A Q&A with former New York City Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff

A Q&A with former New York City Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff

An interview with former New York City Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff
October 16, 2017

Dan Doctoroff, the former New York City deputy mayor for economic development and rebuilding under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is back with his new book, “Greater than Ever: New York’s Big Comeback.” Recounting his service during the first two terms of the Bloomberg administration, Doctoroff’s book is part memoir, part manifesto, and a story of New York City’s recovery following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that left the city in disarray. Joining City & State’s New York Slant podcast for a wide-ranging interview, Doctoroff discussed his failed bid for the city to host the 2012 Olympics, stadium deals and the lessons he learned along the way. This interview has been edited and shortened for clarity. You can listen to the full interview, here. 

RELATED: Excerpt: Bill de Blasio, the pragmatist?

C&S: Usually when ex-government folks write a book, it means they have something in mind for the future, whether it’s another run for political office or something else, so why put this together now?

DD: I never expected nor wanted to serve in government; it’s sort of an accident. As for why now, it’s been 10 years since I left City Hall and many of the things we worked on actually take years to unfold. Amongst this: the World Trade Center, Hudson Yards, the High Line. They take a long time to get done and then it takes a long time for the impacts to be felt. So it’s only now that we can look back and accurately assess with the benefit of time what we did well, situations where maybe it doesn’t work out exactly how we thought, to really understand the lessons. And the point of this book is not just to talk about New York’s recovery, but I think it’s also to provide lessons for other governments, other cities, about how to actually engineer the kind of growth that is necessary for them to be successful. I think it’s also less about me, maybe more about Mike Bloomberg and the administration as a whole – a great example of leadership, particularly in the wake of a crisis, but I think more broadly at a moment in time when we’re all exceedingly cynical about leadership and government. So I think for all of those reasons I decided to do this.

C&S: Given the challenge of recovering from Sept. 11, did you at any point sit down with Bloomberg and say, “What the hell have we walked into?”

DD: So the biggest adjustment was obviously 9/11, but 9/11 created an imperative, which was to rebuild the site itself. It also blew a hole in the city’s budget, so we came in with no money – in fact facing huge deficits as far as the eye could see – and then obviously dealing with the emotional fallout of 9/11, so none of that did we expect. We also didn’t completely appreciate how 9/11 could be the catalyst for the rethinking of the city as a whole.

Greater Than Ever: New York's Big Comeback by Dan DoctoroffC&S: When did you realize it was a catalyst?

DD: I began to recognize it in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and I’ll tell you why. By the way, the title of the book, “Greater than Ever,” echoes what Rudy Giuliani said literally on 9/11 that New Yorkers are not going to be intimidated by this; we’re going to rebuild the city and we’re going to make it greater than ever. So that really from day one, New Yorkers were committed to rebuilding and I think that added to it. It actually enabled us to do a lot of the things people were talking about for decades and generations, and gave people here the will to do things they couldn’t otherwise. I began to recognize that almost after 9/11. I was out talking about the Olympic bid, and I had gotten into this by starting the Olympic bid in 1996 and after 9/11, we stepped back and said, “Well, how is this going to impact the Olympic bid?” And what we found was that people were more committed to bidding for the Olympics than ever before, really out of pride. And I began to see even before Mike won the election, before Mike approached me about becoming deputy mayor, certainly before we took office, this could be a catalyst rather than simply a huge liability for us as we enter. It did however make things financially difficult and that, I think, is one of the really important lessons of the book is that we decided to go ahead with these incredibly ambitious initiatives despite the fact that we actually didn’t have any money and we were really creative in the way we created money for them.

C&S: With the Olympic bid, what is interesting is that you brought in so many interesting personalities to kind of help sell the bid, including Donald Trump. Someone told Trump that he wasn’t getting the bid to redevelop 2 Columbus Circle and after “The Apprentice” debuted, you wrote: “Next day, out of the blue, he called me just to tell me the ratings of the show. And for the next three weeks after, like clockwork, he called to report the ratings. I never understood why.”

DD: We now all know him better than we probably did back then, so it was probably some combination of boasting, and now by the way I couldn’t have been No. 500 on his list of people to call. So I was just stunned and it was literally the next morning. So that was part of it. And I think part of it was to let me know that he was really important and had a sizeable audience behind him, so a relatively subtle – for him – form of intimidation and beyond that I don’t really know. Look, we all have our views over what motivates him, I will say even though, I certainly have my own view of him, my relationship with him as you said when I was in City Hall was generally very constructive.

C&S: And he was helpful?

