When Amanda M. Burden’s stepfather, William S. Paley, built the vest-pocket park that bears his name on East 53rd Street, he saw to it that the four wide stone steps from the street, each only five inches high, stood as an invitation to enter.
Those steps “are just perfect,” Ms. Burden recently recalled her mentor, the urban scholar William H. Whyte, telling her. “It makes you want to skip into that park.”
It is that kind of meticulous focus on the details that Ms. Burden inherited from Mr. Paley, the tycoon who built CBS, and is now using to profound effect in subtly reshaping New York through her role as city planning commissioner.
Whether walking up and down 368 blocks in Jamaica, Queens, to see which streets can accommodate 12-story buildings, or grabbing a tape measure from her desk to set the dimensions of seating in public plazas across the city, Ms. Burden is leaving an indelible legacy of how all five boroughs will look and feel for decades to come.
Ms. Burden, who swirled from Kennedy-era cotillions to Halston’s disco pad to the upper echelons of government, has used her power over land-use approvals to impose her own aesthetic sensibility on development projects.
Her approach emphasizes open space, continuous shop fronts, and the inclusion of trees and other elements that foster lively street life. It is visible, for example, in the small sidewalk cafes that are now permitted in much of Manhattan and in the wide ledges encouraging sitting that surround General Motors Plaza at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue.
But she has engendered the hostility of many developers and others tied to the city’s powerful real estate industry, who bristle at what they see as her micromanagement of the appearance and even the shape of their buildings, and feel pressured to use celebrity architects like Frank Gehry and Norman Foster for major projects. It is a testament to her influence that none of them would speak for the record, but interviews with nearly a dozen people who work in or with the real estate industry show that her approach is not always welcome.
Since her appointment in 2002 by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, Ms. Burden has played a powerful behind-the-scenes role in shaping plans at ground zero, in limiting the size of the Atlantic Yards development near Downtown Brooklyn, and in helping push through the High Line project, which will transform a disused rail bed into a linear park linking the West Village to the Far West Side.
She has overseen the biggest comprehensive planning effort since the citywide rezoning of 1961, encompassing nearly 4,500 blocks thus far, including a huge swath along the Williamsburg and Greenpoint waterfronts in Brooklyn, with at least 2,300 blocks more in the pipeline.
She has earned many admirers in planning circles, alon
g with detractors, and few would disagree that she is leaving her imprint on New York.
“She cares about each building and its details in a way that no other planning director has that I can remember, and I go back a long way,” said Jerold S. Kayden, director of the master’s program in urban planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. “She’s wise enough to recognize that what I would call small details or granular moves can either enhance or destroy a city. In a funny way she’s the curator of a living, breathing city.”
If New York is known among urban planners as a city that continually reshapes itself to suit the latest mercantile whims, Ms. Burden has shifted at least part of the focus to the people who live and work there.
There is a strong economic-development component to Ms. Burden’s focus on design — “I think that it makes the city young and exciting to see aggressive and innovative architecture,” she said, naming Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid and Thom Mayne as among her favorites. But her decisions are often guided by a more emotional sensibility and a belief that a city’s health can be measured by the vibrancy of its street life.
“Everything comes down to how it’s going to feel,” she said. “There isn’t very innovative architecture at Battery Park City,” whose design she oversaw as the lead planner. “But people like it because it feels good.”
At a meeting at her office recently to look over plans for new parks along the East River in Manhattan, she asked that some of the seating be arranged to allow for social interaction. And in a pending rezoning of 125th Street, because banks often close in the afternoon and deaden the stretches of street they occupy, she ordered that they be limited to a small vestibule for A.T.M.’s on the ground floor. The bulk of bank operations would instead be upstairs.
Although Ms. Burden, 62, clearly relishes her job, one she said she coveted for decades, her path to it was not entirely straightforward. She was born to the elite: a descendant of John Jay, the first chief justice of the United States; her father, Stanley Mortimer, was an heir to the Standard Oil fortune, and her mother, Barbara Paley, known as Babe, was one of Truman Capote’s exalted swans. Her most recent detailed financial disclosure forms, filed in 2005, put her net worth at more than $45 million, with the bulk of it reserved in trust for her children.