social icon in the 1950s and 1960s; she’s cousins with Topper Mortimer. Ms. Burden’s first husband was the late Carter Burden, himself a descendent of the Vanderbilt family and ultimately a progressive City Councilman, and her second was the late Steven Ross, who led Warner Communications.

“When they talk about society in New York,” said David Patrick Columbia, founder of the New York Social Diary, “Amanda is the real thing.”

“Her mother, Babe Paley, and her stepfather were kind of the toast of the town,” he said. After Ms. Burden was first married, “they immediately started living a highly publicized, wealthy person’s life.”

All made for an unexpected candidate for government work in urban planning, a field that, at least in New York, has rarely held a glitzy place in the public imagination.

After earning a planning degree from Columbia, Ms. Burden took her first took as a disciple of the acclaimed planner Holly Whyte, gradually climbing a sort of urban-planning ladder. She led design and planning at Battery Park City in the 1980s, and later landed on the City Planning Commission. Then, in a move unexpected by many in the planning world, a newly inaugurated Michael Bloomberg picked her to lead the department and commission starting in 2002.

Within the administration, she has occupied something of a different realm than other commissioners. She was neither career bureaucrat nor corporate executive-turned-government reformer, and is personal friends with the mayor, living doors down from him on East 79th Street. She has a trim figure, wears graceful suits and fine jewelry, and emanates an air of elegance as she chairs planning meetings.

She still goes to parties, sometimes with her on- and off-companion Charlie Rose, though far less than in her younger days and they are often for planning-related functions, such as High Line dinners and the American Institute of Architects’ banquet.

She bristles at the word “socialite.”

“I like to say that the S-word stands for smart, and serious,” Ms. Burden said in her office.

From the start of the administration, she has doubtlessly been a devoted, exhaustive worker, walking the turf for each of the city’s rezonings (she said that she had just walked the north shore of Staten Island for a transit study). From her unassuming map-littered office at 22 Reade Street, she has overseen over 100 publicly-led rezonings that cover one-fifth of the city, often allowing more and taller office and apartment towers in certain places—near transit—while capping growth in residential side-streets. This aptly offers a carrot to both sides of the most basic pro- and anti-development debate that is forever playing out in the city, perhaps a source of her power and credibility with both the real estate industry and in neighborhoods.

“If you had to look historically, you would say she’s certainly one of the most influential, if not the most influential commissioners of city planning in New York history,” said Kenneth T. Jackson, an urban historian at Columbia University renowned for his research on New York.


MANY OF THESE REZONINGS were pushed by Mr. Doctoroff, who especially urged changing the West Side’s manufacturing zones and the Greenpoint/Williamsburg waterfront to allow for residential and office towers.

Her stamp on these government-led rezonings and on any private development project that comes before her—generally only major or out-of-character projects need her approval—has been in large part in the form of details and design. She has always obsessed over an active, vibrant street-life, meticulously concentrating on the bases of projects that come before her, and how they affect pedestrians, applying a similar set of questions to projects around the city, strongly believing her taste is what makes a project better.

“Paying attention to your ground level,” she said, listing her broad concerns, “paying attention to the facade, so it’s not monolithic, with every window the same—to the top of the building so it doesn’t look like an institutional detention facility.”

And she has gradually grown more detailed, according to those who have to come before her for approval. She insists on various specific seating types, for example: “If you’re going to have a seat that’s more than 18 inches deep or 20 inches deep, with a back, it means you actually can’t sit back. She also seems to have put more thought into the tops of buildings (a Coney Island rezoning has very specific requirements for any buildings that only allow towers in certain places).

Evidence of the detail looms everywhere: the Red Hook waterfront by IKEA is dotted with an array of various types of seating, new Williamsburg apartment towers that step back in a second tier after the first few floors, and new buildings that grow bigger the further away they rise from the High Line, one of her most lauded projects.

There have been mistakes, too. For all the attention paid to requirements of building-wall height and other strictures, in an attempt to enliven the street, Brooklyn’s Fourth Avenue has seen much development but almost no retail, maintaining the feel of a highway’s edge.

Developers, among other complaints, say this process of back-and-forth over design with Ms. Burden drags on for far too long, though few say she has made their buildings or public spaces worse because of it (she apparently has good taste—another source of her power and credibility).


