Who Will Be New York’s Next Chief City Planner? And Does It Matter?

With the New York City mayor’s race not even past the Democratic primary, it’s a bit early to be handicapping

Who will follow in Amanda Burden's (very stylish) shoes?
Who will follow in Amanda Burden’s (very stylish) footsteps?

With the New York City mayor’s race not even past the Democratic primary, it’s a bit early to be handicapping the city’s next chief city planner, but where’s the fun in being coy?

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Crain’s has taken a look at who might fill the post, which it calls “perhaps more important than any deputy mayor position at City Hall,” arriving at a short list that includes names ranging from Vishaan Chakrabarti, a consummate real estate industry insider and former director of the Manhattan office of the Department of City Planning, to the more community-minded Anna Levin, a member of the City Planning Commission and the chair of Manhattan Community Board 4’s Land Use Commission during most of the 2000s.

But when we spoke to Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation’s Andrew Berman about who might be the city’s next chief city planner, he threw cold water on the speculation.

“I think that the choice of who the chair will be, while it certainly tells you something, who the mayor is tells you more,” Mr. Berman said.

He cited the evolution of Amanda Burden, widely heralded as driving the relatively radical rezonings—radical, at least, for the staid post-war planning years; there hasn’t been a major revision to the city’s code since the 1961 overhaul—of the Bloomberg years. Under Burden, development rules for a third of the city’s land were changed in one way or another.

“Amanda was a very, very different member of the City Planning Commission when she was Mark Green’s commissioner”—Mr. Green appointed Ms. Burden to the commission as the city’s first public advocate—”than when she was Mike Bloomberg’s.”

“Some would argue,” Mr. Berman continued, “that the Amanda Burden who served on the City Planning Commission [under Mark Green] wouldn’t even recognize [today’s] Amanda Burden.”

Back before she became the face of Michael Bloomberg’s Big Real Estate-friendly rezonings, Ms. Burden was not so well received by the industry. “I think there’s a concern about the prejudices she may bring to the position,” one developer told The Observer back in 2002. “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.”

Don't expect New York City's next chief planner to make the cover of Women's Wear Daily.
Dapper though Mr. Chakrabarti may be, don’t expect New York City’s next chief planner to make the cover of Women’s Wear Daily.

Of the candidates identified by Crain’s, Mr. Chakrabarti and Ms. Levin sit on opposite sides of the pro- and anti-development spectrum.

“Folks from the real estate industry feel that they are entitled to more or less choose who the next chair is,” Mr. Berman told The Observer. He wouldn’t single out any candidate, but we can’t help but think he was referring to Mr. Chakrabarti, who has been an unfailing advocate for density around New York’s many transit hubs.

“Mr. Chakrabarti’s group at Columbia University,” wrote Crain’s, “is expected to release a report soon showing that the city does not have the zoning capacity for the 1 million new New Yorkers expected by 2030 and is short about 300,000 residential units. As commissioner, Mr. Chakrabarti would likely support the upzoning of neighborhoods like Long Island City and the South Bronx that are one or two subway stops away from midtown.”

Mr. Levin, on the other hand, has shown herself to be much more interested in affordable housing, and less interested in increasing the size of the city’s overall housing stock, often expressing that distinctly West Side antipathy towards density.

She was, for example, the lone vote against Extell’s Riverside Center project, saying the project was “too big.”

And Ms. Levin and Mr. Chakrabarti stood on opposite sides of an early debate over the future of Hudson Yards back in 2003.

“We feel that the amount of growth planned for the area is essential to the long-term growth needs of the City of New York,” Mr. Chakrabarti, then with the Department of City Planning, told The Observer.

Ms. Levin felt differently. “The city wants to create five World Trade Centers’ worth of new development. We feel that this is just too much,” she said at the time, arguing that “the city must proceed without crushing the existing neighborhood.”

Who Will Be New York’s Next Chief City Planner? And Does It Matter?