DD: Yes, I mean, the Olympic bid was really helpful. He made a video for us that we used when we competed against other cities and won the designation of U.S. candidate city in the Olympic committee. I’ll never forget what he said, part of the video was coming in and telling a group of people that New York can get it done. And, of course, the way he put it was distinctly Trumpian, “New York will get it done. We’ll do it so fast everyone’s heads will spin.” Billy Crystal, who also made that video presentation come alive, came out and asked people to imagine (the) New York Olympics in 2012 and he said, “I know Donald Trump does and how it would take place in the new Trump stadium.” So you know people don’t change, I think that is the lesson we learn as we all grow older.

RELATED: Bill de Blasio's revisionist history on education gains

C&S: For the Olympic bid, how disappointed were you that it failed? Because it wasn’t just the Olympic bid, you had a plan to redo the entire city because of the Olympics. What did we miss in making New York better than it is?

DD: Look, the insight I had when I was initially researching whether New York should bid for the Olympics was the Olympics and the process of bidding for the Olympics, the deadlines that it imposed, actually could be a unique opportunity for the city and a catalyst for getting things done on a deadline. Cities never have a deadline and those things drag on forever. The Olympic bidding process and hosting the Olympics could be a catalyst. So we developed a plan that looked at the five boroughs and areas underutilized, were unfit for (a) 21st century economy, and decided to put venues in those places, shining the Olympic spotlight on them, building plans for everyone, for those communities around them and then use those deadlines to move things forward much faster.

This was all five boroughs. Our plan was called the Olympic X Plan. All these venues along the waterfront, along the East River and Harlem going all the way to the Bronx and Staten Island, more or less along the train lines that went to Meadowlands, New Jersey, and through Manhattan, Hudson Yards, and out to Flushing Meadows. And those actually form an X if you know New York City. The inner section of that X – those two X’s – was going to be where the Olympic Village was at a site in Queens across (from) the United Nations. So what’s interesting is this catalytic effect worked exactly as we hoped. Hudson Yards on the West Side of Manhattan was the core part of the plan. The Olympic Village, obviously we never built the village, and after we lost the bid we purchased the property and it is becoming the largest, middle-income affordable housing development since the 1970s. Yankee Stadium, (the) Mets stadium, Downtown Brooklyn with the Barclays Center, the Greenpoint-Williamsburg waterfront, all of those were part of the Olympic plan. So all of them, using those Olympic deadlines, ended up happening. The one thing that didn’t end up happening was that we did not get the stadium done on the West Side. I’m sure that is a topic we can delve into. The other thing is that we didn’t have the Olympics, but we got the benefit from a physical perspective of having the Olympics, but not actually hosting them. You asked how I felt, I was devastated at the time. I spent 11 years of my life on this. A lot of people supported this. We had an incredible team. I think the benefit of having those deadlines for another seven years could have been a really good thing and it could have been an incredible celebration of what New York really is. I always saw in the Olympics a reflection of New York and I think New Yorkers generally did too.

C&S: Just for my curiousity, does Dan Doctoroff dust off the plan someday? You look at this plan and say it can be done?

DD: Virtually all of it, in one form was done. The Olympic Village is becoming this incredible housing development on the waterfront in Queens, so we went ahead and did it anyway. So I actually look at the Olympic bid now, with a benefit of a little more distance, as an incredible achievement because it was the catalyst to getting all of this stuff done that I don’t think could have happened. People had been talking about developing on the rail yards for 100 years. It was the site first proposed for the Yankees’ stadium in the 1920s. Not saying that was a good or bad idea, but people were talking about here in midtown Manhattan about what we should do with this thing producing nothing for the city. We got it.

C&S: There is an interesting part of your book where you even acknowledge that there is a lot of public criticism about using public money to fund stadiums, then you list the reasons why and that they don’t necessarily create jobs and how it's not a long-term investment for the city to make. But, obviously, the stadium deals that you cut used a good portion of public money.

DD: Well, actually, a reasonable amount. Our deals with the Mets, the Yankees, the Brooklyn Nets, and actually would have been the Jets was all the same, the city would have paid for the infrastructure and the team would have to paid for the stadium. But I think what is more important is that in each one of the cases, we didn’t just think about it as a stadium or arena in isolation. We built comprehensive plans in areas around them and saw the stadium as a component of a strategy. It wasn’t just, “Oh, let’s put the Barclays Center in the middle of Downtown Brooklyn.” There was a plan to rezone all of Downtown Brooklyn, transportation enhancement, open spaces, rezoning it for commercial and residential development.

