With his fiery rhetoric about inequality, Mayor Bill de Blasio is clearly a man on a mission. He has moved quickly to rework police and detention procedures and close substandard facilities for the homeless. He is aggressively pushing his plan for universal pre-kindergarten, which he would pay for by taxing the very rich.
Aside from his much-touted goals of preserving and adding to the city’s stock of affordable housing, the mayor’s goals for the physical city are vague. He, quite frankly, doesn’t seem that interested in planning and design. At least not yet.
Though he has appointed strong and experienced individuals to various housing posts, much of his team that will manage and shape the city’s built environment remains unfilled. As of press time, the Department of Design and Construction, and the Landmarks Preservation Commission remain leaderless or led by holdovers from Bloomberg who are not expected to stay long term. (De Blasio is expected to appoint Mitchell Silver today to head the Department of Parks and Recreation.) Sources within these agencies have grumbled about the slow pace of the appointments and a growing feeling of rudderlessness in city government.
The exception being the Department of City Planning, which de Blasio has filled with the veteran real estate and business improvement district czar, Carl Weisbrod. While Weisbrod is undoubtedly qualified, few in design and urbanism circles seemed enthusiastic about the appointment. Can Weisbrod, a consummate insider, bring in new ideas and resist the entrenched power of the city’s real estate interests? What is his vision for the Department and for the role of planning in this chaotic and congested metropolis?
It is a radical departure from Michael Bloomberg, who had a greater impact on the physical city than anyone since Robert Moses. He staffed his agencies with hard driving private sector appointees, who sought to remake the city with mega projects and fine-grained policy changes. Bloomberg’s deputies drew on best practices from around the globe, and used the city as a lab to test them. And if Bloomberg himself became increasingly tin-eared in this third term—defending one percenters and swatting down calls to rein in Wall Street—an unanticipated effect was that many of his urban policies came to be eyed with suspicion. Good planning and design policies seemed like agents of gentrification and homogenization. The mayor’s vast personal wealth and autocratic tendencies added to the notion that his planning and design initiatives were a kind of “trickle-down” urbanism—geared to please the few but eventually benefitting many more. Bloomberg failed to see how his elitist reputation was coloring his entire stint as mayor (shortly before the election he snapped that he found de Blasio’s rhetoric “racist,” an especially clumsy charge given de Blasio’s interracial family.)
All New Yorkers benefit from cleaner air, more parkland, and safer, more diverse streetscapes—all of which Bloomberg championed and created. They will also benefit from de Blasio’s priorities: more affordable housing and a more inclusive and economically diverse citizenry. Let’s hope the many positive aspects of Bloomberg’s legacy are not abandoned as de Blasio rightly tries to turn his “Tale of Two Cities” into one.