Dan Doctoroff goes back in time

The ex-Bloomberg development chief talks about his Olympic obsession and opening the floodgates to NYC building in his new book — plus goes after old foes

Dan Doctoroff
Dan Doctoroff

The epiphany that changed Dan Doctoroff’s life and dramatically reshaped the development landscape in New York occurred in New Jersey and, initially, had nothing to do with real estate.

That hot July 1994 day, Doctoroff recalls in his new book — “Greater Than Ever: New York’s Big Comeback” — he had grudgingly agreed to accompany a friend to Giants Stadium to watch a World Cup semifinal game between Italy and Bulgaria. He’d never been to a soccer game, and his expectations were low. It didn’t help that it was sweltering and he took the bus there.

But once he got to the game, everything changed. It was, he recalls, the “most spectacular sporting event I had ever attended.” Being there sparked an idea that Doctoroff doggedly, though unsuccessfully, pursued for years: bringing the Olympics to NYC. 

In the 350-page book, which was published by an imprint of Perseus Books last month, Doctoroff, traces how this “vague notion” evolved into a concrete campaign that he came to believe had the potential to provide a major economic boon to New York.

While mapping out how the city would host the 2008 Olympics — and where to build the myriad stadiums and other facilities — Doctoroff realized that New York was in dire need of a massive makeover. An Olympic bid, with its tight deadlines, could be just the catalyst needed to get it going.

Doctoroff’s effort to bring about this makeover helped transform not just the city, but also his own career. And it provides the narrative thrust for the book, an entertaining — and highly readable — journey that goes behind the scenes as Doctoroff’s quixotic Olympic efforts catapult the Harvard-educated private equity dealmaker into the front ranks of the city’s power structure.

In the fall of 2001 — just weeks after 9/11 — the newly elected mayor, Michael Bloomberg, tapped Doctoroff to serve as his deputy mayor for economic development and rebuilding.

“When I first started the Olympic bid … the prevailing attitude was ‘Don’t try to do this, it’s too hard to get stuff done,’” Doctoroff told The Real Deal. “And perhaps because I was naïve, perhaps because Mike had no experience in government, we basically didn’t listen.”

That decision has had huge implications for New York real estate. At the time, thousands of acres of land sat unused across all five boroughs, littered with abandoned wharves, empty warehouses and crumbling manufacturing plants. The problem wasn’t that developers didn’t want to build on it — it was that they weren’t allowed to. The zoning laws governing what could be built hadn’t gone through a significant rewrite since 1961, at a time when there were 847,000 city manufacturing jobs. By 2002, that number had fallen to 140,000.

Over the course of 12 years, the Bloomberg administration rezoned 140 neighborhoods, or 40 percent of the city, and opened up the development floodgates. While the industry generally lauded the administration, it should be noted that critics often slammed it for its too-cozy relationship with real estate players, for pushing gentrification into overdrive and for making the city unaffordable for many. Not surprisingly, those themes don’t get as much play in the book as the successes, though Doctoroff does devote a fair amount of space to the administration’s effort to create affordable housing.

Sign Up for the undefined Newsletter

Love them or hate them, the results of the rezonings are visible citywide today — from the Hudson Yards development on Manhattan’s Far West Side to the redevelopment of the Williamsburg and Brooklyn Heights waterfronts.

Doctoroff also takes readers into Bloomberg’s City Hall, where he and the mayor sat among roughly 40 staffers in the now-famed open “bullpen.” 

The book includes plenty of policy and financing ideas, including the innovative way the city raised $2.5 billion through a little-known type of bond offering to extend the No. 7 subway line west into Hudson Yards rather than convincing the state to bankroll the project. Doctoroff notes that City Hall also managed to overcome objections to the High Line by allowing some of those who owned land under the elevated park to sell their air rights to developers on nonadjoining properties.

But the book also contains plenty of score-settling and behind-the-scenes anecdotes for those interested in the sharp-elbowed world of big-city politics. Doctoroff, for example, doesn’t mince words when talking about his primary nemesis, Cablevision owner James Dolan, in his controversial (and ultimately unsuccessful) battle to win approval for a Jets football stadium on the Far West Side. The arena was to be the centerpiece of his Olympic bid. He refers to the Cablevision executive as “Jimmy” and describes him as “erratic and explosive.”

“A guy who seemed to get more pleasure from playing rock music than running his company, Jimmy was widely disliked,” Doctoroff writes, describing Dolan’s aggressive advertising campaign to turn public opinion against the stadium.

Doctoroff reserves special ire for Dolan’s prime ally in the effort to kill the stadium: then- Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, “the most cynical of politicians.” (Silver was convicted of corruption in 2015, but the conviction was overturned this past July).

Silver, Doctoroff writes, “struck me as being Don Corleone-like. Uncharismatic, heavyset, with a wide, pale face, he sat behind an oversized desk. … He made you wait before you could approach, leaving you half expecting that you had to kiss his hand. Even as you sat across from him, he mumbled almost indecipherably so that you went away unsure of where you stood. He exercised power through obfuscation.”

Doctoroff also details the battles at Ground Zero, characterizing Larry Silverstein as a “hard-boiled developer” who “was used to — no, enjoyed — scrapping for every dime.” He also notes that then-Gov. George Pataki’s underlings seemed more interested in political power plays than rebuilding.

But on the flip side, Doctoroff describes a more positive 1996 meeting, before he stepped into City Hall, that changed his thinking about how the city should operate and just how transformative his Olympic bid might prove. Doctoroff was ushered into the Park Avenue office of legendary developer Lew Rudin, who told him about the sordid history of New York’s decline and what needed to be done to prevent another. If things deteriorate, Rudin explained, crime, population loss, economic stagnation and falling tax base feed off one another, and the “vicious cycle” accelerates.

Doctoroff would come to believe that the opposite was also true: Feeding growth with the right policies, attacking crime and making the city more livable feed off one another for the better. Doctoroff calls it “the virtuous cycle.” 

Readers looking for an in-depth mea culpa in response to the most widely leveled criticism of the Bloomberg administration — that the city has become far too gentrified and unaffordable — won’t find one. But Doctoroff does concede there are some things he might have done differently.

“On some level, we undercalculated the speed with which the city grew,” he said. “It’s now at 8.6 million. Over the dozen years of the Bloomberg administration it grew by half a million people. So, I think we were pretty aggressive in developing affordable housing. But clearly, in retrospect, we could have been even more aggressive.”