NEW YORK — Driving along New York's West Side Highway in the darkness, Daniel L. Doctoroff sees things others might not. His car glides by vacant lots, rusting rail yards and a moonscape of auto shops -- but what he describes is spellbinding.
"This big space over here, that's going to be a stadium," he says, barely controlling his enthusiasm. "And that lot over there, which you can hardly see now, is going to be a public park. This will be the biggest project we've seen here in many years."
Just try and imagine it, says New York's deputy mayor for economic development, as he outlines the Hudson Yards proposal -- a sweeping $4.6-billion project that would bring a football stadium, an expanded convention center, a new subway link and 30 million square feet of office space to this jumbled area of Manhattan bordering the Hudson River.
The plan -- whose fate is entwined with New York's bid for the 2012 Olympics -- is one of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's top priorities. But it has become a crusade for Doctoroff, a relentlessly upbeat man who led the original campaign to bring the Olympics to New York, and who now works tirelessly to win support for the larger development plan.
Critics argue that Hudson Yards is too costly and too big to take on here in New York, where major development projects have failed in recent years for lack of public support.
But in a city of cynics, Doctoroff is a believer.
In some ways he seems to be auditioning for the role of a 21st century Robert Moses, the divisive planning czar who guided New York from the 1920s through the '60s and bulldozed anyone who got in his way. Yet any personal comparisons to Moses miss the point about exactly what drives Doctoroff.
"We're going to encounter opposition to the West Side project, there's no doubt," the former investment banker said. "But I do believe that times are different, and that people in New York City are ready to dream big again. They're ready for something grand. They're ready for change."
If so, it would be the biggest facelift the Big Apple has seen in decades. And the clock is ticking: Unless construction begins soon on the proposed stadium, some officials fear New York will lose out when the International Olympic Committee chooses the winning city in July 2005.
Doctoroff refuses to even discuss the possibility.
"Just try to envision that amazing moment," he tells one audience after another, describing the sight of Olympic athletes marching into Manhattan's beautiful stadium. He shows them a promotional film about the summer games, while John Lennon's "Imagine" plays in the background.
"As a New Yorker," he adds, "the idea of that moment fills me with pride."
Others take a darker view, suggesting that Doctoroff, in the name of the Olympics, is carrying out an agenda that would destroy older neighborhoods and replace them with boulevards of towering new office buildings.
But no matter how much they question his motives, critics offer one grudging compliment: "Give him credit for this -- he is extremely determined to make all this happen," said John Fisher, a community leader who deplores the idea of a football stadium. "There are a lot of people who are truly afraid to cross this guy."
At first glance, it is hard to imagine anyone being afraid of Doctoroff. A trim, curly-haired man of 46, he looks and sounds more like an academic than a City Hall insider. And he has a self-deprecating sense of humor that pops up unexpectedly.
Once, when he was discussing Olympic volleyball courts that would be built in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, Doctoroff broke from the script and said: "None of us should forget, of course, that competitive beach volleyball is the No. 1 sport enjoyed by members of Williamsburg's Hasidic Jewish community." Dead silence. The laughs came when he said: "Uh, that was a joke, folks."
Doctoroff's intimate knowledge of the Hudson Yards plan reaches the obsession level -- "There are exactly 631 plants, trees and shrubs in the project area," he notes -- and yet he speaks about the proposal in measured tones meant to persuade, not bully.
It is his dogged nature more than anything else, friends say, that propelled Doctoroff on his journey into the heart of City Hall.
Ten years ago, a friend gave Doctoroff a ticket to the soccer World Cup semifinal match between Italy and Bulgaria. It was being played at the Meadowlands in New Jersey.
"There were 78,000 people on their feet, totally passionate, and the whole stadium seemed to be rocking," he recalled. "And I began to get this thought: Why hadn't New York City ever hosted an Olympics? We would be a natural choice."
The idea stuck in his gut. Doctoroff's cache in the financial world got him in the door to meet influential people, whose initial skepticism gave way to a belief that he might indeed be onto something.