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A Man with Plans
New York City Olympics planner Alexander Garvin has made a career of figuring out why some urban renewal efforts work and others don’t. And for two generations, he has taken Yale undergraduates along for the ride.

Things are heating up in Room 102 of Linsly-Chittenden Hall. Each of two rival mall developers is claiming to control a prime New Haven site. One group, STC Properties, boasts the support of “every elected official in New Haven,” and when the mayor is consulted, she confirms that she likes that group’s proposal enough to use the city’s power of eminent domain to wrest control of the site from the other developer, the Rouse Corporation. Seconds later, the city’s planning director confesses that he actually prefers the Rouse scheme, but that for political reasons, he must go along with the mayor’s wishes.

Alexander Garvin is amused. He turns to the mayor again. “Is he still your planning director,” he asks, “or did you just fire him?”


Welcome to “Introduction to the Study of the City,” a Yale College course that Garvin, an adjunct professor of urban planning and management, has taught every year since 1967. The contretemps is part of an elaborate role-playing game called “New Haven Mall Wars,” based in part on real events in the Elm City, where malls have been proposed in recent years downtown, at Long Wharf, and in Hamden. In the game, the mayor is actually a sophomore track star, and the planning director is a Stilesian from Oregon. The people playing the roles of developers, government officials, retailers, and bankers are all Yale students who have spent weeks caucusing and negotiating, trying to come up with credible proposals for a mall in New Haven.

“I’ve never had a class this intense,” says Adam Rein '03, who worked on one of the development teams. “I was getting about 30 e-mails a day.”

“It’s phenomenal real-world experience,” says E.B. Kelly '03.

The “real world” has always been the place where Alexander Garvin is most comfortable. A graduate of Yale College and the School of Architecture, he has spent his career practicing and preaching what might be called urban realpolitik. Garvin, who has worked in New York City government and as a real estate developer, is less interested in architectural theory or style than he is in the nitty-gritty of what makes a plan go: financing, political considerations, markets, and the design issues that affect the success of a project. “I don’t care whether something is modernist or neo-traditional,” he says. “The question is, does it work? Does it make life better?”

Paul Goldberger '72, who is the architecture critic for the New Yorker, says Garvin helped shape his understanding of the city. “The most important thing Alex Garvin did—and still does—is explain the realities of the world in a way that is not cynical, but as passionate and as full of belief as any aesthetician.”

Garvin’s pragmatic way of evaluating the success of an urban project frequently boils down to a phrase his students could recite by heart. Successful urban planning, he says, consists of “public action that will produce a sustained and widespread private market reaction.” So even if a publicly funded convention center, mall, or stadium is well used, it has not justified the use of public money unless it has helped to transform the area around it. And now, Garvin is trying out this idea on a monumental scale: As planning director for New York City’s bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games, he is overseeing the distribution of 25 sports venues around the city.

You wouldn’t immediately peg Garvin as a sports fan, and he volunteers cheerfully that he “couldn’t care less about sports.” Judging from the contents of his Upper East Side apartment (in the building that is seen in the opening credits of the 1970s television show The Jeffersons), art, opera, and architecture are more his speed. Garvin is an imposing man, 60 years old, whose careful dress and grooming indicate an eye for detail. (His bushy eyebrows—and an elegant mustache that once went with them—have long been a source of fascination for his students.) For him, the Olympic Games are less about sports than they are about a way to use bold planning to effect lasting change in the city.

Such thinking does not necessarily come naturally to a planner of his vintage. Garvin entered the planning profession in the late 1960s, a time when the discipline was just beginning a steep fall from grace. The post-World War II era had been a time of great faith in the ability of planners to remake old cities for the automobile age. In New York, Robert Moses ’09 had flattened neighborhoods to build freeways and public housing with almost unchecked power. And in New Haven, another Yale alumnus, Edward Logue ’42, ’47LLB, had overseen a similarly sweeping plan that was held up as a model for American cities. But by the time Garvin was a student, there had been a reaction against this cataclysmic approach to planning. The historic preservation movement gained ground after what was seen as the wanton destruction of New York’s Penn Station, and planners were beginning to recognize that the people who live in cities ought to have some voice in what is done to their neighborhoods. Since then, the rise of community groups as political forces, along with a wariness about repeating the mistakes of the 1950s and 1960s, has made large-scale planning difficult, if not impossible.

