9:54 am Jun. 24, 20102
The "symposium" held Wednesday night in the Edgar A. Tafel Hall at the Center for Architecture, "Planning, Design & Development, Then and Now," was underwritten by the William S. Paley Foundation, which is running a series of events commemorating the Lindsay administration, and which produced for the night's event a sleek, thick, bound folder containing, among other documents, a report generated for Mayor John Lindsay in 1967 by a committee chaired by William S. Paley.
One of the four members of the panel the A.I.A. assembled to discuss the urban planning and design legacy of Lindsay's administration was Amanda Burden, chair of the City Planning Commission and step-daughter of William S. Paley. Anthony P. Schirripam, president of the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects, began the evening by citing "lots of help from the Bloomberg administration," financial and otherwise. Lindsay's daughter Margaret Picotte, a statuesque blond in a beige linen pantsuit, was also in attendance.
It didn't seem like distant history they were talking about. The Paleys and the non-Paley panelists, and much of the audience, seemed to be in on the same joke, which in order to be properly understood required having been around for John Lindsay's mayoral administration and profoundly aware of the impact Lindsay was having on urban planning.
Other than Burden, there was Donald Elliot, chair of the City Planning Commission under Lindsay; Alex Cooper, who sat on the Lindsay-created Urban Design Group from 1967-1973; and Carl Weisbrod, the founding president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation.
The A.I.A. brought New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger—who wore a dark suit, light purple shirt, dark purple tie and orange socks with widely spaced thin blue stripes—to the white-walled, concrete-floored gallery to moderate. The panelists sat on very architectural-looking molded red stools around two steel tables, each topped with two small wine glasses and a pitcher of water. Wine and food—mini-tarts, little gourmet pizzas, toasts and spreads—were available in the wide hall that ran next to where the lecture was held, under pieces from an exhibit titled "Un-built Work."
Burden wore a silver-gray pantsuit with cream-colored patent leather pumps. "From a planning perspective, the Lindsay administration was most extraordinary," she said, adding that since Bloomberg appointed her, "each principle of the Lindsay administration, we have tried to embrace and honor." According to the Lindsay veterans, he was the last mayor (presumably other than Bloomberg, who clearly was not going to be criticized by this group), and possibly the first, to believe strongly that the physical design of the city "would have a genuine impact," as Goldberg put it, on the way that residents lived.
What came out of that idea were initiatives to make development in various neighborhoods more bottom-up than top-down. Under Lindsay, the city was split into 62 community boards, before which every development project had to be brought for approval. (Technically the boards' recommendations are not binding, but a majority of projects rejected the CBs do not go to completion).
"We created the community planning boards," said Elliot, and established planning offices not only in Manhattan, but in every borough.
The Lindsay administration's philosophy on urban planning and design proved prescient, and his attitude toward planning turns out to be very similar to that of Bloomberg and his commissioners, even though the two men could not be less alike in public manner.
For example, Lindsay championed "mixed-use" development, which decades later became a tenet of New Urbanism, and is now an important part of every major development plan Bloomberg puts up: Atlantic Yards, Willets Point, the West Side Rail Yards, and so forth. Lindsay created "incentive zoning," (most famously in the Theater District) which brings to mind Bloomberg's subsidies for affordable housing, which have encouraged development in places like the Williamsburg-Greenpoint waterfront.
At one point, Goldberger did a slideshow presentation that included a cartoon showing two people sitting at a table outside eating, among many other tables, with the Empire State Building in the background, and a caption about how Lindsay would have been glad to see what was happening. This is like what Bloomberg has done in Times Square, among other places, by barring traffic and turning it over to pedestrian-idlers. An anti-car city was the vision of both Lindsay and by Bloomberg.
When Lindsay became mayor, the Robert Moses-conceived Lower Manhattan Expressway, which we now understand would have been a very, very bad idea, was "still technically on the books," Elliot said. The defeat of Moses' highway plan was one of the "key moments in the history of planning," said Weisbrod.
The conventional wisdom about Mayor Lindsay is that he was a great politician and a poor administrator. Elliot disagrees. "He was not a great politician," the former planning chair said of Lindsay, but he was "a superb administrator."
It's something that aides to the current mayor—when the day comes for them to reunite at a symposium and talk about the boss—might say, too.
More by this author:
- How 'The New York Times' controls architecture criticism in America, whoever its critic may be
- American Girl: The Wallis Simpson story, told differently