SHOULD SHE GET A third term, Ms. Burden sees a further expansion of her purview. She has already begun to dabble in fresh areas—she now requires bike parking in certain new buildings, and has launched a zoning program that encourages new supermarkets in areas with few of them—but in the future, she said she wants much of her focus to be on sustainability and waterfront issues.

“Maybe I’d allow more floor area if you have a water retention tank or cogeneration facility on your site,” she said, using planners’ lingo for density. “Or—or maybe if you retrofitted your whole building and put mechanical equipment in,” she went on, “maybe you could get an extra floor.”

It’s clear to any of the developers and consultants who navigate the public approval processes that much of the reason for her strengthened role comes from relatively little meddling  from City Hall. She has always been given great independence, as is customary for Mr. Bloomberg’s commissioners.

But in the six years that Mr. Doctoroff, the deputy mayor, ran things, developers and their consultants say they got a relatively sympathetic ear from City Hall on complaints about City Planning, occasionally forcing Ms. Burden to back down. And while Mr. Doctoroff still often ended up deferring to Ms. Burden, those who navigate the public approval process say they find his successor as deputy mayor for economic development, Bob Lieber, less likely to intervene.

“I think Dan was willing to overrule her in a way that Lieber isn’t,” said a land-use attorney who deals with City Planning. “Lieber has an open door to listening, but whether there’s any follow up there is another question.”

Mr. Lieber, for his part, said he indeed gives much deference to Ms. Burden, as is common in the administration, but does get involved when he sees the potential for a project getting imperiled.

“We delegate to her and support her—and when we have major issues, we get involved and try and make sure things get ironed out,” he said. “Amanda has a vision for the long-term, and it’s driven by her experience and her commitment to making sure these things really come out well.”

Persistent developers and their teams have been looking further. Not getting responses they were seeking from Mr. Lieber, multiple developers have petitioned Deputy Mayors Kevin Sheekey and Patricia Harris to assist with problems at City Planning, according to multiple people familiar with the individual projects, with only mixed success.


TAKING A STEP BACK, Ms. Burden penchant for design management raises a larger question about government’s role in private development. To have the city be involved in such particulars as windowsills, building materials, plants and specific shapes of buildings is doubtless a historic shift for a city that has always valued independence in its private development.

“It’s the kind of thing that New York has never done,” said an executive at a major development firm. “Look, we have a privately created skyline. It has good and bad, but that is what has allowed this city to flourish,” the executive continued. “Since when does the government micromanage the skyline?”

In a way, the approach of Ms. Burden’s Planning Department is not all that dissimilar to something like the banning of trans fats in restaurants or of smoking everywhere—initiatives of the Bloomberg administration. While both have faced some criticism as nanny-state actions, the city believes government intervention is warranted as these products extract a great public cost with little or no benefit.

To Ms. Burden, bad design is her bar smoke, with the individual actions of one hurting the public at large. While developers who sit at her exam table may find changes frustrating, the public will only be hurt, she argues, if the buildings go up without concern for the effects on street life and skyline.

“People who say I’m design-obsessive should recognize that I’m creating value and the commission is creating value for the city every day that we advocate for design excellence,” she said firmly. “It adds value to the neighborhood, it adds pride of place to the people who own and live in those neighborhoods, and it’s not a big deal in terms of the cost.”

Broadly speaking, this approach is well received all around, from the development community to the community boards, all of whom see something they like. What makes her so powerful is just this—her ability to throw her weight around and affect projects just enough so she still does not elicit a barrage of criticism from any one lobby or group.

The question for Ms. Burden going forward is whether she will maintain this balance, or whether there will be more MoMA towers, a project where many observers in the design and development world feel she overstepped. For that building, the irony is that the developers and Mr. Nouvel ultimately presented the tower a few weeks later to the City Council with what looked like a completed top, with the mechanical structures far less visible.

But, by this point, it would be unprecedented to see the height be reinstalled by the neighborhood-sensitive Council.

Ms. Burden, who declined to comment on the finished designs, seemed confident as ever in her decision. “At the time we saw it before us,” she said, “it was not acceptable.”

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