Looking at Downtown Brooklyn today, I think everyone will agree that Barclays Center itself has been an incredibly valuable addition, but is part of a broader plan, not in and of itself. If all you’re going to do is plunk a stadium down in the middle of something, most likely it’s not going to have the impact you hope for. And we never thought about that. Around the Yankee Stadium, we redid the Bronx Terminal Market, which had been this wasteland on the waterfront that now produces about 2,500 jobs. We built park space there; we rezoned the area around the stadium itself. In Flushing, (we made) major investments in Flushing on the west side, extended the subway, rezoned the area, basically everything that is occurring there today is occurring on the other rail yard, other than the one the stadium was going to be on. Even there, by the way, for the stadium on the west side, I think I acknowledged now that maybe in retrospect, after we got the rezoning done in 2005, it would have been better to move it out to Flushing.

RELATED: A short history of Staten Island's mayoral candidates

C&S: How did you plough through the political posturing from all the people who were opposed because of public financing and say this is what we’re going to do?

DD: On day one almost, Mike Bloomberg canceled the letters of intent that Giuliani had with the Mets and the Yankees, saying that this was too expensive and we couldn’t afford them. So we set a tone literally from day one, by the way, at the same time, we cancelled a billion dollar subsidy for (the) New York Stock Exchange, which was going to build a building across the street, which we thought was crazy. So we set a tone that weren’t going to pay people to stay. I think that changed the dynamics with the teams, now we didn’t enter into real negotiations for a couple of years. We never did with the Mets until the stadium on the west side failed. But we also, by that point, had established a pattern and we did this with the Mets and the Jets – that we’re not going to pay for the stadium. We’ll only pay for the infrastructure, and in the context of a broader plan. I think the teams saw that we were both reasonable and that we’re consistent. And that defined the parameters with which we were going to negotiate. We also believed that the Yankees were never going to move, that never entered into our calculus at all.

C&S: In hindsight after 12 years, Bloomberg’s the only reformer New York City has had as a mayor, and that doesn’t mean I agreed with everything you guys did, because I didn’t. But, was the city’s increasing population attributable to the fact that New York became a city rising out of ashes like a phoenix after 9/11?

DD: I think the reason people came here is because they thought – and whether that is visitors or residents or it is jobs – came here because it was more attractive on any level they were evaluating on than other choices they had. And that’s what the goal is, as a policymaker, as somebody who sits in the city administration. Our job is to make this place as attractive as possible to as many people. I really think that is the measure of success and it’s almost like you are running a business, and who are your customers. In the case of a city, your customers are residents, their employers and the people who work for them, and their visitors.

C&S: As the city’s population grew, was there any thought about it becoming affordable for regular New Yorkers?

DD: I think what ended up happening was that the city grew so quickly because it was so appealing, and if I’m critical of anything we did is that we didn’t anticipate how quickly it would grow, so that supply and demand somehow got out of whack. It’s not that we didn’t try. Take for instance affordable housing, in December 2002 when the city was still on its heels and we had no money, we announced a historic affordable housing plan. We doubled down on it, and more than doubled down on it four years later. Bigger than (former Mayor Ed) Koch, at a time when nobody was calling for it and the housing advocates didn’t expect it, and we were very clever in financing it and the city just grew faster than we expected. We knew we had confidence and faith in the city. We did the right things, it just grew faster. By the way, its why I applaud Mayor de Blasio’s plan to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing. It’s not how much we did, but I think we need to step it up even more and that is hard thing to do but we have to try to make housing supply and demand balanced. The consequence of a city’s growth in terms of affordability has to be addressed.

C&S: What is your take on de Blasio’s first term as mayor?

DD: I want to give credit where it is due – universal prekindergarten, tons of credit. I applaud the housing plan, paid sick leave – stuff like that is all great. I do believe that in order to be progressive, and we viewed ourselves as a progressive administration, you still have to be prosperous. I do believe that many of the things we did in terms of building the economy of this city will undergird prosperity for generations to come. From that perspective, I do think that he is benefiting, and I do think we paved the way to be progressive. How you use the additional revenue you produce? That is a judgment that has to be made by every administration and City Council, obviously with the support of the people. But there is no way you can be progressive if you’re not prosperous. So you’re going to have generate money so you can pay for the things you need, to be compassionate and that is what I’m really proud that we did.

C&S: What does progressive mean to you?

DD: To me progressive means, in this city, we were recognizing that we are in this together and as a society to help those who need care. That definition of care is a broad one. To some people it might be affordable housing, education and health care, but we have an obligation to help people who need it. Progressive, to me, is a recognition of that and government plays a role in helping people who need it. That is a fundamental underpinning of progressivism from my perspective. We didn’t think that the answer to everything was the government. We didn’t think we should be a nanny state. We tried to find a middle way, to say that government plays a role when markets aren’t functioning, when the private sector can’t fill in the gaps. There is a need for a smart and competent government that is willing to invest wisely and we did that aggressively. I’m very proud of that.

City & State