Dan Biederman: “If You Try to Change Things, You Get Opposition”

The Bryant Park lawn, 2010. Dan Biederman says opposition to the private management of a public park in the 1980s was more vociferous than the opposition encountered by NYC DOT’s Midtown street reclamation projects today. Photo: Ed Yourdon/Flickr

Here’s the second installment of Streetsblog’s interview with Dan Biederman, head of the 34th Street Partnership and the Bryant Park Corporation. In the first part of the interview, Biederman discussed reactions to NYC DOT’s recent public space projects on Broadway, and why the reality on the ground is much better for Midtown than most press accounts have let on.

Ben Fried: Do you see any similarities between the changes happening to Midtown streets now and the restoration of Bryant Park 25 years ago?

Dan Biederman: Oh yeah. [With Bryant Park] it was outright opposition from the left, mainly saying the idea of private financing and management of public parks was undemocratic and unnecessary and the like.

I think there will be a time in the next three to five years when people will look back and say, how could we have been so opposed to that change?

So if you try to change things, you get opposition. Today it’s probably broader but less vociferous. We had a narrow group of opponents and they were vociferous. You would have thought the world would come to an end if a different approach would be tried at Bryant Park.

I sent [Janette Sadik-Khan] an email once when she was really under attack saying sometimes you just have to live through these things when you’re a change agent. And she knows that. She’s a strong person. It’s been good. I keep saying to people that this team is absolutely terrific. I’ve worked with DOT since 1980. This is the best the agency’s ever been by far.

BF: What sets them apart?

DB: Her accessibility. Making deadlines. Meeting deadlines. Looking abroad for models. Something this city doesn’t do enough of. I do it a lot. I’ve always complained New Yorkers think all the wisdom in the world is in these 13 square miles. To the point where when I did Bryant Park I had a Boston architect, a Philadelphia landscape architect, a Philadelphia adviser. The only New York people were Holly White and Hugh Hardy. But I had people from Boston and Philadelphia making the initiative and everybody said, “You don’t have to go to those cities for expertise. We have all the expertise you’ll need in New York.” It’s ridiculous.

So yeah — accessibility, meeting deadlines, models from abroad, just a mid-agency management strength. Rational answers come back. They’re really trying to improve the city, and I think in the end – I think there will be a time in the next three to five years when people will look back and say, how could we have been so opposed to that change? I don’t expect whoever the next mayor is to reverse this. I can’t imagine it.

BF: Do you think there’s something missing from how they’re trying to communicate?

DB: It seems like they don’t have that many testimonials, and they could do that, but it’s not too common to have somebody come in and endorse from other cities.

I tell you — and this is in other cities too — the first comment anybody makes to me when I start consulting on a park in another city is, “We adore Bryant Park. Were you involved in there? We think it’s great, incredible what you did. This is not Bryant Park.”

Everywhere’s provincial. They all apologize for it but then they proudly say, “We’re a provincial town. You’ve got to appeal to our ideas.”

And I say — privately I say – that’s not a very constructive position because all the tools in Bryant Park work anywhere, every one of them: movable chairs, private financing, programming in off hours, gorgeous restrooms. There is nothing that is New York-specific about that. So why would you lecture me about how this park needs different treatment. They’re not talking about “this is a 900 acre park so that’s why Bryant Park doesn’t work in it.” These are parks that are very similar. “This park is not Bryant Park.” So New York does the same thing.

BF: What do you think is behind that? Is it just nativism?

DB: The funny thing is after they do that, when we’re having dinner or something, they’ll say, “This is a very provincial town.” I’ll say, “Every town is provincial. “

You have no idea. Boston – my father was a Bostonian and I lived in Boston for two years and my son lives there now. I’m really a quarter Bostonian person. They just – if you haven’t been there for forty years living and working in the city, you’re a foreigner. It is very provincial. Philadelphia’s very provincial. Everywhere’s provincial. They all apologize for it but then they proudly say, “We’re a provincial town. You’ve got to appeal to our ideas.”

BF: I was down in Manhattan Beach covering a public meeting on a bus rapid transit project for Nostrand Avenue and what they said was, “You know the project that they did in the Bronx, Fordham Road? That’ll work in the Bronx but Brooklyn is different. It’s not going to work here.”

DB: You want to know the ultimate of that? Movable chairs. We did a block from Times Square five years before Times Square was civilized. We started movable chairs in Bryant Park in 1992. Times Square was a disaster. People – criminals – went to work in Times Square and went right through Bryant Park on their way. They’d get out of the subway and go over to Times Square to commit crimes. We lost no chairs. As Holly Whyte predicted we wouldn’t.

And I went all over the United States advising, “You need to have movable chairs and tables in your park.” And people said, “Well that may have worked in New York but it won’t ever work here.”

I said, do you realize what you’re saying? We were one block from the most dangerous block in New York and maybe America and it worked perfectly fine there, but you’re telling me in Providence or Richmond or Pittsburgh or Baltimore, you’ve got a more dangerous environment? This is crazy. New York was dangerous. This worked. We created social order there. We can do it here. That’s provincialism. But everybody’s provincial, as they say.

BF: So when you travel these days then, and you’re consulting in other cities, are other cities interested in street reclamation projects?

DB: Philadelphia definitely is. I’m up in Boston a lot. I saw something in the Globe that suggested that Menino might be moving in this direction. I think there’s a network of [bike] lanes that he was working on. Dallas. It’s such an auto city but they’re just starting to get it and one of the things that’s influential is a rail trail – Katy Trail – that’s very successful. They absolutely love it. So I think that’ll come.

Where else? Pittsburgh, not too much yet. Newark, not too much yet. Newark has these suburban drivers coming in and it has much too much street width. Broad Street. I don’t know if you know Newark but Broad Street is much too wide. We’ve said it to the mayor’s people. We work closely with them. They’re terrific. And I think that there’s a chance it’ll move in that direction. Miami, nothing that much yet in Miami. Atlanta, nothing that much yet although they’re talking about streetcars and the BeltLine.

BF: Does it feel like what’s happening here is expanding the realm of possibility in these other cities?

DB: Yep. Especially the walkable cities. That’s good.