He cannot help himself: In the small Lower
Manhattan Development Corporation (lmdc) office, Alexander Garvin is ever
the professor. In the conference room, Garvin, Vice President for Planning,
Design, and Development at the lmdc, gestures out the glass window overlooking
Ground Zero. He could be pointing at a chalkboard as he traces his finger
in the air along the subway platform that will someday stand next to the
footprints of the Twin Towers. The view is like a slide in one of his classes,
only the buildings and the people swarming below are in the here and now.
Sporting his characteristic bowtie, which mirrors the symmetry of his equally
distinctive, flyaway eyebrows, Garvin demonstrates how to look critically
at Lower Manhattan. For Garvin the act of teaching never ceases, which is
ironic since he never intended to teach (or become a public official for
that matter, though he also serves on the New York City Planning Commission).
"I was convinced I would be an architect and that life would be very
simple," Garvin says, "My life did not turn out that way."
Life has not been simple, in part because Garvin is also an Adjunct Professor
of Urban Planning and Management at Yale, teaching courses in Yale College
and the School of Architecture. Garvin’s occupations often coincide, however;
as a guiding force at the lmdc, he is responsible for hiring the staff-one
third of whom are Yale graduates. Among the staffers with Yale dipomas are
Brandon Smith, Hugh Eastwood, Brett Rubin (who all graduated in the last
three years), and five others, including two lmdc vice presidents and one
board member. The large number of Yalies on the staff is a joke around the
office, repeated enough that it almost seems serious. Says eb Kelly, a Yale
senior who worked as an intern under Garvin this summer, "No one will
rat us out until we redevelop Lower Manhattan in the shape of a big y."
The coterie of Yale graduates helping to make this possible are all "Garvinistas,"
as the professor’s disciples are affectionately called. The label comes
from a baseball cap Garvin wears on occasion, with "Soy un Garvinista"
across the front. A present from a former student, the hat provides a name
which sticks to Garvin as steadfastly as Yalies do. But the number of former
Yale students Garvin employs stands in stark contrast to the corporation’s
democratic intentions. The lmdc was formed after September 11th by Governor
George Pataki and Mayor Rudy Giuliani "to oversee and coordinate the
revitalization and rebuilding of Lower Manhattan south of Houston Street."
A central factor in their mission is a commitment to an "open and inclusive
public process." (Garvin would be sure to add dedication to skillful
planning and innovative design. In his words, "This is New York. Nothing
less is acceptable.") In fact, the future of Lower Manhattan seems
not to rest in the hands of the public but in the laps of a hand-picked
group of Ivy-Leaguers. Yet, while Garvin’s reliance on his Yale connections
may have undermined the project’s initial mission, in the end it just might
The attraction between Yalies and Garvin is
mutual: He can’t stay away from them either. "Garvin insisted on continuing
his teaching when he took on the Lower Manhattan project," said Yale
college Dean Richard Brodhead, "and I’m pleased that he has found so
much talent for this project in the Yale ranks." Garvin, who began
teaching at Yale immediately after completing his third Yale degree-he graduated
from Yale College in 1962 and received degrees in Architecture and Urban
Studies in 1967-has not missed a year since. This year, even with his added
involvement in the lmdc, has been no exception.
Working with a familiar staff of Yalies, Garvin has created an extension
of his classroom. "Thank God!" he exclaims, "New Yorkers
are getting their money’s worth, and more." Because his students have
learned firsthand from Garvin the inner workings of urban planning, Garvin
does not have to train them on the job. As a result, the lmdc runs efficiently.
The Yale-laden infrastructure of the lmdc is as functional and well crafted
as Garvin’s vision for a 21st Century Manhattan.
Garvin’s students, in turn, are grateful for the exposure to the world
of high-powered urban planning. Kelly remarks that Garvin is an institution
unto himself, and Smith calls him a "black hole of movers and shakers"
in the urban planning world. The sheer number of people who are both "magically
very powerful and successful in urban planning" and have an affiliation
with Garvin boggles Smith’s mind. And it is decidedly so: A colleague of
Garvin’s from the Yale School of Architecture, David Childs, is currently
redesigning the Art and Architecture building on the Yale campus. Childs,
along with the designer of the new History of Art building, Richard Meier,
is among six finalists selected by the lmdc to participate in a design study
of the World Trade Center site.
While bringing Yale to the lmdc is an effort of Garvin’s that Smith characterizes
as "very conscious," it is also one that Kelly feels is ultimately
irrelevant. For her, the Yale connection just means Garvin knows what each
employee is good at, and is able to organize tasks accordingly. For this
reason, she feels she was given more responsibility this summer than she
would have been given at another internship. It may seem that Garvin, by
hiring his former students, has created an environment where his ideology
is rarely challenged. Garvin counters without hesitation that he chooses
only the best people for the job.
In keeping with the lmdc’s "open and inclusive" approach, the
community does have a great deal to say about the goings-on in Lower Manhattan.
