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April 20, 2010
by Rick Bell FAIA Executive Director AIA New York

First Deputy Mayor Patti Harris welcomed mayors from several U.S. cities to New York last Wednesday, April 13th, by offering to sell them the Brooklyn Bridge, a municipal asset whose value, she said, has been increased by adjacent design enhancements such as the Brooklyn Bridge Park. After brief introductions, including eloquent remarks by Ron Bogle, Hon. AIA, president and CEO of the American Architectural Foundation and Rocco Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, the First Deputy Mayor told those assembled for the meeting of the Mayor’s Institute on City Design (MICD) that “the choice of where to live has never been more critical.”

The MICD is a partnership of the NEA, the American Architectural Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors. At each of its meetings, mayors present to each other the major design challenges confronting their cities. Architects and designers join in to identify possible solutions and ways of proceeding, heightening the design consciousness of the elected officials in so doing. To this audience, Harris spoke of the success of the Bloomberg Administration in creating public spaces and physical amenities that are not just cosmetic improvements. Participants in the New York City session included Mayor Carl Brewer of Wichita, KS; Mayor George K. Heartwell of Grand Rapids, MI; Mayor Lori C. Moseley of Miramar, FL; Mayor Joseph C. O’Brien of Worcester, MA; Mayor Dayne Walling of Flint, MI; Mayor A C Wharton, Jr of Memphis, TN; and Mayor Jay Williams of Youngstown, OH.

Structural changes in New York, according to its First Deputy Mayor, include the reinvigoration and empowerment of the Art Commission as the Public Design Commission, and the creation of the Design and Construction Excellence Program led by the NYC Department of Design + Construction. Such initiatives show that New York City has “embraced good design, going beyond just new construction.” Governors Island, in particular, was singled out as the “jewel of the harbor” in the same week that Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Patterson announced the City’s new leadership in determining and managing its future.

Other achievements described included the creation of 693 acres of new parkland and the designation of more historic districts than in any prior administration. More than 100 rezoning actions have helped preserve neighborhoods and the 44 million square feet of commercial space in New York. The work of individual city agencies was spelled out in her remarks, intended largely for those coming from out of town who might not have noticed the DOT-created public spaces for pedestrians at Times Square and Herald Square. She spoke of the importance of culture to New York, saying that “cultural organizations contribute mightily to the quality of life in every neighborhood and are also large employers throughout the city.” Speaking more generally, she said that “our commitment is to go beyond business as usual and bring quality and commitment to the work of every city agency.”

Deputy Mayor Harris said that attention to design detail is important, that “sweating the small stuff matters not only in urban design, but even in the detailing of the full-length mirrors in the new Marriage Bureau.” Recalling her own marriage in the former facility in the Municipal Building, she said, “The Marriage Bureau used to be an experience brought to you by Franz Kafka, but now there are full-length mirrors.” She concluded by saying that there has been much discussion about the question: “What is the fate of commitment to good design during an economic downturn?” Responding to her own query she said: “The only answer it can be is that good design doesn’t have to be more expensive, it just has to be more good. In New York we’re investing for the long haul. The city will shine.”

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