In Democratic Hire, Mayor Gets Burden as Planning Chief

In public, the talk is solely of “cooperation.” But make no mistake about it: There is a war afoot for the soul of the lower Manhattan redevelopment project. On one side stands Manhattan’s powerful business interests. When the businessmen speak about rebuilding downtown, they talk of office buildings, corporate retention and the city’s tax base. On the other side are the planners and dreamers, the people known-affectionately or derisively-as the “goo-goos.” They look at the site of tragedy, and they see a blank slate. Undaunted by the fact that they don’t own or control anything, they’ve formed an assortment of ad-hoc committees, with names like “New York, New Visions,” and missions to re-imagine the way life is lived in lower Manhattan.

So far, the businessmen-like John C. Whitehead, the former Goldman Sachs chief who chairs the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, and Larry Silverstein, the developer who claims control of the 16-acre World Trade Center site-have dominated the debate. But one question remained: Where would the sympathies of Mayor Michael Bloomberg lie? In approaching rebuilding, would the Mayor govern like the billionaire founder of Bloomberg L.P., or the gentleman philanthropist who showered millions on the city’s civic groups?

So it’s no small matter that, on Jan. 15, Mr. Bloomberg appointed Amanda Burden as chairman of the City Planning Commission. Ms. Burden, a longtime member of the commission, is notable both for her friends-a fixture on the city’s social circuit, she’s a darling of civic groups like the Municipal Arts Society-and for her enemies. Her candidacy prompted opposition from some in the city’s powerful real estate industry, who regard her interest in urban design with suspicion.

Now Ms. Burden will become the city government’s voice in planning the future geography of lower Manhattan. But more than that, her appointment is one of the clearest indications to date of the course Mr. Bloomberg plans to chart in the complex, high-stakes public debate over how best to commemorate and rebuild.

It appears the Mayor is a bit of a goo-goo.

“For a change, [Mr. Bloomberg] put someone in there who seems to really have expertise and interest in planning,” said Jonathan Bowles, research director for the Center for an Urban Future. “This not just the Mayor tipping his hat to the real-estate community. From what I’ve seen, Amanda Burden is someone who’s a real planner, interested in and committed to involving the civic community.”

Like almost everyone else in the Bloomberg administration, however, Ms. Burden is in the uncomfortable position of having to wait and see how much say she’ll have over lower Manhattan’s redevelopment. Mr. Whitehead’s state agency possesses far-ranging powers to bypass city zoning regulations and the approval of government bodies like the planning commission. At a press conference announcing her appointment, however, Mr. Bloomberg maintained that the city would play a large role in the planning, and Ms. Burden said that her jurisdiction, which extends over the entire city, would give her leverage.

“We have to work together and City Planning obviously plays a key role, because of everything else that connects to the World Trade Center site,” Ms. Burden said.

Ms. Burden could not be reached for further comment after the press conference.

None of this is to say that Mr. Bloomberg has abandoned the business community. His new Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, Dan Doctoroff, is highly regarded among business leaders, many of whom he wooed for years as the head of the effort to bring the 2012 Olympics to the city. The new head of the Economic Development Corporation, Andrew Alper, comes from Goldman Sachs. Mr. Bloomberg emphasizes at every turn the need for economic development at the World Trade Center site.

But he’s been very vague about what kind of economic development he’s thinking about. And that’s why Ms. Burden’s selection is significant. At the press conference, Mr. Bloomberg called Ms. Burden “exactly the right kind of person to combine the meat of economic development with sensible planning and quality planning.”

It’s the way Ms. Burden has advocated combining those elements-development and design-on the planning commission that has some in the real-estate industry unsettled.

“I think there’s a concern about the prejudices she may bring to the position,” said one developer. “I don’t think she was at the top of [our] list. But I think we feel that we can work with her, since we have no choice.”

“Amanda is very opinionated, and I think that sometimes people in the real-estate community, who are very used to having their own way, may have a problem with that,” said Jesse Masyr, one of the city’s top zoning attorneys.

Sotto voce , supporters and critics alike say there are two other reasons Ms. Burden has had trouble being taken seriously: Her looks and her money. Though she holds a graduate degree in urban planning and has served on the commission for more than a decade, she labors under a label-“socialite”-that comes freighted with preconception.

Ms. Burden’s father was an heir to the Standard Oil fortune. Her mother, Babe Paley, was later married to William S. Paley, the legendary head of CBS. Mr. Paley’s New York Times obituary noted that Ms. Burden’s mother was “described by some as the most beautiful woman in the world.”

Ms. Burden, who has inherited her mother’s appearance, has been a fixture of the city’s society pages since the days of Truman Capote. She has been married to a descendant of Cornelius Vanderbilt (the late City Councilman Carter Burden); a corporate chieftain (the late Time Warner chief executive Steven J. Ross); and now dates a television personality (talk show host Charlie Rose, whose show is produced by … Bloomberg Television).

Civic Roots

Yet Ms. Burden’s admirers say she defies the easy stereotype. “Despite the albatross of having appeared on the cover of Women’s Wear Daily , she is a real professional with real roots in the community,” said Kent Barwick, president of the Municipal Arts Society.

As a state official in the 1980’s, Ms. Burden was instrumental in putting together the acclaimed master plan for Battery Park City. “Leaf by leaf, and blade by blade, and brick by brick, she was very passionate about it,” said Alex Cooper, the architect who designed the plan. (Ms. Burden may be seeing Mr. Cooper again soon-he’s been hired by Mr. Silverstein to design a similar plan for the World Trade Center site.)

After being appointed to the planning commission by then–City Council President Andrew Stein in 1990, Ms. Burden threw herself into learning urban planning, earning a masters degree at Columbia University. “What impressed me was how she moved from being and enthusiastic amateur to actually going back to college and getting the degree,” Mr. Barwick said. “I think her thesis as a planner was on solid waste management.”

“More than almost any member of the planning commission, she’d been the one who’s done the homework,” said Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association, and Ms. Burden’s professor at Columbia. (Ms. Burden may be running into Mr. Yaro again soon, too-he’s the head of the Civic Alliance, one of the many outside groups attempting to influence the new plan for lower Manhattan.)

Ms. Burden was re-appointed to the commission by then–Public Advocate Mark Green, and gave $6,750 to Mr. Green’s mayoral campaign. After Mr. Bloomberg won the mayoralty, the names of several other candidates were circulated. Some members of the real-estate community lobbied against her.

Yet Mr. Bloomberg still picked her.

“I think Amanda is very talented,” said Steve Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York.

“There were people in the industry who may have known other names better than they knew Amanda,” Mr. Spinola conceded. “But I think she recognizes the need to act to have things built and for the economy to expand.”

“I think she’ll be terrific,” said Joseph Rose, the outgoing commission chairman with whom Ms. Burden sometimes clashed. (Mr. Rose will retain a place on the commission.) He said his successor would play an “important role” in the rebuilding debate.

“There’s no question that if you look at the sources of the kind of expertise and insight that’s going to be necessary, the City Planning Department is going to be one of those places,” Mr. Rose said.

“We’re all sorting this out,” Mr. Yaro said. “Obviously the new [Lower Manhattan Development] corporation and its parent agency [the Empire State Development Corporation] have sweeping urban development powers.” But he added Governor George Pataki, who is seeking re-election, can ill afford to be seen going against the wishes of New York City and its government. “They can override local zoning on occasion-but they only do it [in practice] where politically there’s broad public support for it.”

So Ms. Burden stands to be a key player when the decisions about lower Manhattan are made. Score one for the goo-goos.