DID DOCTOROFF SELL NEW YORK'S SOUL?
By Matt Chaban
Since the heady days of New York City’s late 1990s boom and its post-9/11 comeback, an uneasiness has recently resettled upon the city. Looking around, it is easy to see why. Shiny glass towers seem to have blossomed on every street corner, each with a Starbucks/Duane Read/Chase branch nestled at its feet. Thanks in part to the weak American dollar, an army of foreigners has invaded the city, Bloomingdales and Century 21 bags clutched firmly in hand.
A search of the Times’ web archive for “gentrification” returns 600-odd hits, an average of one every three days. As the Municipal Arts Society asked at a recent round table discussion: “Has New York lost is soul?”Dozens of factors could be mentioned to explain this increasingly unfamiliar city, but one name stands out—that of soon-to-be former Deputy Mayor for Economic Development and Reconstruction Daniel Doctoroff. Following the announcement last week that Doctoroff will be stepping down by year’s end to run Bloomberg LP, the media has largely been fawning over the many achievements, great and small, of the biggest builder the city has known since Robert Moses. (A New York Post interview last Sunday labeled him “Prince of the City.”)
As Alex Gorlin, an estimable urban planner who has been an adviser to Doctoroff for years, said, “There is again a spirit that we can do things in New York. New York is back again.”There is no question Dan Doctoroff boasts some impressive numbers, as Mayor Michael Bloomberg enumerated at a press conference announcing his deputy’s departure: “As a result of Dan’s efforts, we’ve allowed the creation of 130 million square feet of commercial and residential space, three new sports arenas, a new subway line, 2,400 acres of parks, the regeneration of more than 60 miles of waterfront, all while displacing only 400 residents.” But the mayor failed to mention that many of the projects were still on the drawing board or in the early stages of implementation.
This leaves them beholden to the prevailing political winds, which are almost certain to shift with the next administration—a fact George Pataki has learned all too well as his successor has systematically dismantled what remained of his stillborn legacy. This helps explain Doctoroff’s rush to secure his own, even as he departs. Doctoroff put it rather bluntly himself to the New York Sun in October. “We are definitely now very focused on ensuring that the plans that we’ve made are irrevocable,” he said. “It is time to ensure that we execute on what we’ve put in motion.”That’s a classic example of Doctoroff’s hubris. “We never could have gotten the Olympics without Dan Doctoroff,” Ron Schiffman, a former city planning commissioner, told me. “But we also lost the Olympics because of Dan Doctoroff. He could have been a great deputy mayor if he had listened more.” Schiffman knows firsthand, having worked recently on grassroots programs for the Atlantic Yards and Community Board 9’s plans for Manhattanville, which will almost certainly be invaded by Columbia University in the coming years.
While Atlantic Yards may have been largely under the purview of the state, Schiffman believes the city was too complicit. “He did not go to the badly designed projects like Atlantic Yards and Willets Point and press for change,” Schiffman said, a refrain that also echoes around Ground Zero, which languished for years while Doctoroff focused on the West Side. Doctoroff is often credited with finally turning things around in Lower Manhattan, but some suggest that had he acted faster, a different project, or at least more of the one we have now, might be in place.Willets Point and Manhattanville are two of Schiffman’s favorite examples of the failings of Doctoroff’s most celebrated and least criticized effort: the package of sustainability initiatives known as PlaNYC.
As the city has rezoned manufacturing districts citywide to make way for admittedly necessary housing, it has squandered the possibility to repurpose those facilities for sustainable manufacturing purposes. “You can’t outsource the retrofitting of these buildings,” Schiffman said. “And, with the price of oil going up, it makes more and more sense to make these things at home.” He said it could also create up to four million jobs.The other piece missing from PlaNYC, and much of Doctoroff’s work, is social equity, as the anxiety about gentrification in the city shows. “I think he’s been blind to that in anything he’s done,” Schiffman said.
As a result, the much touted rezonings have had as negative an impact on many of the neighborhoods they affect as a positive one—look no further than land speculation in Greenpoint/Williamsburg and Jamaica, Queens, to say nothing of the West Side, for proof.It could be said that economic factors outside the city’s control are to blame for the skyrocketing housing prices, the expansion of national retailers and the cascade of foreign investment. But if so, these factors should have been seized upon, not acquiesced to.
With all that money, perhaps the city could have asked for more and probably gotten it because, as the mayor and others are fond of asking, “Who doesn’t want to be a New Yorker?” Too often, though, the city buys into developer’s rhetoric during the rezoning process or the negotiation of the 421-a tax abatement program. Where there should be mandatory inclusionary housing, it is often optional and never enough. And now that the market may be headed for the tank, many of Doctoroff’s plans could go with it, and perhaps even more precipitously because they are tied to private investment. “I happen to like Dan,” acknowledged Tony Avella, a Queens city councilmember and Bloomberg critic. “I think he feels he’s going the right things by the city.
But that hasn’t always been the case, especially on these mega-projects.” Like the city’s other great builders—Robert Moses, David and Nelson Rockefeller, even the nascent Pataki—Doctoroff has a penchant for thinking big, always their greatest strength and weakness. As Avella explained: “Most of the projects lack the necessary infrastructure or community support. It puts a great deal of strain on the city and the community.”In some respects, though, Dan Doctoroff has not had a truly grand thought since he hatched his Olympic plans nearly a decade ago.
Everything, from the rezonings, to the waterfront development, to the subway expansion, evolved from his Olympian vision. “He gave us the Olympics without giving us the Olympics,” said Mitchell Moss, a distinguished professor at the Wagner School of Public Service at New York University and one-time Bloomberg advisor. This is a fact many New Yorkers may be grateful for—the tourists have gotten bad enough as it is—but it also shows a lack of imagination on Doctoroff’s part.“He could have been a great deputy mayor if he had listened more,” Schiffman said. “But the decisions he made, the approach he took, it could come back to haunt him. This could prove devastating for his legacy and, more importantly, the city.”
Matt Chaban covers New York City politics & development as assistant editor at The Architect’s Newspaper.