A 1980s New York City Battle Explains Donald Trump’s Candidacy
In June of 1986, Donald J. Trump was a second-tier developer in a city crawling with ambitious builders. He had a single skyscraper to his name, and was probably best known as the part owner of the New Jersey Generals in the flailing United States Football League, his taste for shiny finishes and his regular fulminations attesting to his own importance. But by November, he became, essentially, the candidate we know today, a colossal tabloid celebrity who maintains, bombastically, that he can manage government better than any politician. What changed? More than anything, what made Trump Trump was the drama surrounding the refurbishing of Wollman Rink, the ice skating oval located in the Southeast quadrant of Central Park.
As always with Trump, it’s hard to parse the reality from the publicity. At the time, New York City's government notoriously didn’t work. The city was still just a decade removed from municipal bankruptcy. Crack was everywhere. Murders were hovering around 2,000 a year. The city had actually begun to come back to life from its 1970s depths, with bricks and mortar sprouting in the lots left vacant by riots and two decades of disinvestment, but the recovery was hardly visible.
The rink was an emblem of civic dysfunction. Formerly a jewel in the crown of Central Park, a supporting star in films like Love Story and half a dozen others, Wollman Rink had fallen into disrepair. And what was worse was that the city seemingly had no idea how fix it. Shuttered for repairs in 1980 by the Koch administration and set to be restored at the cost of $4.7 million, by 1985, the rink was $12 million over budget and still not ready.
Bronson Binger, a visionary landscape architect and preservationist who served as the city’s assistant commissioner of capital projects, hoped to turn Wollman into “the kind of thing you would see at Buckingham Palace,” according to Julia Vitullo-Martin, who also served as an assistant commissioner in the Parks Department during the Wollman Saga, and is now a senior fellow at the Regional Plan Association. Touring the in-flux facility with a television reporter that summer, Binger pledged that the rink would be up and running by Thanksgiving. And if it’s not, the reporter asked? If it’s not, Binger said, I will resign.
It wasn’t, and he did.
Trump, who could see from his office window the messy construction site that Wollman had been for years, saw an opportunity. In June of 1986, the developer brayed that if the city would just hand the keys to the zamboni to him, he would have it done by Christmas. "I have total confidence that we will be able to do it," Trump said. "I am going on record as saying that I will not be embarrassed."
Then and after, Trump described his interest as a pure expression of civic mindedness. All he wanted in return was the rink’s concession rights, which he would, in turn, donate to charity.
“If Koch doesn't like this offer," said Trump, "then let him have the same people who have built it for the last six years do it for the next six years.”
Trump and Koch, of course, coveted exactly the same real estate—in front of microphones and TV cameras, and the front pages of the city’s tabloids, and had been engaged in a long-running feud. The city can only be dominated by one large charismatic personality at a time, and Ed was determined that it be the mayor,” said Jonathan Soffer, author of Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York City.
Trump had been pushing to have some of his midtown properties made available for a property tax abatement. Koch resisted, arguing that the abatement was to encourage the building of affordable housing in the outer boroughs. Trump, of course, sued, and even brought a personal lawsuit against Anthony Gliedman, the city’s Housing Commissioner. (Trump won, and in an early display of Trumpian knife-twisting, ended up poaching Gliedman away from city government to oversee the renovation of Wollman.)
The renovation of Wollman Rink had begun poorly and turned disastrous. Rather than using brinewater as a coolant to freeze the rink, the parks commissioner elected to use Freon, a chemical used in air conditioning units and now widely banned for its ozone-depleting properties. It was an immensely complicated operation, and one the city was incapable of properly completing. A subcontractor underestimated the amount of concrete needed to pour the rink's floor and so was forced to dilute the mixture. Design flaws meant that one part of the rink was six inches lower than the rest. There was an ongoing feud between the Parks Department under the mayor’s control in Manhattan and its capital projects bureau in Queens, still staffed with loyalists to Robert Moses who saw the construction of an ice rink as a frivolity. The project’s lead contractor was officially ruled to be in default, but by that point the principal of the company that was originally building the rink had been killed in a car accident en route to a company-wide getaway to Atlantic City, and the company subsequently disbanded.
“It was like a David Cronenberg movie,” said Vitullo-Martin. “Wollman was such a disgrace. It was hard to absorb the incompetence.”
