Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


As lead planner at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, Alexander Garvin may have a better idea than anyone else about what the World Trade Center site will look like. So there were loud gasps when, dressed in his characteristic bow tie, he stepped up to give the keynote speech at the annual meeting last week of the New York chapter of the American Planning Association, and he said that he was not going to talk about rebuilding Lower Manhattan.

Instead, armed with color slides, he talked about the Eiffel Tower in Paris and a mall in Minneapolis (the IDS Center), Penn Center in Philadelphia and a mall in Santa Monica. He talked, in other words, about projects that he thinks have changed whole cities, for better or for worse -- and, in the process, sometimes changed the world as well.

That is what Garvin, the development corporation's vice president for planning, design and development, clearly hopes will happen on the site of the World Trade Center. "We have a chance to start all over again," Garvin said when he was first hired a few months ago. "Things are possible at the moment that have not been possible in my lifetime."

Garvin, 61 years old, has spent his entire life as a resident of the Upper East Side, and more than half of it teaching at Yale University, which he attended as an undergraduate and where he also attained a masters in both architecture and urban studies. He has been a real estate developer, a private architect, and a public official as well, serving as a deputy housing commissioner during the 1970s and as a member of the New York City Planning Commission since 1995. Garvin is a planner on the committee to bring the Summer Olympics to New York in 2012, where he works closely with another rebuilding insider, Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Daniel Doctoroff.

If he spoke only briefly about lower Manhattan at the end of his slide show for his fellow planners, it was not because he has no ideas; quite the contrary. Garvin has said that his inspiration for the rebuilding project is Daniel Burnham, the planner who designed much of Chicago in the early 1900s and believed that big ideas are the only ones to succeed.

Already, he led the corporation's planning team as it developed an April blueprint for the site, suggesting building a transportation hub linking PATH, subway, and future regional rail service and moving West Street underground to connect the Financial District with Battery Park city.

In his best known book, The American City: What Works, What Doesn't, first published in 1996, Garvin gives a nearly 500-page critique of the ways that cities have failed and succeeded in planning their futures. In the book, he gives as one case study Battery Park City, celebrating the developers' decision to blend the project with the rest of the city by following the pattern of existing streets and extending waterfront views.

Throughout his book, Garvin maintains that it is vital for a project to benefit the surrounding community by drawing private businesses and investors to the area. This philosophy is likely to guide him in plans for rebuilding New York, as he works to revitalize the area's business core. "We have to regain for lower Manhattan a role that has slowly leaking away for two-thirds of a century," said Garvin. "Most important, it has to be something that will generate a wide-spread and sustained reaction by the private market." In The American City, Garvin presents six basic ingredients for project success: market, location, design, financing, entrepreneurship and time.

Market: A specific group of people must want the goods and services involved in an urban planning project, and be willing and able to pay for them, even if there are other alternatives, he explains.

Location: A planning site's physical characteristics, such as a beautiful view or historic value, as well as its proximity to other areas, are also very important to its success.

Design: Design, Garvin says, doesn't just mean architectural style, but the ways that an area is accommodating and attractive to visitors, homeowners, or retailers. He describes Ghirardelli Square, in San Francisco, as an example of remarkably successful design, as it capitalizes on its panoramic views and brings people into the various businesses on the square.

Financing: Garvin warns that financing for further development is key to a project's success. A revitalization plan in the Bronx's Mott Haven neighborhood failed because no further funding was available.

Entrepreneurship: A plan also cannot simply follow a formula, but needs an entrepreneur, who can supply the extra energy and vision to bring everything forward.

Time: Finally, Garvin details three different moments of time that need to be considered when planning an urban project: the time that an individual person takes to pass through an area, what happens on the site 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and what will remain important over a long period of time, for decades to come.

Garvin's other central philosophy, outlined in The American City, maintains that public input is vital to any urban planning process. He writes, "we also need a better understanding of how effective planning is translated into a better quality of life. It is not accomplished by planners operating in a vacuum." This will be tested as the rebuilding process continues, because all of New York is very invested, in many different ways, in what will be built in Lower Manhattan.

Because Garvin's influence over what is built in Lower Manhattan is considerable, he has been under public scrutiny ever since he was appointed. Garvin's enthusiastic support for the selection of architecture firm Beyer Blinder Belle as the planning consultant to work on downtown's redevelopment provoked a minor controversy last month. After the New York Times ran an article reporting that Garvin gave every firm but Beyer Blinder Belle much lower scores than the other members of the selection committee, the panel re-evaluated the top two firms, ultimately choosing Beyer Blinder Belle.

At Yale's School of Architecture, Garvin teaches a popular undergraduate course called "Study of the City." A major part of the class is a month-long role playing game, where Garvin assigns a fictional development project. Students playing planners, developers, bank lenders, retailers and public officials take on actual development decisions. They are graded on how well they are able to justify the choices they make.

As the public closely watches Garvin in the upcoming months and years of rebuilding, what marks will he receive?

Transcript to chat with Garvin.