Donald H. Elliott, innovative urban planner, dies at 89

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Donald H. Elliott, innovative urban planner, dies at 89
Donald H. Elliott, the chairman of the New York City Planning Commission, in the 1970s. Elliott, who as chairman of the City Planning Commission in the late 1960s and early ’70s proposed a visionary master plan for New York, imposed innovative urban design standards for public and private projects, and enlisted local communities in government decision-making, died on Thursday, Dec. 23, 2021, at his home in Brooklyn. He was 89. Librado Romero/The New York Times.

by Sam Roberts

NEW YORK, NY.- Donald H. Elliott, who as chairman of the City Planning Commission in the late 1960s and early ’70s proposed a visionary master plan for New York, imposed innovative urban design standards for public and private projects, and enlisted local communities in government decision-making, died Thursday at his home in Brooklyn. He was 89.

His death was confirmed by his son Drew.

Elliott recruited a team of young progressive architects who were frustrated by decades of Robert Moses’ urban renewal by bulldozer diplomacy and by the city’s bureaucratic embrace of drab, Stalinesque architecture for public works. In so doing, he indelibly altered the cityscape.

He oversaw the establishment of special zoning districts that preserved midtown theaters, retailers on Fifth Avenue and the historic South Street Seaport from major development and helped deliver the final death knell for the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have skewered Greenwich Village, a last gasp for Moses as a city and state public-works power broker.

Under Elliott’s watch, owners of landmark buildings and other properties were granted more leeway to sell air rights —- the empty space above their existing buildings that they could have used under existing zoning laws. Owners can sell those rights to the developers of nearby properties, enabling them to construct a new building that is bigger than would otherwise be allowed.

He divided the city into 62 community districts and empowered local boards to conduct neighborhood-by-neighborhood planning. But he also overrode local opposition by seeking to scatter new housing for low-income tenants beyond the poor neighborhoods where they were concentrated.

To tamp down opposition from neighbors to one such project in Forest Hills, Queens, Elliott reluctantly agreed to a compromise engineered by Mario Cuomo, a local lawyer who would later become governor, that reduced the size of the project and transformed it into a cooperative where older people were given preference in getting apartments.

“We were interventionists,” Elliott recalled in an interview for the Museum of Modern Art in 1994. “That was a period when government was expected to make things better and was held to some responsibility for doing it.”

Victor Marrero, who was later chairman of the planning commission and is now a federal judge, said Elliott’s leadership “was remarkable for the sheer scope of its vision and ambition, admirable for the courage and independence he displayed, and extraordinary for the large imprint his legacy left on the city’s landscape.”

“He infused vast youthful energy (only 34 when he was appointed chair) into reforming the City Planning Department,” Marrero said by email. “To do so, he recruited an impressive cadre of young planners and architects from outside the framework of civil service, which meant making some bureaucratic interests very unhappy.”

Paul Goldberger, the former New York Times architecture critic, said in an email: “Donald Elliott was a realist who believed in making a more livable city, and he used inventive legal tactics to try to balance the forces at play in New York. New York’s entire approach to planning changed, and he played a key role in almost every innovation.”

Donald Harrison Elliott was born on Aug. 20, 1932, in Manhattan to Harrison Sackett Elliott, a professor of religious education and psychology at Union Theological Seminary, and Grace (Loucks) Elliott, the national president of the YWCA.

After graduating from the New Lincoln School in Manhattan, he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1954 from Carleton College in Minnesota and a law degree in 1957 from New York University.

In 1956, he married Barbara Ann Burton; she died in 1998. In addition to their son Drew, he is survived by two other sons, Steven and Douglas, and six grandchildren.

A Reform Democrat, Elliott was an urban renewal administrator on the Upper West Side in the early 1960s. He worked on the successful 1965 mayoral campaign of John Lindsay, a liberal Republican congressman from Manhattan, after specializing in land-use regulation in Lindsay’s law firm. He then handled the transition from the administration of Mayor Robert Wagner and oversaw antipoverty and housing programs for the new mayor until he was appointed to the planning commission and named director of the City Planning Department in November 1966. He served until 1973.

In that position, he established an urban design task force composed of several architects — Jaquelin T. Robertson, Richard Weinstein, Myles Weintraub and Jonathan Barnett — that Lindsay authorized to “advance the cause of aesthetics in every area the Planning Commission can influence, from street signs to skyscrapers.”

In 1972, Elliott helped negotiate the federal government’s acquisition of the Gateway National Recreation Area in New York Harbor, which helped preserve Jamaica Bay and other natural sites that the deficit-ridden city could no longer afford to maintain adequately.

In 1974, he ran an unsuccessful campaign for Congress as the Democratic and Liberal Party candidate from the district that included his home in Brooklyn Heights. He later served as chairman of the New York Urban Coalition and counsel to the Trust for Cultural Resources of the City of New York. He was also a prominent land-use lawyer and counsel to the firm of Bryant Rabbino in Manhattan.

Under Elliott, the city finally completed the master plan that had been mandated under the 1938 City Charter and was also required in the 1960s to qualify for federal funding for public housing.

The Plan for New York City stated that jobs were available in the city, but that not enough people were trained or educated to fill them; that not only was more housing needed, but living conditions also needed improvement; and that communities needed to be more involved in the process of government decision-making.

“In the ’60s, government was expected to make society better and everybody believed it could do so,” Elliott told The Times in 1987.

That was true up to a point — which proved that for a visionary, he was also a pragmatist.

“We are, in sum, optimistic,” the plan concluded. “But we are also New Yorkers. We cannot see Utopia. Even if all of these recommendations were carried out, if all the money were somehow raised, 10 years from now all sorts of new problems will have arisen, and New Yorkers will be talking of the crisis of the city, what a near hopeless place it is, and why doesn’t somebody do something.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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