While City Hall shrugged, the city’s tabloid turned the rink into a daily reminder of the administration’s inability to tame the city. “Skating rinks work all over the world,” The Daily News wrote. “To stand back and shrug is not going to wash. Towering incompetence is the kindest possible explanation.”
The Koch administration, meanwhile, was being consumed by a massive corruption scandal involving a kickback scheme in its parking violations bureau, a scandal that led to the suicide of the Queens borough president, a close Koch ally. And the city’s comptroller, Harrison Goldin, was eyeing his own mayoral challenge to Koch and held up any further work on the rink. Turning the project over to Trump was a way to break the political logjam and to rid himself of the cascading bureaucratic mishaps, even as Trump released a letter he wrote to Koch decrying “incompetence” that ''must be considered one of the great embarrassments of your administration.” (Koch meanwhile railed to anyone who would listen that Trump was a “blowhard” and a “supreme egotistical lightweight,” according to Soffer, his biographer.)
In allowing Trump to build the rink, Koch didn’t exactly capitulate—Trump had originally wanted to pay for the renovation himself, covering his costs by running the rink and an adjacent restaurant. In the final deal, the city paid for the renovation, and the profits were all donated to charity.
Trump had Wollman Rink up and running by November 1, two months ahead of schedule and $775,000 under budget. Skating stars like Dorothy Hamill, Scott Hamilton, Dick Button, and Aja Zanova-Steindler glided across the ice at the ribbon cutting, with Button declaring the new rink to be like skating on velvet.
"This serves as an example of what New York, the wealthiest city in the world, can do in terms of saving money—if things are done right," Trump said. “If we could just plan and execute, it would be billions and billions of dollars that would be saved."
If Trump has any particular genius, it is for jumping to the front of the parade and acting like it is where he has been all along. Agreeing to take on the rink was in this category. It is not as if Trump decided to take over the Second Ave Subway or other long-stalled (and far more complicated) city development projects. “I mean c’mon, it’s a skating rink,” said Vitullo-Martin. “Any halfway decent construction person would have been able to build the damn thing.” There were no real environmental reviews, limited public safety concerns, and delays usually associated with refurbishing a landmarked property were removed as a condition of Trump taking over the project. Plus, the city was limited by a review process and by hiring the lowest-bidding contractor. As a private entity, Trump was able to ignore all that, paying contractors at below cost by promising more work later on in one of his many projects.
Rudolph Rinaldi, the director of construction in the Parks Department at the time, recalled Trump taking his team to Canada to see how a similar project was refurbished, and showing up to tour the site in Central Park with one team of architects and engineers, only to show up the next time with a completely different set of architects and engineers. “We did projects that were much more complicated without Trump,” Rinaldi said. “But we couldn’t fire all of our architects and a hire a whole new team just because we felt like it.”
At the time, City Hall was mystified that Trump was even interested. “You generally don’t see developers try to fix someone else’s capital project,” recalled Vitullo-Martin. “I mean, who does that? Have you ever seen a developer come in and say to a city, ‘Oh, I can fix your crumbling bridge?’ You need a narcissist who will come forward and say, ‘You don’t know what you are doing. I know what I am doing, I will fix it and you will put my name on it.”’
“Any real estate developer in the city could have done that project, but why do you think they didn’t?” asked Adrian Benepe, then a spokesman for the Parks Department and later its commissioner. “It’s because most major real estate families in New York want to work behind the scenes and do the deals, and so many of them do many more deals and build many more buildings than Donald Trump ever does.
“There are so many myths about this thing,” Benepe continued. “One was that he did it for free. No, he did it for whatever the budget was. Another myth: he did something the city never could have done. Well, no, the project was largely complete by the time he took over.”
But Trump also wanted to prove a point: That the private sector was a far more efficient vehicle than municipal government. By getting the thing built on time and under budget, Trump burnished his reputation as a can-do guy while pioneering the notion of public/private partnership that increasingly swept the city. And in a city where the major developers sit atop philanthropic boards and give away billions to make New York a slightly better place to live, Wollman has remained Trump’s lone calling card of his concern for the greater good.
“Yes, he did a solid for the city, but he also burnished his reputation to a considerable extent,” Benepe said. “Most real estate developers, when they get involved in something like this, ask themselves what’s in it for the city. Trump wanted to know what was in it for Donald Trump and then there may be some ancillary benefits for the city.”
The distinctive mixture of braggadocious civic concern and narcissism Trump displayed in the Wollman rink contretemps now has him well on the way to the GOP nomination.