Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden discusses her ambitious blueprint for America’s largest city.

Amanda Burden
Photo © NYC Department of City Planning
Amanda Burden

Now that New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg is remaining in office for a third term, presumably the agenda set out by Amanda Burden, director of the Department of City Planning and chair of the planning commission, will stay its course.

Appointed head of city planning in 2002, and a planning commissioner since 1990, Burden approaches the future from a position of perceptible strength. In October she was named the 2009 laureate for the J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development awarded by the Urban Land Institute (ULI). Burden then turned around and gave the $100,000 prize money back to ULI to establish the Global Award for Public Open Spaces. Such a generous gesture accords well with her thrust as a city planner to encourage more urban parks and open space.

To facilitate the conversion of the derelict, elevated railroad tracks along Manhattan’s west side into the linear High Line park [record, October 2009, page 84], Burden spearheaded the rezoning of the Special West Chelsea District, which extends generally from West 16th Street to West 30th Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues. With air rights transferred from the city-owned High Line property, the new district allows higher-density residential construction along the avenues. The zoning not only seeks to keep low-rise buildings for art galleries and shops on the cross streets intact, but has also lowered street wall heights on portions of 10th to keep new development in scale with the existing context.

The Chelsea rezoning is only one of 100 rezonings — totaling 8,400 blocks, or about  a fifth of the city — that Burden has undertaken in New York’s five boroughs. “We were prompted by projections of a population of 9.1 million in the city by 2030,” she says. “We needed a strategic blueprint so that development could occur where a significant infrastructure for transit existed.” Areas that lack this infrastructure, she determined, should not get too dense. She estimates 80 rezonings, such as for City Island in the Bronx or Bensonhurst in Brooklyn, actually were executed to protect the neighborhood’s scale and character.

With a reported 450 projects across the city now on hold, the recession is having an impact on planning agenda. The down time has enabled Burden to focus on strengthening the city’s sustainability initiatives, which includes finding ways to give building owners incentives to save energy. Burden also envisions more walkable neighborhoods with mixed uses and mixed incomes, and currently her department is working closely with agencies for housing, transportation, and health to heighten the awareness of “smart growth” techniques.

Another goal is developing a comprehensive waterfront development plan. In addition to bringing open space and parks to the rivers’ edges, Burden says her department is studying ways to improve public and freight transport. She adds: “This will be a fantastic legacy for the city.”