At Jane Jacobs Memorial, City Planner Steals the Show, Discreetly

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Jacobs in 1963. Photo: Time & Life Photos/Getty Images


Jane Jacobs, the Death and Life of Great American Cities author who revolutionized city planning when she told the world why the best village was the West Village, died a year ago yesterday at 89. Last night, about two dozen hard-core Jane-ophiles (Jacobeans?) gathered to toast her at the Village’s White Horse Tavern, a favorite Jane haunt — she lived just down the block — before she moved to Toronto in 1968 to help her sons avoid the draft. The star of the evening was architect Alexandros Washburn, city planning chief Amanda Burden’s newish design czar, whose lack of press since starting his job in January is notable given that (a) he’s overseeing the Jacobs-y design aspect of most major building projects in the city and (b) he has urbane Greek good looks that had most of the female Janeheads at the pub cruising him in that discreet New Urbanist way.

Suited up in art-director basic black, lager pint in hand, Washburn told the crowd that, design-wise, “if Amanda’s interested in it, I’m interested in it,” and that his job was to ask of new projects, “What does it feel like from the street? What’s the interval of columns, bulk regulations, setbacks and depth of retail?” Such details, he waxed poetic, make up “the trellis of our lives.” He also thanked Jacobs for helping to keep the West Village “the best neighborhood to raise my kids in” and said that, thanks to the mayor’s PlaNYC, “I think New York is going to be the greenest city in the world.”

In an impromptu, city-unapproved interview, he was a model of tactful vagueness. He wouldn’t say what role he was playing in the recently revived transformation of the James A. Farley Post Office into Moynihan Station, a project he initially oversaw in the late nineties (after a stint as a staffer for the project’s namesake, the late Senator Moynihan). He cited few specific sites he's currently working on, just an affordable-housing development in Coney Island. He said he admired the ecofriendliness of Renzo Piano’s new tower for the Times but demurred from commenting on its design. (“I need to go see it more closely,” he said, somewhat implausibly.) Of the new rage for building with glass, he named only “some of the balconies on the Meier towers” on Perry Street as good examples and, no surprise, declined to get specific about what he called glass’ wide misuse around the city. “It’s bad when it’s used to separate the street life from the life of the building,” he said cryptically. Who knew glass could do that? —Tim Murphy