When William James boldly asserted that “truth happens to an idea,” he anticipated the planning philosophy of Alexander Garvin, who died last week at the age of 80. Alex was a friend and mentor, and we shared many things over the years, including a passion for New York City and its complicated history. He understood that planning was not a visionary pursuit, but a pragmatic one, and that realization helped make him the city’s most effective planner since Robert Moses.
Though he taught at Yale, his alma mater, for more than half a century, Alex was not a theorist or ivory tower intellectual. His popular course gave students an opportunity to step into the multiple roles that a planner, developer, or municipal official might play when working on an urban design project. They understood that their professor knew firsthand how such projects could succeed or fail, and his wide experience provided a truly engaging taste of how the “planning game” was played. Needless to say, hundreds of them went on to contribute to the quality of life in their home cities, whether professionally or as citizen advocates.
A New Yorker to the core, he was born on the Upper East Side and remained in the neighborhood throughout his life. He was fluent in French and Russian, having ancestors from both countries. At Yale, he was active in both the Russian Club and the famous Yale Russian Chorus (another thing we shared). He was a connoisseur of art, opera, classical music, and literature. He traveled widely to enrich his experience, study cities, and feed his aesthetic proclivities. He spoke quietly—and with authority—on many subjects, and always wore a wry smile when discussing his favorite things. He was also an acute listener, a quality that allowed him to negotiate the complexities of city politics and zoning with unusual aplomb. He would often punctuate his comments by lifting his owl-like eyebrows, another effective way of disarming potential antagonists. He dressed impeccably, generally wearing a bow tie as the marker of an architect (one of the two graduate degrees he earned at Yale). In many ways, he was a throwback to less troubled times, a cosmopolitan gentleman among philistines.
Beginning his career as an intern in the office of Philip Johnson, Garvin quickly realized that his interests were broader than those of most architects, so he went back to school to study urban design and planning, then to Paris to absorb what he had learned in the most elegant city in Europe. Afterward, he was fortunate to secure a position in the John Lindsey administration, which had one of the nation’s most progressive planning staffs during the 1960s. During that tumultuous decade, he saw hardball politics up close and got to know all of the major players in the city’s development community. When Ed Koch was elected in 1977, he wisely chose Garvin as his city planning director. The seasoned planner saw New York through more than a decade of challenges over crime, decaying parks, clogged streets, and zoning battles, particularly on the Upper West Side. When he returned to private practice, he was sought out as an expert on all kinds of urban issues. He wrote two of his books using case studies from those experiences and continued teaching at Yale.
The titles of his books give an accurate picture of Alex’s down-to-earth point of view: The American City: What Works, What Doesn’t; What Makes A Great City; Parks, Recreation and Open Space: A Twenty-First Century Agenda. Written for a nonprofessional audience, they explained things their author found sensible, effective, and ultimately realizable in the current world. They were pragmatic, not dogmatic. While acknowledging that planners are “in the change business,” he believed they should provide only a road map, leaving the city’s leaders and developers to do the hard work of making things happen. Perhaps because he saw the inner workings of New York real estate and development, he made no bones about horse trading and compromising when necessary.
When we convened in the early 2000s I thought that Alex would hang up his gloves and get out of the game—he could well have retired with a pension and lived a comfortable life, but fate intervened. New York was competing to host the 2012 Olympic Games, and Michael Bloomberg chose him to head the effort. By all accounts, he went well above what was expected, though ultimately London won out as a venue. Several of his proposals for redevelopment went ahead despite this, and so he continued his record of successful projects, surpassing the accomplishments of Ed Logue, Elizabeth Barlow, and a host of other, better-known New Yorkers.
His crowning achievement came near the end of his life, after the city lost its twin towers in the 9/11 attacks. Daniel Liebeskind’s controversial vision for the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site was caught on the rocks of bureaucratic delays and political infighting between state and local officials. Developers were impatient for building to begin. Keystone projects such as the transit hub and a cultural center were taking longer than expected and exceeding their budgets. As the huge development looked as if it might go off the rails, Alex was brought in as a fixer. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, which controlled the planning, hired him to keep the project rolling in 2002, a tipping point.
Already cast off by the Port Authority were some of the big names in urban design: Beyer Blinder Belle, Peterson/Littenberg, and Cooper/Robertson. Liebeskind’s Freedom Tower was scrapped by Larry Silverstein, the developer who owned the site. Garvin would need to work with a group of often-hostile architects, landowners, and planning officials. He convinced all of them to retain Liebeskind’s master plan, while reining in the bickering architects who were designing the towers on the major blocks. In addition, Silverstein relinquished ownership of the One World Trade site in return for bond financing of several other projects. Paul Goldberger credits Alex Garvin with saving the integrity of the competition winning design and pushing individual projects toward completion. They are, alas, far from finished today.
I made the bold assertion that this extraordinary man was the most effective and, ultimately, the most consequential molder of New York City’s fabric since Moses. Though he did not part the waters, Alex Garvin had the equivalent power and used it judiciously when his people needed him.
Featured image of Garvin via Yale School of Architecture.