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Best-Laid Plans

Thirty years later, a quixotic city scheme looks prescient -- except for that extra airport

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What weighs 28 pounds, comes in six dense volumes, and wasn't written by Proust? The Plan for New York City -- a daring economic, social, and physical blueprint for the five boroughs completed by the Lindsay administration in 1969. Like the Summer of Love and Woodstock, the idealistic, largely forsaken plan marks its thirtieth anniversary this year. "Development issues were more important when I was in city government," says Donald Elliott, who ruddered the study as Lindsay's city-planning chief. "This is a much more cynical time."

Striking photographs by Charlie Harbutt and prose by urbanist William H. Whyte, author of The Organization Man, created a detailed portrait of the city not seen since the days of the WPA. "It's a historic record -- a statement of philosophy," Elliott says. Battling white flight and urban sprawl with strategies for greater density in midtown and home-owning incentives in the outer boroughs, the plan tried to reform the city's welfare, transportation, housing, health, education, job-creation, and zoning policies -- all at once.

But, perhaps predictably, some of the plan's more far-out ideas -- the mammoth Westway project, tolls for the East River bridges, a new airport in the Rockaways -- "came very close to precipitating civil war in some parts of the city," says Joseph Rose, the current chairman of the City Planning Commission. In 1975, a revision of the City Charter killed the idea of the city's ever developing another plan. "I don't think master-planning is something that's well suited to New York," Rose reflects. "If you have a big laundry list, then not much gets done."

But considering just a few items on Elliott's laundry list -- the Second Avenue subway, the train to the plane, the death of the school board and birth of a mayor-appointed schools commissioner -- Rose admits that some of the plan still holds up today. Elliott, for his part, dreamily calls Westway "a brilliant piece of work."

To celebrate the plan's anniversary, Elliott will deliver a talk at the Architectural League this week. Then he'll return to his current job -- helping Turtle Bay neighbors fight Donald Trump's U.N. skyscraper. "It has a bad permit," he insists. "It's contrary to the zoning." Some people, it seems, never stick to the plan.


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