Playing up to NYC Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden is usually more strategy, than pleasure. But the standing ovation she received today from architects, developers, and city agents, including Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Robert Lieber, felt real as Burden stepped up to accept the J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development from the Urban Land Institute.
Established in 1936 with offices around the globe and 40,000 members in the U.S., the Washington DC-quartered Urban Land Institute supports enlightened development research and practices. The Nichols Prize for community building comes with $100,000; past winners have included Senator Patrick Moynihan, architecture historian Vincent Scully, Al Ratner of Forest City Enterprises, and developer Gerald Hines.
According to prize presenter Lieber, Burden really does sweat the little stuff. He cited her paying attention right down to the root balls for street-lining trees. (Profiles this week in Crain’s and the Observer talked about interest in window sill widths.) The gist was that she used her power wisely and in the service of improving the city as she said herself “one block at a time.” The guys from ULI were distinctly old school, dragging in references to wives and, repeatedly, Burden’s gender. But Lieber injected some good old New York panache by noting about the High Line—the current jewel in city development’s crown—that at the beginning, “People said to me ‘What a stupid use of public money’.”
But it was Burden who charmed the socks and leggings off the 100-strong crowd at the ceremony recalling that it was an epiphany at Paley Park, that tiny vestibule with waterfall on 53rd Street so beloved by solitary lunchers and established by CBS Chairman and Burden’s stepfather William Paley, that led her to a passion for urban planning. Now, after rezoning 8,000 New York City blocks, she described her ambitious—but never over-reaching—approach as “setting our goals according to Robert Moses, knowing we’ll be judged by Jane Jacob’s standards.”
There was a Sally Field’s moment when she said she loved everyone in the room, but Burden ended on a classy note, announcing that she was turning the $100,000 prize back to the Urban Land Institute to establish a new prize for “outstanding examples of new or revitalized urban spaces that are urban magnets, readily accessible, and intensively used.” In other words, here’s to more Paley Parks.