Conversations on New York #2: Dan Doctoroff


Last Thursday night, a relaxed and candid Dan Doctoroff joined Paul Goldberger, architecture critic for The New Yorker, for the second of the Architectural League’s “Conversations on New York.” He discussed, with palpable affection for the city, some of the big plans he initiated while Deputy Mayor for Economic Development between 2002 and 2007.

Goldberger began the conversation by asking whether Doctoroff’s focus “on the physical city” as a strategy for economic development was a matter of administrative policy or a personal interest, and why that emphasis seems less strong since he left his position. For Doctoroff, the answer is both: he and Bloomberg came into office three months after 9/11, inspired by the extraordinary responsibility — and opportunity — to “remake the city.” His primary map for this remaking was the Olympic plan, developed by NYC 2012, an organization Doctoroff founded before joining City government. While the bid was unsuccessful, Doctoroff repeated throughout the event that many of the plans developed under the auspices of the 2012 bid have been set in motion anyway. The agenda underlying the Olympic plan was to use the event to catalyze the development of areas of the city that had suffered in the transition to a post-industrial economy, including the west side of Manhattan, the Brooklyn waterfront, Coney Island, the Queens waterfront, Flushing, the South Bronx and Harlem. He credits Alexander Garvin (the subject of the first of the League’s “Conversations on New York” last month) with making a workable urban plan that did not concentrate all Olympic activity in one part of the city, as is the case in London, which won the Olympics for 2012.

Alongside these physical objectives, Doctoroff stated that his desire to win the Olympics for New York was rooted in his deeply held belief in the symbolic power of the city. Invoking both the city’s singular diversity and the increasingly competitive global race in which it finds itself, he saw hosting the games as an “opportunity to remind the world what New York City means to the world.”

Some of Doctoroff’s most ambitious visions, such as the West Side Stadium and congestion pricing, fell afoul of the working processes of a tangle of municipal, state, regional and federal governance structures. With respect to the stadium, in addition to the opposition of state legislators and the extravagant lobbying efforts of Cablevision, Doctoroff admits that he failed to communicate what he saw as an essential argument for the project: it was to be more than a stadium; it was to be a state-of-the-art update to a woefully outdated Javits Center; it was to create a new neighborhood, a new boulevard, a new subway line. With respect to congestion pricing, Doctoroff remains optimistic that it will come up for discussion again.

Doctoroff emerged from his years in city government as a fan of the City’s uniform land use review process (or ULURP), stating that every project that went through ULURP benefited from it. He even evinced some regret that the plan for Atlantic Yards did not go through ULURP. Atlantic Yards, for Doctoroff, is an example of a project with a perceived “purpose for the city” that was “much bigger than the immediate community.” In this case, the purpose was the need for affordable office space in Downtown Brooklyn to counter the migration of back-office functions to New Jersey and elsewhere. When Goldberger asked him about the “Robert Moses/Jane Jacobs dialectic,” Doctoroff replied that he does not believe that community consensus and bold urban visions are mutually exclusive. And, perhaps more than anything else, he believes in the need for long-term planning, building constituencies around plans that transcend any one political administration.

Perhaps the most significant legacy of his tenure is, in fact, a long-term plan, PlaNYC, which grew out of the simple observation, in 2005, that for even the most banal municipal land use needs like salt piles and tow pounds, no sites seemed to be available. Given New York’s projected population increases over the coming decades, Doctoroff went about finding ways to accommodate the growth and turn it into an asset for the city. He cited a list of successes — hybrid cabs, a million trees, stormwater management interventions – and one major disappointment: congestion pricing. Doctoroff’s belief in long-term planning, in counter-cyclical investment, and in bold visions with broad constituencies, underpin his most powerful asset in helping to create the conditions for this future city to thrive: his passionate belief in the openness, tolerance, diversity and symbolism of New York itself.

UPDATE: A podcast of the event is now available on the League’s website. Click here to watch Doctoroff and Goldberger in conversation.

Cassim Shepard is the Project Director of Urban Omnibus.

One Response to “Conversations on New York #2: Dan Doctoroff”

  1. Norman Oder says:

    Maybe we’ll have to wait for the video (which I understand will be posted), but I think this account doesn’t quite capture Doctoroff’s evasiveness on Atlantic Yards. (I was taking notes on a netbook.)

    “We had a view about Downtown Brooklyn, which was we needed to have an alternative to New Jersey,” Doctoroff said in response to Goldberger’s question about Atlantic Yards. “If you look at what happened in the 1990s, and look at office space New York lost to New Jersey… in part because we did not have a modestly priced office market. The obvious alternative was Downtown Brooklyn…”

    That’s true, and that’s why the city rezoned Downtown Brooklyn. That rezoning that did *not* include Atlantic Yards and one that turned out to have missed the market, given that it became far more lucrative for developers to build condos (and without any reciprocal obligation to build affordable housing).

    “But it lacked a series of amenities,” Doctoroff continued. “It lacked parkland.. Brooklyn Bridge Park. It lacked housing… It lacked retail, it lacked hotel, it lacked zoned office space… We thought it also actually needed more of a center, more of a draw, to make it more appealing, and that was the reason for Atlantic Yards… and therefore Atlantic Yards and Downtown Brooklyn had a purpose for the city, from a strategic perspective, that was much bigger than immediate community.. I said publicly in retrospect, rather than going through state process [for Atlantic Yards], we probably should have gone through ULURP.. I think at end of day things wouldn’t have been different, but plans might have been modestly different.”

    Hold on. Atlantic Yards wasn’t designed as a draw to make Downtown Brooklyn more appealing, since Atlantic Yards doesn’t even fit on the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership’s map–it’s off to the southeast, with the site in Prospect Heights.

    Rather than act proactively, the city acceded to Forest City Ratner’s plan.

    “We didn’t decide to take a look at the yards,” said Winston Von Engel, Deputy Director of the Department of City Planning, in March 2006. “They belong to the Long Island Rail Road. They use them heavily. They’re critical to their operations. You do things in a step-by-step process. We concentrated on the Downtown Brooklyn development plan for Downtown Brooklyn. Forest City Ratner owns property across the way. And they saw the yards, and looked at those. We had not been considering the yards directly.”

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