But Garvin says this attitude obscures the many cases where bold plans have had desirable results. “There are some examples of big plans that are clearly disasters,” he says, “but I’m not going to say that the work of Bernini or Napoleon III is not successful.” And while he is a supporter of the work of Yale-trained architects and urban designers Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, who have led the charge for a “new urbanism” based on prewar patterns of place-making, Garvin stops short of a full-scale endorsement. “Alex has always been able to look at ideas in ways that are supportive yet critical,” says Con Howe '72, planning director for the City of Los Angeles and a former Garvin student. “He has enough detachment to look at things with a clear vision instead of being totally immersed in one point of view.”

For example, while Garvin can be a sharp critic of the failures of modernist planning, he is quick to recognize places where such planning has worked. He cites the IDS Center in Minneapolis by Philip Johnson and John Burgee as an example: It features an enclosed, air- conditioned mall connected to a system of downtown skywalks—a plan that New Urbanists would say kills street life. “The rap on IDS was that it was International Style gone to seed,” says Garvin. “But when I went to see it, I found out that it works. Unless you go and see a place, you can’t know it.”

And Garvin makes a habit of going to see places. Whether on consulting jobs, speaking engagements, or research trips for his books, Garvin frequently visits cities large and small across the country, taking along his camera so he can report new discoveries in his slide lectures. Garvin also learns from his students, who bring knowledge of any number of places around the country. (In addition to playing the games in his class, students write term papers on their hometowns.) Once, after Garvin talked in class about a system of parkways in Kansas City, a native of that city challenged his assessment. Garvin later toured the city with the student and his father and revised his opinion. “He gets a footnote in my book,” says Garvin.

But the city that Garvin knows best is New York, a place he has never left for any appreciable amount of time except for his years at Yale. He lives not more than half a mile from where he was raised by Russian immigrant parents. (His late father was a businessman; his mother, who lives upstairs, is an artist.) The Garvins had lived in Europe after the Soviet revolution before coming to New York in 1939; Garvin says the only English his father knew when he arrived was “May I have a scotch and soda, please?” Garvin attended Riverdale Country Day School, then entered Yale with the Class of 1962. He majored in architecture, sang in the Russian Chorus, was tapped for the senior society Elihu, and saw himself on the road to becoming an architect. But in his senior year, his roommate gave him a Christmas gift that would change his life: a new book by Jane Jacobs called The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs’s enormously influential book combined an indictment of the excesses of modernist planning with insightful observations about what makes traditional cities desirable. “I was deeply affected by that book,” says Garvin.

He went on to get degrees in architecture and city planning from what was then the Yale School of Art and Architecture. After he graduated in 1967, he landed a job in the office of Philip Johnson—the dream of many an architecture student in those days. But Garvin says he wasn’t satisfied. “I decided I didn’t want to be an architect,” he recalls. “I didn’t know how two pieces of wood went together, and I didn’t want to spend my time on that. So I went to tell Philip I was quitting, and he said ‘I’ve been waiting for this for two months now. You should be doing more important things than what’s going on in my office.’” Garvin got a job in the administration of Mayor John Lindsay '44, ‘48LLB, who was advancing an ambitious agenda to confront what was seen as a crisis in American cities. Garvin happily immersed himself in the details of planning politics, and went on to serve as the city’s deputy housing commissioner and director of comprehensive planning over the next decade.

Meanwhile, Garvin had since his last year of graduate school been teaching at Yale. In the fall of 1967, he had been asked to do a college seminar on cities for Trumbull College. The course, already known as “Introduction to the Study of the City,” attracted 12 students.

“My first class was a disaster,” says Garvin. “My plan was to have everyone tell the class about themselves, which ended up taking only 17 minutes. I had slides, but the projector never arrived.” Garvin quickly recovered, though, and during that semester he created the first of the games for which his class would become known.

Con Howe, who took the course in its second year, remembers being assigned to interview merchants and property owners in the path of New Haven’s proposed Oak Street Connector. His job was to decide whether the freeway should be completed. “That emphasis on direct experience became very important to me,” says Howe. “Now, if I haven’t seen something and experienced it firsthand, I withhold judgment. We have all kinds of computer tools for modeling the environment, and that’s great, but what I learned from Alex is that you’ve got to get out on the streets and see for yourself.”

More than 30 years later, his class regularly attracts more than 100 students, and Garvin is still encouraging them to see things for themselves. Walking tours are part of the “Study of the City” syllabus, as are the role-playing games that let students experience the complex business and political negotiations behind urban development. Garvin encourages students in the role-playing exercises to interview their real-life counterparts in order to better understand their roles. And he frequently invites guests to talk to the class and play leading roles in the games. More often than not, the guests are “Study of the City” alumni. Garvin keeps tabs on the many former students who have gone on to careers in government, real estate law, development, architecture, and journalism. Among them are the planning directors of three major cities: Howe in Los Angeles, Joseph Rose '82 in New York City, and Hunter Morrison '70 in Cleveland.

