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.”
The next year, a panel of fashion designers put Burden, all of 22, in first place on the best-dressed list. “Goodbye Jackie, Hello Amanda!” Time magazine announced.
Burden’s relationship with her famous mother, however, was far from chummy. In fact, according to Burden, it was virtually nonexistent. “It was her choice, not mine,” she says. “That’s why I don’t like to talk about it. It’s painful. It certainly made sure that my daughter had a lot of help from me.”
“Her mother was an unhappy person,” says a good friend of Burden’s. “There was an enormous amount of competitiveness with Amanda, which she took out on her by making her feel unattractive. She’s had to create her own self-esteem.”
One of the people who showed her how, by way of example, was Bobby Kennedy. Carter worked in his Senate office after he graduated from law school in 1966. “We spent a lot of time with him because Ethel was obviously with the kids in Washington,” Amanda remembers. “We had dinner with him two or three times a week.”
Burden already knew there was more to life than throwing the perfect dinner party. She says part of the reason she dropped out of Wellesley was because the college didn’t cancel exams after JFK’s assassination; she also taught public school in Harlem after her 1964 marriage to Carter. But the transformation she witnessed in Kennedy after he toured the rural South and experienced the extent of poverty in America, it seems, gave her a greater appreciation for the underdog.
“He kept saying, ‘I didn’t know. I had no idea,’ ” Burden remembers. “He was really committed to social justice in a way we haven’t seen for a couple of decades. I still think of him in what I’m doing now.”
Her magazine-perfect marriage to Carter ended in 1972. “They got married very young, you have to understand,” explains Bartle Bull, a novelist and Carter’s Harvard schoolmate. At the time of their engagement, Amanda was 18. Among her closest friends is Susan Burden, Carter’s second wife. “We became close right away,” Amanda says. Carter died in 1996 of heart failure.
“After Carter and I divorced, I said, ‘Oh, my God, I haven’t even graduated,’ ” Burden remembers. “I thought about working at the zoo, actually studying animals, because I’m a passionate bird-watcher.”
She moved with the children to a Gracie Square apartment and commuted to Sarah Lawrence because a leading animal behaviorist was teaching there. It took her six years to graduate. When she did, she wanted to move to Africa to work with Jane Goodall and her chimps.
“Carter wouldn’t hear of it,” she remembers. “He said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding. You can’t take the kids to Africa.’ I said, ‘Oh.’ “
That same day, she ran into a friend who was working for William “Holly” Whyte, the legendary urbanologist who, together with Jane Jacobs, had developed the theory that cities and their architecture should conform to human needs rather than reducing people to mere bit players scurrying in the shadows of Modernism’s masterpieces (and more than occasional monstrosities). To them, a city’s greatness could be measured, literally, not by the height of its buildings but by the vitality of its sidewalks.
And Whyte set out to do just that, analyzing how people used public spaces and the ideal layout of plazas, the heights of steps, and the location of benches. It was the perfect assignment for an animal behaviorist fresh out of college.
“He asked, ‘What can you do?’ ” Burden recalls, referring to a friend who worked with Whyte at his Project for Public Spaces. “And I said, ‘I can take quantitative analysis of behavior.’ He said, ‘You’re kidding. We will hire you today.’ “
Burden would eventually join an architecture firm, Gruzen & Partners, and get a graduate degree from Columbia in urban planning (her thesis on solid-waste management was apparently a barn-burner; it won the award for best thesis). But it was the values she absorbed working for Whyte, based on common sense and practicality, that helped create her personality as a city planner. That and a sense of style and taste – attributes she ascribes to her stepfather, but ones that were undoubtedly passed down to her, however reluctantly from both their points of view, from her mother too.
Holly Whyte often cited Paley Park, the 52nd Street vest-pocket park with a waterfall that Bill Paley built as a gift to the city, as a jewel-like example of his philosophy. Paley was involved in designing everything about it, down to the hot dogs. “You boil them and then you fry them,” Amanda explains, “and you butter the bun.
“I was extremely close to him,” she goes on of her stepfather. “He had an incredibly good eye, very good instincts. When I worked at Battery Park City, I was actually building things myself with his lessons.”
Burden, who worked at Battery Park City from 1983 to 1990, was in charge of all the project’s public spaces, perhaps most successfully the esplanade along the Hudson – made from the same Canadian black granite as the elegant headquarters, “Black Rock,” Paley built for CBS in 1964.
To the astonishment of the architects, Burden insisted on mocking up part of the project to scale, just as Paley had done when designing Black Rock. “He had one of those huge pieces of black granite on the lawn at Manhasset,” Burden remembers, referring to Paley’s Long Island home. “Only a full-scale mock-up could actually tell you how the light would hit it. At Battery Park City, we built a mock-up of the seawall, the rail, we put down a bench. And damn it, he was right. I sat down on the bench and the rail was exactly in front of my eyes. It would have ruined it.”
