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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Daniel Biederman

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-01-26

Call Daniel Biederman an urban planner, and you'd be right. You'd also be right if you called him a proselytizer for the private sector. And you'd be right if you called him an aficionado of New York City's architecture.

You'd be right if, most of all, you called him a rehabilitator of neighborhoods.

"Each time I look at a street, or any public space, I think of how it could be improved," the executive director of the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation said yesterday. "Here's my formula for a space - it must be clean, it must be safe, and it must look good."

He successfully employed that formula as co-founder of the Grand Central Partnership, rejuvenating 76 million square feet of commercial space in a 68-block area around the bustling terminal.

The formula was also used by Mr. Biederman to revive Bryant Park in 1980, making it into what he says is the world's most densely occupied urban park. Of the city's 1,600 parks, Bryant Park had won a dreadful reputation as a hangout for drug dealers, muggers and murderers.

"They are long gone," Mr. Biederman said. "So is the graffiti. So is the litter. So are the smells of urine and feces. So is the crime. Most of all, gone is the fear that people had of using the park."

It took $18 million - virtually all of it privately raised - and almost 5 years to transform the 6-acre park, which now often attracts more than 6,000 people during lunch time, and sometimes more than 20,000 visitors on pleasant days. Some 125 exhibitions, book readings and other events are held in the park annually, and they are open to the public; most organizers, particularly nonprofit groups, pay very little by way of fees. The spring and fall fashion shows, which are private events, fetch fees of up to $500,000.

When Mr. Biederman began his job, it was unimaginable that such events could take place in Bryant Park - launched in 1934 in a French garden style by Robert Moses - or that thousands of people, the majority of them women and children, would use the open space to relax on 3,200 moveable chairs, or frolic, or practice yoga.

"I love turnarounds," Mr. Biederman said. "I firmly believe that neighborhoods, no matter how rundown, can be rehabilitated and enlivened."

He's also a firm believer in the efficacy of the private sector. The corporation, founded in 1980 with financial assistance from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, is one of the largest efforts in America to apply private management and funding to a public park, Mr. Biederman said. Bryant Park's annual budget of $5 million is raised from private-sector sources, including businesses in the neighborhood.

"I take a holistic approach to reviving a neighborhood," he said. "For example, what should be done to bring in more businesses? What about improving sanitation and public safety? And social services? And what about tourism, where relevant? What about capital improvement?"

"And in coming up with answers for all these questions, I've always been convinced that the private sector can play a bigger role in our city," he said.

The relevance of that role has also been endorsed by Mayor Bloomberg. The city's Department of Small Business Services, led by Commissioner Robert Walsh, has contracts with 45 business improvement districts - or BIDs - around New York to upgrade neighborhoods. One benefit of this program is that real-estate values in areas such as Bryant Park have increased significantly.

Real estate is seldom far from his mind, Mr. Biederman said. That's because his work entails ensuring the cooperation of property owners. At Grand Central Partnership, the board of directors and organization officials were elected by the District Management Association, a voluntary group consisting of property owners, representatives of elected officials, and residential and commercial tenants in the district.

That meant Mr. Biederman had to be especially sensitive to political currents and cross-currents in the city. It was no secret that his forthright, no-nonsense management style had rubbed some municipal officers the wrong way.
But, Mr. Biederman said, his operational style also includes something else.

"I call it management by wandering," he said. "I'm a great walker. I walk through my offices. I walk constantly around New York and other cities, observing everything from garbage cans and lampposts. And back at my office, I always tell my staff, 'Strive for perfection, but settle for excellence.'"

It was a style that evolved from his childhood years in Scarsdale, as the only son of Robert Biederman, who was a senior corporate executive, and Carol Kirschbaum. It was reinforced when he was at Princeton University as a major in public affairs, economics and history. And his tough but cordial management style was refined at Harvard Business School, where Mr. Biederman obtained an MBA.

He has brought that management style not only to the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation.

In 1989, Mr. Biederman co-founded the 34th Street Partnership, which covers an area with more than 33 million square feet of commercial space.

This BID includes Pennsylvania Station, Madison Square Garden, the Herald Square shopping district, and the Empire State Building. In 1992, Mr. Biederman developed a $6 million annual program of security, sanitation, social services, tourist information, public events, and debt service on a major capital improvement bond of $30 million for the district's street, sidewalks, and plazas.

"While I take a holistic approach to changing neighborhoods, I'm also extremely attentive to details," Mr. Biederman said, a characteristic that's exemplified by his wife, the fine-arts lawyer Susan Duke Biederman.

"But my eye was educated by the William H. Whyte, the great urbanologist," he said.

Mr. Biederman worked with Whyte, who gained fame as author of "The Organization Man," which was about conformity in the business world, before becoming an authority on streetscapes.

"He taught me that the best way to deal with crime was not to bring in more police officers but to make the area in question as attractive to as many other people as possible," Mr. Biederman said. "He taught me how to look at cities differently. His advice was very much on my mind during the restoration of Bryant Park."

Mr. Biederman may soon be using Whyte's advice in other cities, including in Europe.

"Piccadilly Circus in London - now that's a commission I don't mind getting," he said.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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