2009 J.C. Nichols Prize Winner—Amanda M. Burden

Amanda Burden

New York City Planning Commissioner

Extraordinary accomplishments in urban planning are being recognized by this year’s Urban Land Institute (ULI) J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development. Amanda M. Burden, chair of the New York City Planning Commission and Director of the New York Department of Planning, has been chosen as the 2009 laureate of the prize, which is the Institute’s highest honor.

The ULI J.C. Nichols Prize recognizes a person or a person representing an institution whose career demonstrates a commitment to the highest standards of responsible development. The $100,000 prize honors the legacy of Kansas City, Missouri, developer J.C. Nichols, a founding ULI member considered to be one of America’s most creative entrepreneurs in land use during the first half of the 1900s. Commissioner Burden announced that she will donate the ULI J.C. Nichols prize money to ULI to create a yearly award honoring transformative and exciting public open spaces around the world.

Ms. Burden, a member of the Planning Commission for 19 years, was appointed in 2002 by New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to serve as Commission Chair and Planning Department Director. Under her leadership, the Department has spearheaded the largest planning effort in the City since 1961, creating a blueprint for the city for decades to come. Her receipt of the ULI J.C. Nichols Prize coincides with the expected adoption later this month of the 100th area-wide rezoning since she took the helm of City Planning. The 100 rezonings cover more than 8000 blocks and nearly one-fifth of New York City. Ms. Burden’s strategic agenda has been to create the conditions for quality, sustainable, transit-oriented growth, while striving for an ever more transparent and responsive process.

Most recently, her plan was adopted for Coney Island, which will preserve the iconic amusements in perpetuity and catalyze the development of a 27-acre year-round amusement and entertainment district along the famed boardwalk. In addition, outside the amusement area, the plan will spur the development of long-vacant land with much-needed housing and retail services for the Coney Island community.

Another notable initiative led by Ms. Burden is the West Chelsea/High Line plan. Located on the far west side of Manhattan, the West Chelsea neighborhood contained a significant amount of underused land, a thriving art gallery district, and the High Line, an abandoned elevated rail line running through the district. Developed by the Department of City Planning, the plan, a 2009 winner of ULI’s Awards for Excellence: The Americas competition, establishes an innovative framework for transforming this historic resource into a unique elevated linear park, while preserving the art gallery district and incentivizing new housing for a range of incomes. More than 30 projects, many by world-renowned architects, have been catalyzed by the plan.

The High Line

Other major initiatives being implemented include master plans for the East River Waterfront in Lower Manhattan, Downtown Brooklyn, Long Island City and Jamaica in Queens, as well as the city’s largest plan — Hudson Yards, which will provide for 24 million square feet of office space and more than 12,500 units of mixed-income housing.

Many of Ms. Burden’s projects build capacity for new housing, including affordable housing, such as in Greenpoint/Williamsburg and Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, 125th Street in Hrlem and the Lower Concourse in the South Bronx.

Ms. Burden’s approach to urban planning is straightforward: to grow and transform the city one block at a time, in a way that respects the heritage and character of each neighborhood. This means making multiple visits to each block considered for rezoning, to talk with those who live and work there, and to observe how they use public spaces.

“New York is a global city, but most importantly, it’s a city of neighborhoods. The essence of good planning is to really understand the constraints and opportunities in each neighborhood, and to build from the characteristic strengths found in each one,” Ms. Burden says. “Underlying all our efforts is a focus on the human scale of the city. An overriding goal is to create great places that will keep people in the city – keep them loving what brought them here in the first place. There’s an overarching sense of creating a sustainable city — a city that has great diversity, accessibility and affordability for all its people.”

The selection of Ms. Burden – the first city planner to be awarded the prize — is a celebration of those charged with bringing grand visions to fruition, says ULI J.C. Nichols Jury Prize Chairman James M. DeFrancia, president of Lowe Enterprises Community Development, Inc., in Aspen, Colo.

“Amanda represents an aspect of implementing a vision that can often be lost in the public perception. When you implement, you have to have the whole vision, but you’re also dealing with the nuts and bolts of making it happen. At the end of the day, everything relies on the execution,” DeFrancia says.

In addition to DeFrancia, other 2009 ULI J.C. Nichols Prize jury members were: past ULI Chairman Todd W. Mansfield, chairman and chief executive officer of Crosland in Charlotte, N.C.; Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, founding partner of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, Miami; Witold Rybczynski, Martin and Margy Meyerson professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia; and former Seattle Mayor Paul Schell, now a real estate developer in Langley, Wash.

“Mayors often get the credit for everything, but no mayor can be effective without having the right people on the front lines,” says Jury Member Schell. “Amanda is a wonderful example of somebody on the frontlines who’s getting things done.”

Ninety years ago, J.C. Nichols wrote, “an intelligent city plan thinks impartially for all parts of the city at the same time, and does not forget the greater needs of tomorrow in the press of today.” The citywide plan being implemented by Ms. Burden illustrates that Nichols’s insights still hold true. The plan builds on the economic potential not just of Manhattan, but of Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island. “New York has often been very Manhattan-centric, but we need to grow in each borough. We need to understand where we should grow, where we should recapture our waterfront, and what we should preserve,” she explains.

Her strategy aims to channel the most growth around New York’s transportation infrastructure, and channel it away from areas reliant on auto use. (Because of the city’s numerous transit options, it already has a lower carbon footprint related to vehicle use than other more auto-dependent cities.)

In some cases, “down zonings” (which limit heights and density for new development) in lower-density suburbs are combined with “up zonings” along higher-density transit corridors.

Community engagement is critical to the success of the city’s planning process, Ms. Burden maintains. “I spend an enormous amount of time working directly with communities to help them understand our proposals, and to understand their concerns. You have to invest the time, to have their trust and be able to create plans that meet their needs,” Ms. Burden says.

“In New York, we have changed the way the planning process functions. It’s a collaborative approach, incorporating community desires into a citywide policy. I could not do this job without listening to the people, hearing them talk about their hopes, their dreams, what they want, and what they don’t want,” Ms. Burden explains. “Our grand plans mean nothing unless they are embraced by the community.”

Projects on her to-do list: a nationally unique zoning incentive program to promote new neighborhood grocery stores offering fresh food choices to under-served neighborhoods; and a far-reaching planning effort that will demonstrate how sustainability and urban design can work together to foster increasingly location- and energy-efficient buildings.

In addition, Ms Burden expects to be involved with the selection of the Global Public Open Space prize winners to recognize great public open spaces, park plazas or squares that serve as vibrant public destinations in urban areas.

“It has been my life’s work to celebrate the essence of city life and to create great public open spaces,” said Ms. Burden.

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