Greater Than Ever: New York’s Big Comeback
By Daniel L. Doctoroff
On the final page of his account of his years as Deputy Mayor for Economic Development and Rebuilding (2002–07), Dan Doctoroff writes, “Government can work.” In these times, it’s a radical statement. And Doctoroff delivers a surprisingly entertaining affirmation of government’s ability to shape society, physically and economically.
Doctoroff’s efforts incited a dramatic transformation throughout New York. The Bloomberg administration rezoned 40 percent of the city, and Doctoroff was a primary instigator behind rebuilding Lower Manhattan following 9/11, creating Hudson Yards in west Midtown and Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, and helping to get new stadiums built for the Mets and Yankees in Queens and the Bronx. Many of these projects were catalyzed by the city’s 2012 Olympics bid, an ultimately failed effort.
Doctoroff proved adept at using his background in private equity to increase the economic activity in the city as deputy mayor. His development strategy in all five boroughs moved the city away from depending on financial services to expanding light manufacturing, tourism, and technology sectors. He saw the potential of Brooklyn to compete with Jersey City as Manhattan’s satellite business hub, and took his buy-low/ sell-high ethos to its underperforming neighborhoods.
Yet Doctoroff seems unaware that dollars-driven government has downsides. Consider the High Line, which Doctoroff initially “couldn’t envision a park out of” but later supported when shown how transferring air rights from land under or alongside the abandoned rail line to properties in the neighborhood would result in a “vibrant market” for new development. “Vibrant” is an understatement: Doctoroff notes that the parking and storage company, Edison Properties, paid “almost nothing” for a parking lot that it sold in 2014 for $870 million; a condo and hotel designed by Bjarke Ingels Group will soon open there. Doctoroff is untroubled that the surrounding neighborhood of Chelsea, once an artsy and low-income neighborhood, is now a tourist trap with ultraluxury condos, no longer affordable to many residents with deep roots there.
Doctoroff never really transformed himself from being an investment banker to a public champion. He dwells on his tenure’s lack of focus on affordable housing for only a few sentences amid 371 pages. As the book’s affirmative title suggests, Doctoroff really does believe New York is better than ever, and would never connect his work to such unintended consequences as the city’s skyrocketing rates of homeless families—the number of those in shelters has risen 76 percent in the past decade, while those living on the street has risen 39 percent in just the last year.
Doctoroff envisions Greater Than Ever as a playbook for other cities looking to stoke their own economic vitality. While there are a dozen smart ideas here worth replicating, such as the sustainability plan, or encouraging job-creating businesses to be in the city, the book should also be read as a cautionary tale. Growth as great as that which Doctoroff describes is usually too good to be true.