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04.02.2008
NY's Next Builder
Divining Paterson's development agenda
Courtesy New York State

New York governors often build their legacies. Peter Stuyvesant established New Amsterdam, creating the foundation for modern-day New York. DeWitt Clinton opened the west via the Erie Canal. Al Smith ushered in the skyscraper age with the Empire State Building, and Nelson Rockefeller was master of the superblock. 

How New York’s 55th governor, David A. Paterson, joins the ranks of these builder-governors remains to be seen, especially given his relatively low profile on issues of development and infrastructure. Paterson’s first challenge, after negotiating the budget due April 1 that will determine much of his agenda, will be addressing the ongoing projects of his immediate predecessors. Two of George Pataki’s major New York City projects—the World Trade Center and Atlantic Yards—are plagued by delays and political wrangling. Others, particularly those on Manhattan’s West Side, were still-born, and this was largely where Eliot Spitzer had begun to focus his energies.

“These projects have been bungled for the last six or seven years,” said Assembly member Richard Brodsky, who chairs the Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions that oversees many such projects. “I don’t think you can predict how David will handle these things.”

Paterson surprised many when he threw his support behind New York City’s congestion pricing proposal on March 21, following a closed-door meeting with Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. The governor’s move bolstered the prospects of the all but moribund pricing plan, whose passage still requires the blessing of state and city officials. MTA director Elliot Sander told AN that passing congestion pricing was the authority’s first priority, which would then pave the way for the capital projects.

During his 22 years in public office, Paterson has had a hand in a number of projects, primarily in his home district of Harlem, and these shed some light on how he may approach the public realm.

In the early 1990s, while still an obscure state senator best known for his famous father Basil, also a former state senator, Paterson took a stand against two major projects, which showed his concern for the city’s deep African-American roots. The first involved Columbia University’s plans to replace the Audubon Ballroom where Malcolm X was assassinated with a biomedical facility; the school eventually won out, but only after agreeing to preserve almost half of the ballroom. The second concerned a new federal building on the site of a colonial-era burial ground for thousands of African Americans, both free and enslaved.

The federal government wanted to rush the excavation of the bones, saying it would cost millions of dollars to perform an extensive dig. Paterson held his ground, and not only were more than 400 bodies recovered, they were reinterred at an on-site memorial that opened last year. Rodney Leon, who designed the memorial, said without Paterson’s efforts, many New Yorkers would be blind to that historical moment.

“He felt it was extremely important for this site to be preserved,” Leon said. “He was willing to put his political capital on the line. It speaks to his commitment to this community and to New York City as a whole.”

The governor has not always been the staunchest preservationist. During the Audubon fight, Paterson founded a group called Landmarks Harlem, but the man he installed in 1995 to grow the group, Paul Brock, eventually bilked it of much of its funds, leading to its collapse. He also pushed for the creation of a school in a former nightclub and a minimum security prison for women in a row of brownstones, both of which preservationists opposed.

As lieutenant governor, Paterson was put in charge of a $1 billion upstate economic development package and a $1 billion stem cell research program, which he had championed in the legislature.

Congressman Gregory Meeks, who represents the Sixth District in Queens and has been friends with Paterson for decades, said he believed rebuilding the state’s flagging infrastructure would be a major priority. “Look at his district,” Meeks said. “You can see from the transformation of Central Harlem that he knows how to drive development. Now the entire state is his district.” 

MATT CHABAN
 

Matt Chaban