In Howe and Morrison’s time, Garvin’s class was just one part of Yale’s growing interest in urban studies. Besides the School of Art and Architecture’s program in city planning (which was shut down in 1969 amid political turmoil), the College had an undergraduate major program from 1972 to 1977 called “Study of the City.” Garvin himself taught other courses and, while working in New York, helped oversee an internship program for Yale undergraduates. Recalls Morrison, who was one of those interns, “He was good at showing us his world, places like the Orchard Street market that a corn-fed kid from the Midwest wouldn’t be likely to see. He'd say to us, ‘You’ve never had a knish? We have to go down right now and get a knish.’”

But Yale’s urban studies program fell apart, and by 1977, the only item in the Blue Book under “Study of the City” was Garvin’s course. It has remained there ever since, an anomalous offering that belongs to no department. (Garvin answers directly to the Dean of Yale College, whose office funds the course.) Recently, there has been student demand for the creation of a new urban studies program. A faculty committee has been organized to publicize relevant courses in other departments and to plan a colloquium on urban studies for interested seniors. Garvin, meanwhile, has expanded his teaching to the School of Architecture and the School of Management.

As for the other four days of his work week, Garvin left city government in 1980 to enter the real estate business. He spent 15 years managing and renovating apartment buildings and converting rental units to co-ops. He left that business in 1996 and has since kept busy as a member of the New York City Planning Commission, as a consultant to urban planners working in cities ranging from Baton Rouge to Providence, and as an author. His book The American City: What Works and What Doesn’t, published in 1996, is a distillation of his pragmatic philosophy, outlining the necessary ingredients for the successful urban venture.

The book, Garvin says, grew out of his course at Yale. “I was frustrated because the material for the course was not available in one place.” Another book, Parks, Recreation, and Open Space: A 21st Century Agenda, was published this spring by the American Planning Association.

But the project that has engaged Garvin most in recent years is one that he calls “probably the best work I’ve ever done”: a proposal to hold the 2012 Olympic Games in New York City. A nonprofit group called NYC 2012 is spearheading the proposal under the direction of Daniel Doctoroff, a New York venture capitalist. Garvin says his involvement with the project began when Doctoroff saw his book in a Barnes & Noble. “He called me and told me he wanted to have the Olympics in New York. He asked me if it could be done, and I said ‘Of course.’ He asked me how we would do it, and I said ‘I have no idea.’”

For Garvin, the Games would be an opportunity to seed “private market reactions” in locations all over New York: a new stadium and public square on the West Side of Manhattan, 4,400 housing units on the East River in Queens, and other smaller projects. Skeptics worry that Olympic spectators would tie the city up in gridlock, but Garvin says that New York’s transit system already handles so many passengers that a half million more at off-peak times would be “no big deal.” The problem, he says, is that athletes and other participants can’t ride the subway between venues because of security concerns.

Garvin’s solution? A pair of dedicated transit lines that form an “Olympic X” and connect at the Olympic Village in Queens. One line would be a high-speed ferry moving from venues in the Bronx to those on Staten Island. The other would be a dedicated rail line going from the Meadowlands in New Jersey to Flushing Meadows in Queens.

The Olympic bid has a long way to go. Even in the United States, several cities are competing for the endorsement of the U.S. Olympic Committee, which will decide next year which city to support in the international selection process. The International Olympic Committee will make the final decision in 2005. But the proposal, which Garvin says is modeled on Barcelona’s use of the Games as a way of making civic improvements in 1992, is an example of the kind of big-idea planning that Garvin says shouldn’t be counted out in the rush to declare that small is beautiful.

Meanwhile, back in Garvin’s classroom, the New Haven mall war game continues. The developers have endured serious grilling from Garvin and his two guests, real estate attorney Meredith Kane '76 and architect J. B. Clancy '96MArch. (The three are portraying a committee that will recommend to the governor which proposal will get millions in state funding.) In the end, they decide that none of the mall proposals is viable enough politically for the governor to risk committing money, and suggest that the parties in real life would have to regroup and work out a compromise proposal.

The development teams are frustrated, but they’ve learned another lesson. Just as in the game, New Haven’s most recent mall proposal—a $500-million high-end development at Long Wharf—fell apart after years of planning, in part because of political considerations. The man whom Con Howe calls “Yale’s longest serving temporary professor” has showed them that in the planning business, events seldom have a neat conclusion.  the end


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