Should New York City's Next Mayor Appoint a Deputy Mayor of Design?

Illustration for article titled Should New York City's Next Mayor Appoint a Deputy Mayor of Design?

One of these days, Michael Bloomberg is not going to be mayor of New York City anymore, and someone else is going to be crowned King of the Great Underground River. Yesterday, that person got a to-do list from New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman.

Kimmelman's list is very good, and he basically recommends the new mayor should keep doing all these Bloombergian things—bike shares, the plaza program, rapid-bus service, the High Line—while adding a wish list of new ideas like a one-seat ride to LaGuardia and JFK (although some think he should really focus on transit to the outer boroughs).

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But there's one suggestion in particular that jumped out to me, one that he says originated with the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The next mayor, he says, should appoint a deputy for design and planning:

A new deputy mayor could coordinate parks, schools, transportation, landmarks, buildings and small-business development — now controlled by agencies that have too often failed to work together — in ways that might streamline construction, save tax dollars and foster neighborhoods. A deputy mayor for design could also help rethink some undercooked Bloomberg initiatives, like redeveloping Willets Point in Queens as a shopping mall; rezoning 73 blocks of East Midtown; and awarding $150 million in taxpayer money to redo the New York Public Library building at 42nd Street before there was even a solid renovation plan. (That plan may yet be forthcoming, as library officials promise, but, meanwhile, branches across the city are starved for cash.)

Interestingly enough, L.A.'s AIA is pushing for the same thing from its new mayor.

Although I've seen the title before in European cities (and Seoul has a deputy mayor that's also the Chief Design Officer), I had to wonder: Does such a thing even exist in the U.S.?

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Right now, in addition to the "first" deputy mayor of New York City, there are five additional ones: Operations, Health & Human Services, Economic Development, Legal Affairs & Counsel and Government Affairs & Communications. I looked around and found that many American cities have deputy mayors of "planning and economic development" or "policy and planning." But this is not the same as having someone in this kind of leadership position who has design top of mind. (If you know of one, let me know—I realize it could be a different title that I'm not searching for.)

In New York City there are, of course, plenty of positions keeping tabs on the design of the city. There's David Burney, Commissioner of the Department of Design and Construction, for example, and a Commissioner of the Department of Transportation, Janette Sadik-Khan, who has radically shaped the city's urban design. Chair of the New York City Planning Commission and Director of the Department of City Planning Amanda Burden has been widely credited for championing the High Line, among other public space initiatives.

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But a deputy mayor expressly focused on design and planning would be a true game-changer. Right now decisions are largely dictated by zoning, not aesthetics. We'd have someone to point the finger at when it came to those condos poking up like mirrored-tile dildos all over the city. And they could help keep heavy-handed developers in check, to prevent, as Kimmelman puts it, "atrocities like Brooklyn’s Fourth Avenue development."

It's hard to argue that any leader in recent memory has left a more indelible, physical mark on New York City than Michael Bloomberg. But one person comes to mind: New York's "master builder" Robert Moses, who erected many of the city's bridges and expressways, built parks and public pools, and even lured two World's Fairs to the city. One thing that most people don't know about Moses, however: He never held public office. I'm not necessarily saying I agree with everything Moses did—although he did do many great things for the city—but imagine putting someone as opinionated and powerful as Moses in that deputy mayor position.

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[Photo Credit: Shutterstock / pisaphotography]

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DISCUSSION

No. That's a terrible idea.

There's already the Public Design Commission (PDC). They review all design on public property. I don't think it warrants the appointing of an entire deputy mayor. Design is nice, but sanitation, transportation, etc is more essentially important.

Private enterprise should design what they like. Landmarks Preservation already governs protecting buildings and areas that are detemined to be significant. Community Boards don't have as much direct power but can be influential. Being overly prescriptive will result in just as much mediocre/bad architecture as being laissez-faire. The work of critics is essential to this dialogue but bad architecture will always exist. And one man's bad is another's great; see the recent hullabaloo regarding a lot of brutalist buildings being torn down around the country. Robert Moses never was prescriptive as to building styles and aesthetics. He also was controversial in promoting highways over mass transit to Manhattan.

Lets face it, New York has been doing quite well recently with architecture. The Gehry tower is nice, Barclays is really great in my opinion, Brooklyn Bridge Park is almost complete. The Parks Dept has been undertaking tons of non-Manhattan projects in the other boroughs. There's a great Herzog and deMueron in Tribeca going up. The reason why the US was so dominant in architectural development in the latter half of the 20th century was the fact that architects and designers could execute the projects they were imagining without great historical influence or government oversight. In squashing "bad" buildings, you will equally squash the "good". While you lament your glass dildos, we definitely don't have a skyline that's anywhere as laughable as say Shanghai. While we're at it, should the NEA start dictating to funded artists what they should produce?