(Editor’s Note: The passing of David Rockefeller earlier this week struck a personal chord for one person who helped create Lower Manhattan in its modern form — Charles J. Urstadt, who, as State Commissioner of Housing and County Renewal in the 1960s and 70s, founded and built Battery Park City, along with several other government-sponsored projects Downtown. His recollections appear below.)
My first glimpse of David Rockefeller’s passion for Lower Manhattan came in the late 1950s, when I worked for Bill Zeckendorf, who was the leading real estate developer of the day.
A decade earlier, Zeckendorf had collaborated with the Rockefeller Family in building the United Nations on the East River waterfront and I was involved as a lawyer working for Zeckendorf. Now, the developer had decided that it was his personal mission to “save Wall Street.” This was an era when the large financial firms that had been the area’s economic engine for decades were grumbling about about the possibility of defecting to Midtown, which would have turned the area around Wall Street into a ghost town.
As CEO of Webb & Knapp, Zeckendorf appointed himself the Messiah of Lower Manhattan. His plan was to create a trophy complex that would achieve critical mass, which would then lend cachet and vitality to the surrounding area. With this in mind, he quietly acquired control of a 61,000-square foot parcel bounded by Cedar, Nassau, Liberty, and William Streets — without actually purchasing any of the land. The plot was owned by the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York, but the site had been empty since 1950, when that company had moved to Broadway and 55th Street, marking the start of the stampede from Downtown to Midtown that Zeckendorf was determined to halt.
But, knowing that an opulent citadel would be an empty shell without a prestige occupant, Zeckendorf then approached David Rockefeller, an executive vice president of Chase Manhattan Bank, who was about to become its chief executive. More importantly, Rockefeller was in charge of finding Chase a new headquarters.
In some ways, the smarter play would have been for Rockefeller to take the bank northward, like its competitors. At the time, almost no new buildings had been erected in the Wall Street area since the 1930s. The neighborhood’s dark, narrow streets gave it a seedy, claustrophobic feel.
But Zeckendorf persuaded Rockefeller to consider taking a chance on Downtown, by creating a transformative centerpiece that would spark a new local renaissance. The result was One Chase Manhattan Plaza, a two-and-one-half acre “superblock” that was assembled by closing a stretch of Cedar Street. On this site rose an 813-foot tall aluminum and glass tower, surrounded by a plaza of white marble, dotted with monumental artworks by the likes of Jean Dubuffet and Isamu Noguchi. If the revitalization of Lower Manhattan that continues to this day can be said to have begun at a specific time and place, this is it. And it is thanks to David Rockefeller.
And Chase Plaza was only the beginning. No sooner was this project complete, than David, who believed in what he called “catalytic bigness,” was pushing for the creation of the complex that would become the World Trade Center, which was announced in 1961. It was around this time that he also founded the Downtown-Lower Manhattan Association, which has helped spur and continue the resurgence of the area through research, advocacy, and planning.
By the end of the 1960s, I had left the private sector and was working for David’s brother, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, on creating large-scale building projects across the State. Among these was a planned community that the governor wanted to develop alongside the World Trade Center, using spoil excavated for that project’s foundations and dumped into the nearby Hudson River as landfill.
This was to become Battery Park City. When it was announced in the New York Times in 1969, David was taken by surprise. His brother, the Governor, had not bothered to mention the project to him. This was not a snub. Rather, it was a measure of how busy both Rockefeller Brothers were that creating what would eventually become 92 acres of housing, parks, and commercial space didn’t come up in conversation between them. Far from being put off, however, David took the time to call me personally, introduce himself, tell me what a wonderful idea he thought Battery Park City was, and offer to help in any way he could. This was our first direct, personal contact and he left me with two impressions. First, it was clear that he wanted to support anything that would benefit Lower Manhattan. And second, he struck me as the quintessential gentleman.
In the years ahead, we stayed in touch, but I never had a reason to take the younger Rockefeller up on his offer of help, so long as his brother remained the State’s chief executive. That changed in 1977, when Ed Koch was elected mayor. By that point, I had completed the landfill for Battery Park City, and was starting to negotiate with developers to build the first housing complex, which would eventually become Gateway Plaza.
Koch, operating under the axiom that many politicians follow (i.e., “if I didn’t start a project and therefore will not get credit for it, I’m going to kill it”) announced that he was opposed to continuing work on Battery Park City. If ever there was a time to take David Rockefeller up on his offer to help, this was it. I called and explained that the hardest and most complicated part of building Battery Park City (pouring the landfill) was finally done, that all of our financing was in place, and that we now needed only to cross the finish line by awarding development contracts to builders. As was his custom, David listened quietly, and then replied with characteristic understatement, “let me see what I can do.” After our conversation, I was told by intermediaries that Rockefeller called Koch, and the two had a private conversation.
A week later, Koch (who was not known for changing his mind about much of anything) abruptly reversed himself and announced that he believed Battery Park City should move ahead as planned. David’s natural reticence meant that he would never share what he had said or done to persuade the mayor, but I believe to this day that there would not be a Battery Park City without his intervention.
By 1979, a change of administrations in Albany ordained that I would be leaving government service and returning to the private sector. When he heard this news, David called once again — this time with an offer to help that was personal, rather than political. This touching display of empathy reinforced my impression that he was, above all else, a gentleman.
David could also be surprisingly demure. A few years after I had returned to the world of business, I was a guest in his office at Rockefeller Center. As we sat talking, I lit a cigar, and David’s face took on a pained expression. He said nothing, but when he excused himself for a moment, an aide rushed over and pointed out that smoke from my cigar was drifting up to a Monet painting that David had hanging above the couch on which I was seated. I extinguished the offending cheroot, and marveled that one of the wealthiest, most powerful men in the world didn’t wish to offend a friend by asking him not to smoke near a million-dollar piece of art.
In more recent years, my conversations with David always returned to his love for Lower Manhattan, and his vision for its potential. This was a passion that never dimmed, and it will outlive him. To walk these streets today, to experience the near-miraculous resurgence of an area that many people had given up on 60 years ago, is to know that everybody who lives, works, or visits here owes David Rockefeller a debt of gratitude.
(The author, Charles J. Urstadt, was founder, chairman and chief executive officer of the Battery Park City Authority, from 1969 through 1979, and returned as vice chairman of the Authority, from 1995 through 2011.)