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Yale 62

New York Times obituary

Alexander Garvin, Who Reimagined Ground Zero, Is Dead at 80

Architect, author, Yale academic and City Hall planner, he directed the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site and helped plan a New York City Olympics.

Alexander Garvin, a city planner, architect and author who directed the planning for the former World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan after the Sept. 11 attacks and developed the vision for a 2012 Olympics proposal in New York, died on Friday at his home in Manhattan. He was 80.

His brother and only immediate survivor, George Garvin, confirmed his death but did not specify a cause.

Mr. Garvin worked under five New York City mayors, beginning in 1970 with the administration of John V. Lindsay, where he was director of housing and community development for the city planning department. Under Mr. Lindsay’s successor, Abraham D. Beame, he was deputy commissioner of the Housing and Development Administration.

He was then director of comprehensive planning for the city under Mayor Edward I. Koch and later appointed by Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani to the New York City Planning Commission, remaining in that role until 2004. He worked closely with Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg on the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation.

Mr. Garvin was a consultant on urban development for several cities, including Atlanta, where from 2004 to 2005 he played a key role in the creation of the BeltLine, a series of parks along a former rail corridor that he considered the most significant public space he had helped create.

He wrote several books on cities, including “The American City: What Works, What Doesn’t,” first published in 1996. That book’s blunt title was typical of Mr. Garvin, who had no patience with urban planning dogmas that reduced cities to all-encompassing formulas. To him, cities were more than physical plans, and their forms inevitably resulted from myriad political, social, economic and aesthetic forces. It was the planner’s job, he believed, to manage and guide these forces and to target crucial public investments that would spur private development.

“The public realm,” he said, “is the framework around which everything else grows.”

“Urban planning should be defined as public action that will produce a sustained and widespread private market reaction,” Mr. Garvin wrote. “While urban planners are in the change business, it is others who will make that change: civic leaders, interest groups, community organizations, property owners, developers, bankers, lawyers, architects, engineers, elected and appointed public officials — the list is endless.”

His determination to recognize the diversity of players in what he would call, in the title of another book, “The Planning Game(2013), formed the basis of the course he taught for 55 years at his alma mater, Yale University.

The course entailed a series of games he devised in which students spent the term playing out a real estate scenario, such as developing a suburban shopping center or an urban redevelopment project or converting an old industrial area to new uses. He assigned students to play roles, such as real estate developer, architect, public official or a citizen protesting a project. Several prominent planners, including Joseph Rose, who headed the New York City Planning Commission under Mayor Giuliani, and Con Howe, the former planning director of the City of Los Angeles, studied under Mr. Garvin.

A cheerful man, who often dressed in a bow tie and obsessed over the cityscape wherever he was, Mr. Garvin insisted on taking almost all the photographs for his books and traveled around the world to see firsthand the places he wrote about.

Trained as an architect, he was skeptical of the ability of buildings alone to remake cities. The key to a successful city, he believed, was a vibrant, active downtown with lots of public space, usually made possible by public investment, and a healthy mixture of residents, commercial activity, culture, restaurants, parks and transit.

In his book “What Makes a Great City” (2016), Mr. Garvin used Bilbao, Spain, as an example, taking issue with the argument that Frank Gehry’s celebrated Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, which opened in 1997, had single-handedly turned the city around. He argued that the city’s decision years before to invest in a new transit system, decontaminate its polluted river and build waterfront parks made the Gehry building possible. The Guggenheim was the culmination of a much deeper revival, not the start of it, he wrote.

Alexander Garvin was born in New York on March 8, 1941, to Jacques and Margarita Garvin. His father owned Claridge Food Company, a canned goods producer, and his mother was a designer and ceramist. He grew up on the Upper East Side and would live for the rest of his life within a few blocks of his childhood home, though he prided himself on knowing almost every section of all five boroughs.

New York taught him, he would say, that cities work best when they are both dense and diverse and have ample public space. He saw Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the designers of Central Park, as heroes. He walked through the park daily until a few weeks before his death.

After graduating from the Riverdale Country School in the Bronx, he went to Yale, where, he recalled, a roommate gave him a copy of a newly published book called “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” by Jane Jacobs, an attack on the belief that troubled downtowns were best fixed by demolishing and rebuilding them.

Mr. Garvin liked Jacobs’ argument that cities were subtle and resilient, and that it often made more sense to improve what was there than to replace it. He decided, he said, to become an architect who would focus on cities, not individual buildings. He moved to Paris after getting his undergraduate degree and spent two years working with French architects before returning to complete graduate work. In 1967, he became the first student at the Yale School of Architecture to complete a joint degree in architecture and urban studies.

Armed with his degree, he took a job in New York with the office of the architect Philip Johnson, an experience that confirmed he was interested less in designing single buildings than in thinking about how they fit together to make cities. He accepted a part-time appointment at Yale in 1967 and began teaching his course, “Introduction to the Study of the City,” which would continue in various forms until he stepped down last year.

His frustrations with architectural practice, as well as his increasing awareness of the large role that zoning laws and planning regulations played in determining what got built, led Mr. Garvin to enter the public sector as a planning official under Mayor Lindsay. He also began a part-time career as a real-estate developer, rehabilitating older buildings in Queens and later investing in projects in Manhattan.

Part municipal government insider, part academic, part developer, he was nevertheless relatively little-known until 1995, when his first book was published and read by Daniel Doctoroff, an investment banker who believed that bringing the Olympics to New York would be central to reviving the city.

Mr. Doctoroff asked Mr. Garvin to help develop a plan for the Olympics, and Mr. Garvin — who generally preferred opera to sports — found himself in the spotlight as he put together a proposal for an Olympic stadium on the site of what is now Hudson Yards in Manhattan, an Olympic village along the Queens waterfront, and numerous facilities by noted architects. His proudest accomplishment was what he called the “Olympic X,” a system that called for athletes to be transported along the city’s waterways and through its transit system.

Although the 2012 Olympics was awarded to London in 2005, many aspects of Mr. Garvin’s plan were executed, including the development of the Queens waterfront.

In 2002, he took a two-year break from his Olympics work for an even more visible position as director of planning for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the agency that oversaw the rebuilding at the World Trade Center site. There he successfully encouraged the adoption of the architect Daniel Libeskind’s plan for the sixteen-acre site, and made certain that Greenwich Street, a major north-south route that had been blocked by the original World Trade Center, would be reopened.

It was a complex political battle, and it reminded Mr. Garvin, he later said, of the games he devised for students in his Yale course.

“I am now living in the middle of the most complicated game of all,” he said of planning the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan. “Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine a game that would be like this one.”

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