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Donald Elliott, planning visionary and Brooklyn Heights resident, dies at 89

December 29, 2021 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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Donald H. Elliott, Brooklyn Heights resident and chair of the City Planning Commission in the late 1960s and early 1970s, died last Thursday at his home at age 89.

In his focus on small business, neighborhood preservation and keeping local residents in their homes, as seen in the 1969 Department of City Planning promotional film, “What Is the City But the People,” he and his colleagues praised brownstone neighborhoods like Park Slope, criticized “hack development” in places like Staten Island and the suburbs, and praised programs like Model Cities that were meant to encourage development in inner-city areas like Bed-Stuy. 

This represented a break with the philosophy of Robert Moses, who concentrated on massive, functional-looking development and often was indifferent to the number of people he displaced.

As part of the administration of Mayor John V. Lindsay, he helped the establishment of the city’s “community planning boards,” now known as community boards, headed by district managers and containing local residents and businesspeople as members. 

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According to the New York Times, Elliott also advocated the establishment of special zoning districts that protected historic features such as the South Street Seaport from development and helped to defeat the plan for the Lower Manhattan Expressway, which was strongly opposed by Greenwich Village residents.

The Times added that Elliott and his associates also expanded the concept of air rights, the empty spaces above low-rise buildings that owners can sell to developers of nearby sites, at least in some neighborhoods. 

Elliott, trained as a lawyer, became city planning commissioner when he was only 34, according to press reports at the time. 

At Yale Law School, he wrote a paper on urban advocate Jane Jacobs, whose views on neighborhood preservation and small-scale development were very different from the then-predominant theories of Moses. He also attended the joint Harvard-MIT Joint Center for Urban Studies.

In 1972, he helped negotiate the federal government’s purchase of Gateway National Recreation Area, which includes Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn and Jamaica Bay, the Times said. After his days as planning commissioner were over, he ran unsuccessfully for Congress in his Brooklyn district as a joint Democratic and Liberal Party candidate. The third-party Liberal Party in those days was an important power broker between the Democrats and the Republicans.

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