Speed bumps, pedicabs, elevated flower baskets – a recent Thursday-morning “Streetscape” meeting at the Grand Central Partnership office touched on all the usual hot-button topics. Then it was time for a slide show of an outdoor mall in Santa Monica. Something in the slides unsettled Partnership president Daniel Biederman. “Those damn white plastic chairs,” he cried, leaping from his seat. “You’ll never make a space beautiful with those horrible chairs.”
No one has ever doubted Dan Biederman’s eye for detail, or his obsessive faith in the perfectibility of urban space. His success at cleaning up the Grand Central Terminal area and Bryant Park earned him national fame as a miracle worker. But while keeping watch on urban eyesores, Biederman – the only person to control three business-improvement districts (the Grand Central Partnership, the Bryant Park Restoration Committee, and the 34th Street Partnership) – failed to notice how the political ground had shifted beneath his feet.
The week before last, his former ally, Mayor Giuliani, abruptly terminated the city’s contract with the Grand Central Partnership, exasperated at Biederman’s refusal to cede any of his power. He’s still got the other two bids, but the decisive loss of the mayor’s favor places his career in jeopardy – just weeks before what would have been its crowning achievement: the ribbon-cutting at the newly refurbished Grand Central Terminal. The Partnership’s backers, some of the city’s most powerful property owners, are now huddling to figure out whether their man can be saved.
One thing they’ve clearly resolved is not to fight the mayor in the press, or to risk a war of personalities, like those that felled schools chancellor Ramon Cortines and NYPD chief William Bratton. “The Partnership board is making all the decisions,” says Biederman’s P.R. rep. “Dan doesn’t even have a vote in this. He can’t comment.” Bratton agrees that Biederman should “lie low and try to wait the mayor out.”
But discretion may not be enough. “By their very nature, bids pose a threat to government – they’re where people can go to get things they need done,” explains Mitchell Moss, an urban-policy expert at NYU. “So the trick of managing a bid is being very respectful to government. And that’s exactly what Biederman doesn’t do.”
Biederman doesn’t have much support beyond his own powerful board. Liberal groups detest the Partnership for its treatment of the homeless. And none of his counterparts at other bids seem too concerned. “If I were still in New York, I’d call for an emergency meeting to congratulate the mayor,” says Robert Walsh, who ran the Union Square bid for eight years. “bids have to be community-based, and Biederman never understood that. When he should’ve been out on the street talking to merchants, he was getting on a plane to make speeches about his great accomplishments.”
Biederman’s chances for survival rest almost entirely upon how far the midtown property owners are willing to go for him. A protracted legal fight is not the way these real-estate veterans like to operate, so a deal of some kind seems likely. They are now discussing the reduction of Biederman’s load to one bid, though it may be too late for such a compromise.
Giuliani’s crackdown on the Partnership may have less to do with Biederman than has been assumed. When they were created in the eighties, bids stepped into a vacuum left by drastic cutbacks (and the general inefficacy) of municipal services. People like Biederman were hailed as the saviors of the city. But public-sector incompetence is no longer an article of faith at City Hall, and when something good happens in the city, the mayor is going to be damned if he’ll let someone else take credit for it – or let the people who do business with him do business like him. There’ll be no more eloquent symbol of that shift than the sight, come autumn, of Giuliani standing at the podium on opening day of the new Grand Central that Biederman made possible. Or perhaps the mayor will be sitting in one of those ugly white chairs.