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Social Planner

Amanda Burden, the head of the city planning commission, is the new-look Bloomberg public servant: monied, socially connected, with a sharply honed aesthetic sense. And -- let's not forget -- a highly ambitious agenda.


Asked his opinion of Donald Trump's development on the Upper West Side, the average ink-stained, Men's Wearhouse–shopping city bureaucrat would probably take a pass. Not so Amanda Burden. "It could be a lot better," she says, without hesitation. "I think the architecture is very disappointing." What about the landscaping, the open spaces, the pathways? "Very banal," she sniffs.

Meet the new Bloomberg-era civil servant, an individual, not unlike the mayor himself, who doesn't need the job -- who's not only well-off but well connected -- but is motivated to make a difference.

The City Planning Commission -- the agency charged with charting the city's growth -- hasn't exactly been an engine for innovation over the past couple of decades. But observers say that some of the fossils over at the Department of City Planning (Burden actually wears two hats, as chair of the commission and director of the Department of City Planning) have a renewed spring in their step and are wearing more adventurous bow ties since the new administration took office. Part of it may be that Mayor Bloomberg has shown an interest in building and design worthy of a billionaire with many homes who knows how nice things can be when you do them right.

And then there's September 11. It has heightened awareness of the symbolic importance of development, and not just at the World Trade Center site. In the same way that a great athlete wants to reassert his authority the first time he steps back on the court, there's an almost palpable need to seize the moment, to build, to make something even better.

It probably also doesn't hurt Burden's standing in city government that she and the mayor live within a few doors of each other on the same elegant stretch of 79th Street just off Madison Avenue.

"I see him when I'm out walking my dog," she reports. "He's getting in his car to go in to work."

And the mayor doesn't give her grief that she's not already there? "No, well, this is at 6:30," she says.

Though Burden, 58, has earned her stripes -- she's been involved with development in the city for a quarter-century; her projects include Battery Park City and the Midtown Community Court, and she's spent over a decade as a member of the City Planning Commission -- until now her accomplishments have failed to remove the scarlet letter S, for socialite, from her smooth forehead. It probably couldn't have helped but attach itself to the unobtrusive beauty: Her mother was "Babe" Paley, the aloof fashion muse of the sixties and wife of CBS founder William Paley, Amanda's stepfather. Her father, Babe's first husband, was Stanley Mortimer, the heir to the Standard Oil fortune.

"She's been underestimated," contends Kent Barwick, the head of the Municipal Art Society. "Somebody who is thought of as beautiful and social and at lots of events has to work twice as hard to stay even. I think she has worked more than twice as hard."

Burden's choice of husbands and boyfriends hasn't been engineered to keep her out of the gossip columns either. Her first husband was Carter Burden, a descendant of Commodore Vanderbilt who owned the Village Voice and New York and became a respected New York City Councilman. Her second was Steve Ross, the charismatic head of Warner Communications. And for the last decade Amanda has dated Charlie Rose, the TV personality.

"Amanda, like Jacqueline Onassis, tended to be written off as a socialite with good intentions," observes the architect James Polshek, who got to know Burden when he was trying to design buildings for Battery Park City to her demanding specifications. "It wasn't the case with Jackie, either. Both of them are very effective in corralling opinion, mediating disputes, and building consensus, and are very sharp observers of character."

But there's one major difference between them. "Jackie," Polshek says, "never had an official governmental position."

On a side table in Burden's office at 22 Reade Street -- large and frayed in the way that only local-government offices can be -- are framed photographs of the chairwoman's two children with Carter Burden: Carter Jr., 34, an Internet entrepreneur, and Belle, 32, a lawyer. There are also a couple of pictures of Amanda arm in arm with Charlie Rose out in Colorado, where they annually attend the Aspen Institute for global-minded big shots.

"She's had her eye on the goal -- to be in the business of helping to shape a better city -- since I met her," says Margot Wellington, the former executive director of the Municipal Art Society, who got to know Burden back in the mid-seventies. At that time, divorced from Carter, Burden was raising two small children and fishing around for a career. "But she's also very aware of the social side of things."

As if to counter any doubts, Burden has wasted no time staking out an ambitious agenda for her department. It includes restoring lower Manhattan and bringing commuter rail service there, increasing access to the Manhattan and Brooklyn waterfronts, rezoning parts of the city including East Harlem and Greenpoint, and doing all of it while promoting design excellence.

"If you go back to the history of city planning over the last twenty years, you won't find that kind of comprehensive strategic look at New York," contends Richard Kahan, who served as Burden's boss at both the New York State Urban Development Corporation and, later, the Battery Park City Authority.

"We are looking at every single significant undeveloped site in the city," Burden says. "Here's what happened before -- the department would basically wait until a developer came and then responded. We're actually getting out there ahead of the curve and looking at what should happen at these important sites."

Burden was apparently always Bloomberg's first choice for the job. However, other members of his administration and the real-estate industry weren't initially swept away. "People were trying to say she was anti-development," says one of her supporters. "If you're for architecture, you're supposed to be anti-development. My impression was that the mayor always wanted her, but she had to make a case for herself."

The person with whom she most importantly had to do so was Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff. He was backing a different horse: Alex Garvin, the Yale professor and master city planner with whom Doctoroff, a venture capitalist, had worked for six years on the effort to win the 2012 Olympics for New York City.

Doctoroff interviewed Burden three times. "I did extensive due diligence," he says, "and what I found was somebody who was strikingly substantive, passionate about her work, passionate about New York City, and had a sense of where she wanted to take the City Planning Commission. I was very comfortable."

And Burden seems equally comfortable adapting to the unadorned city-government lifestyle. Her daily uniform is a navy Calvin Klein suit and simple gold jewelry. Since she took her new job, she says, her problem hasn't been losing weight but gaining it. She works seven days a week and survives on tuna sandwiches, which she brings to work, and Power Bars. She doesn't have a personal trainer or attend Pilates or Lotte Burke. "I don't have time," she explains. "I have a treadmill in the apartment, and sometimes I do that."

"All her life she's been called 'The Socialite,' " says Herbert Muschamp, the New York Times architecture critic and a friend of Burden's. "She can't deny responsibility for that. She looks the way she looks, and she doesn't cover her face with her hands when Bill Cunningham or Patrick McMullan" take her picture.

Nevertheless, says another friend, "there's a powerful ambivalence that when she's enacting that role, she's reenacting her mother. It's always been this kind of struggle."

To appreciate how far Amanda Burden has traveled without ever leaving the city of her birth, one need only go through back issues of Vogue. In a 1965 piece titled "The Young Joyous Life of Mr. and Mrs. S. Carter Burden, Junior" -- which included several pages rhapsodizing about their Francis Bacon– and Dubuffet-filled starter apartment at the Dakota, with photographs by Horst -- the magazine seemed determined to anoint Burden her mother's successor as a grande dame of the social scene.

"Her most intimate friend is still her mother," the magazine whispered. "She respects her judgment, admires her taste, shares her concern for things of beauty and copies her, trivially but touchingly, in her way of arranging flowers."

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