“Amanda was able to stand up for design quality in a way that very few other people would have been able to,” says David Emil, who served as president of Battery Park City during part of her tenure. “She would say, ‘I really don’t care how difficult it’s going to be for you to execute this. I’m committed to make it great, and I want you to be committed to making it great. That’s the price of admission to this project.’ And she was able to make it stick.”
“We didn’t always see eye to eye,” recalls James Polshek, the architect who constructed three buildings at the site. “She’s formidable. She stands up and says, ‘You have your opinion and I have mine, and these are the principles I’ve enunciated.’ “
Herbert Muschamp isn’t wild about Battery Park City, describing it as a “retro experiment.” However, Muschamp, who says Burden proved a great friend when his partner Tucker Ashworth, who worked at Battery Park City, was dying of aids, adds that his reservations about the project haven’t gotten in the way of their relationship. “She doesn’t take it personally.”
Last year, the two even went to Vienna together – not to gorge on Sachertorte but to look at buildings and meet with the minister of housing. “That’s her life,” Muschamp explains. “It’s not a hobby. It’s not like collecting porcelain. She really wants to make a difference.”
After she left Battery Park City, Burden helped create the Midtown Community Court. It was an innovative one-stop concept in criminal justice, where people arrested for petty crimes in the Times Square area are sentenced to community service. Burden was involved in all aspects of the project, from helping design the facility to fashioning sentences. “She found a way to design the pens out of glass, not bars,” recalls Herb Sturz, the city’s former deputy mayor for criminal justice. “It was a kind of softening of justice, but in no way being soft on justice.”
Burden’s discovery of her calling coincided, perhaps not coincidentally, with the dissolution of her second marriage to Steve Ross, the Warner Communications mogul, in 1981. “He was fantastic,” Burden recalls. “He was very brilliant and extraordinary with my children. We were just at completely different parts of our life. He was actually thinking of retiring. He had a heart attack shortly after we married.”
There may also have been other reasons, according to Connie Bruck in her biography of Ross, Master of the Game. Ross’s penchant for embellishing his life story conflicted with Burden’s for telling the truth. She also balked at moving into the triplex he built for her at 740 Park Avenue, suspecting he was trying to re-create the marriage of Bill Paley, whom he idolized, to Babe, with Amanda starring in the role of her mother.
With Charlie Rose, she seems to have found a pleasant balance between having a public life and remaining a private person. They may be spotted at a tony event one evening, waiting on line for tickets at the Sony multiplex on the West Side the next.
“When we go out at night or to an event, there are people who I never would have met ever in my life who are so smart and interesting,” says Amanda, sounding, for a moment, like Jacqueline Onassis at her most breathlessly self-deprecating. “And I know them through him – Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Kofi Annan. It’s great. I’m sure couples wonder what to talk to each other about at night. But we don’t. I say, ‘Who was on today?’ “
The pair divide their weekends between Burden’s home in the Catskills and Rose’s in Bellport, Long Island. Or at least they did until Amanda took over City Planning. “I actually spent a day in my house in the Beaverkill Valley,” she says, “but I had to work most of the time.”
If Burden hadn’t been selected chair of the City Planning Commission, she had a backup plan. Bird-watching is a passion – perhaps the only disappointment of her job so far is that she no longer has time to spend mornings in Central Park peering through a pair of binoculars – and she was planning to go on lots of birding expeditions. “That was going to be my consolation prize,” she says.
Last year, she and Rose went birding in Belize; these days, Burden’s destinations are somewhat less exotic. “Castle Hill in the Bronx, Coney Island, Atlantic Avenue, Greenpoint, Williamsburg, North Corona, Forest Hills,” she says, reeling off the names of places where she spent recent weekends.
“At a distance, you’d say, ‘Here’s a person who’s never been outside the East Sixties,’ ” says Kent Barwick. “I think she probably knows the city better than anybody else in the government.”
Burden is undaunted by the city’s problematic economic outlook. “This is the greatest time to plan,” she explains, “because you want to set the framework for development so that when the market comes back, you have a template, a vision, for how we’d like to build.”
The most important site, the World Trade Center, is also the one where Burden probably has the least influence or direct responsibility but where her skills could probably be put to good use. “I think her Battery Park City experience is going to be incredibly valuable,” says James Sanders, the co-writer, with Ric Burns, of the PBS series New York: A Documentary Film. “They had to do something that was at once economically feasible, urbanistically attractive, and politically doable.”
“I think there should be something that penetrates the skyline, but it may not be a building,” Burden says of a possible memorial. “It may be light, it may be a lookout tower, it may be an antenna. But I think many of us feel that penetrating the skyline is symbolically and emotionally important.”
However, the greatest challenges and conflicts the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation – and the city in general – face promise to be political rather than aesthetic. And perhaps that’s where Burden’s greatest strengths lie. Ironically, the socialite buzz that always hovered over her, the notion that she doesn’t need the job, may work to her advantage at this pivotal moment.
“One of the reasons people like her is because they know she really cares about New York,” Barwick says. “It’s not a stepping stone to something else.”