"My fellow citizens want their city back, and they want it back now,"
Garvin says. Thanks to the lmdc ‘s website, where the public continues to
register thousands of comments, and to an ongoing process of public hearings,
Garvin and his colleagues at the lmdc receive constant feedback. Finally
able to participate in the redevelopment process, however, the public found
they could only respond to plans that had already been conceived. At times,
the community’s ideas have departed radically from the six conservative
models presented in the lmdc’s Preliminary Urban Design Study, suggesting
that public comment should have been solicited earlier in the process.
A common criticism was the general lack of innovation and boldness in the
designs. Among the dissenting voices was The New York Times’s architecture
critic Herbert Muschamp, who wrote in July that "as a starting point
for public discussion, the plans have little to recommend them." Muschamp
criticized the lmdc itself for its "breathtaking determination to think
small." Even Eastwood, who helped produce the study, identifies with
this disapproval. "Putting out four of the first six plans hurt my
heart," he says. Smith agrees, and goes on to say that the lmdc needed
to tread lightly in its conception of the first six plans, since accommodating
all the participating interests seemed nearly impossible. Some, like Smith,
think building the tallest building in the world would be the best approach
to redevelopment; others want the footprints of the Twin Towers left untouched.
Garvin certainly recognizes the variety of players with a stake in the redevelopment
process-not only those with significant financial interests, the list of
which is long and varied, but also members of the public. "They have
a great deal to say about where we go," Garvin says, "Is it bolder
designs? We bring them bolder designs. Is it something in the skyline? We
get them something in the skyline." Garvin understands that there would
have been criticism no matter what was first put on the table. "This
is New York, that’s what you do."
While staffers like Eastwood note the initial sting of negative criticism,
Rubin reiterates that the lmdc’s all-inclusive planning process "is
the right thing to do If we received only one great idea from public
input that would not have otherwise been realized in closed-door sessions,
then it was all worth it." Garvin adds, "Serious citizen participation
in planning is essential. The trouble is that democracy is a messy
business. It takes time and patience." He yields (a rare occurrence)
to Churchill: "Democracy is the worst form of government-except for
all the others." Nonetheless, the feedback Rubin and Garvin discuss
came after the plans had already been conceived. The public could only respond
to these final proposals.
Garvin takes the recent criticism in stride, however, exhibiting a buoyancy
that Kelly describes as "resilient" and "optimistic."
This outlook, which may yet restore integrity to the project’s democratic
intentions, Garvin ironically attributes to his years in the Ivory Tower.
It was at Yale that he feels he developed a "willingness to listen
to people who think differently than myself, to argue and to disagree, but
to value what they had to say as something that might be as valid as what
I have to say." And listen he did when he heard that designs weren’t
inventive enough. "We hired half a dozen new design teams," Garvin
says, "who are going to provide, I hope, some of that boldness."
In light of this, even Muschamp seems to have backed off from his earlier,
harsher remarks. He wrote on October 1, "If the public keeps its eye
on the ball, the Development Corporation’s latest effort could change the
course of cultural life in New York." That is precisely what Garvin
intends to do.
He envisions a 21st century downtown where people not only work, but also
live and hang out, and the market-driven policies he advocates support this.
He adheres to this philosophy because it works; he is not interested in
idealistic or utopian visions. Understandably, on this front, there is little
dissent from his former students now at the lmdc. As Eastwood says, "planning
involves the real, the possible, not the utopian."
Similarly, Garvin’s genius, which lies in combining architecture and planning,
presupposes "a rejection of utopian dreams and the insistence of looking
at daily life in neighborhoods." Garvin draws a stark line between
his two disciplines, saying, "Great architecture has nothing to do
with planning." He promised early on that there would be great architecture
on the World Trade Center site, but "planning," he says, "is
a completely different function." The distinction between the two is
one which he believes is often unappreciated by the public and the press.
"The public demands great architecture," he says. New Yorkers
clamor to have their skyline repaired. They want tangible and immediate
evidence of progress. But, in urban planning, progress happens over the
course of time, in complex stages that are decidedly less immediate. It
is here that Garvin’s dual lines of work reinforce one another. He takes
care of what people don’t know they need in order to give them what they
want. He has taught his students to do the same. As Rubin says, "Especially
with the monumental task ahead of us with the World Trade Center site, planning
and design need to exist hand in hand."
Sitting in his office, Garvin recalls his
high school prom in New York. At two in the morning, he stood at the base
of the Seagram Building on Park Avenue, looking up at 38 floors advancing
skyward, absolutely straight. This was the building that most impressed
Garvin. Reminiscent of the Twin Towers, the Seagram Building is a glass-covered,
high-rise office building in midtown Manhattan. "Wow," Garvin
remembers thinking, "How could somebody do that?"
Today, Garvin can imagine people looking at what he does, at the level
of responsibility he carries on a daily basis, and asking a similar question.
For Garvin, though, it is just what he does. He must fulfill his duty to
his fellow citizens, who "aren’t going to tolerate waiting around until
there is a consensus," he says. But like the Seagram Building, which
was three decades in the making, rebuilding Lower Manhattan will take time.
And now Garvin faces further delays which could have been avoided by soliciting
public comment earlier. Still, he moves forward with confidence. Once completed,
the Seagram Building was an instant classic. Garvin believes that another
will rise out of Lower Manhattan.
Emily Lodish is a senior in Timothy Dwight College.