NYC Planning Commissioner Amanda M. Burden Discusses Land Use and the Future of New York

NEW YORK CITY PLANNING Commissioner Amanda M. Burden delivered the annual Henry Hart Rice Urban Policy Forum address at NYU Wagner on April 22, 2009, with the breadth and meticulousness that’s made her one of New York City’s most influential planners in decades. Burden prides herself on knitting neighborhoods to civic destinations, and her 40-minute address guided listeners from spiffy new waterfronts to intensive new rules for growth in Throgs Neck, Jamaica and the South Bronx.

“If you are a planner, you have to learn implementation,” said Burden, wearing a daffodil jacket. And her presentation –  entitled “Shaping the City: A Strategic Blueprint for New York City’s Future” – focused on  how new land-use rules changed public life since she and Mayor Michael Bloomberg started revamping the city’s zoning code in 2002. Burden brought the audience back to the trepidation-filled winter of that year, telling them that her boss had gathered his team to  inform them: “We are going to accomplish a great deal.”

That meant, for starters, a new structure. “The way you change land use is to unite all agencies under one deputy mayor,” Burden told the audience at Wagner. “City planning used to report to the Deputy Mayor for Culture and Schools. I wanted to be the think tank of the administration, but [then-Deputy Mayor for Economic Development and Rebuilding] Dan Doctoroff said no, you’re the brains of the administration.” And she said Doctoroff requested a PowerPoint summarizing the planning department’s first two-year plan. “And we didn’t know what a PowerPoint was,” she added, in a mild bit of hamming.

She knows now. In her Wagner talk, Burden led the audience through a chain of planning principles that she said steered the dozens of rezonings that followed. They assert that New York must compete with global capitals by providing the glorious public spaces and mixed-use districts executives want. So it must refresh and protect its distinctive neighborhoods, which Burden said means on-the-ground investigation by all planning staff. “You don’t lift a pencil for your zoning until you’ve walked the neighborhood,” she said, later noting that she’d shorn community-board presentations of their jargon so that civic groups “can connect and produce a better document.” 

Growth in a global city can’t choke the air or ignore the rising seas — and Burden noted that all her agency’s recipes for new towers and housing “channeled growth to transit,” even raising debt for a new subway stop on the Far West Side. She said the city’s cherished neighborhoods must blend with “comprehensively planned” destinations, like Lower Manhattan, which planners should guide with a devotion to mass transit and a feel for “three-dimensional urban design.”

Burden said she has guided her agency away from being “reactive to developers,” and toward a visionary stance. That has played out in the rebirth of waterfronts in all five boroughs and a complete fealty to “excellent design, from iconic buildings to a bench in a park to materials on a building.”

Burden skimmed from Ground Zero to Downtown Brooklyn to the perhaps still-obscure Long Island City (“I told a friend I was going there, and he said: will you be back by tonight?”) to Jamaica, the South Bronx, Harlem (the site of the first-ever bonus floorplate allowances to developers who build arts centers in their towers) out to St. George, Staten Island’s only transit hub. Everywhere, the presentation showed, planners sought to bulk up commercial arteries, allow housing where it would naturally grow, and invigorate public space.

The City Planning Commission’s next forays, if Burden and her boss have another term, would spread across neighborhoods. Burden outlined a plan to encourage grocery stores in low-income neighborhoods by exempting supermarkets a building’s maximum allowable size. Maps of neighborhoods with high diabetes and obesity overlap eerily well, she said, with ones of areas lacking grocery stores. She also cited efforts to facilitate sidewalk cafes, especially small ones that enliven an area’s days and nights, and to increase bike commuting by obliging new buildings to provide bike parking.

Burden ended her talk with a look at Coney Island, a neighborhood that repels cookie-cutter zoning. “We need two things, quite different, both important,” she said. “They are a year-round entertainment district that is open and accessible, and facilitated development of new housing, including affordable housing.”

Burden demonstrated that her approach to planning fuses goals that seem distinct in a constantly changing city.