Eliot Brown Nov. 10, 2009, 7:52 p.m.
In a late September planning conference at N.Y.U., Vishaan Chakrabarti strode into the college’s Kimmell Center a healthy hour after the event began.
Taking his place onstage, the former city planning official and development executive began to speak about his favorite project: the redevelopment of Pennsylvania Station-in the planning stages for nearly two decades-an effort he led for developers Related Companies and Vornado Realty Trust.
“What I’ve finally come to realize about this is that as a city, we’re not sufficiently embarrassed by Penn Station,” he said. “You had a private sector that was willing to put $14 billion into that area that right now is the poor stepcousin to midtown, and we couldn’t get our collective act together to do it.
“We simply have a process that’s broken.”
This, more or less, is how Mr. Chakrabarti, 43, spends much of his time these days. The recently named director of the real estate development program at Columbia University’s architecture and planning school, he has been a constant presence at forums on development and transportation, quickly assuming the pundit’s role. Unbound by a profit-sensitive employer, he is free to spout on, uncensored, about how suburban growth is madness; to criticize the federal stimulus’ focus on road repairs; and to complain about mismatches in transportation spending, such as the new PATH terminal downtown being slated to cost more than $3 billion to serve 60,000 passengers a day.
The job of bulking up Columbia’s program is the latest turn for one of the more ambitious, young figures in the world of New York City planning and development, someone who has always managed to find himself in a prominent and public role, typically on the city’s most visible projects.
In many ways, Mr. Chakrabarti’s résumé reads like a book about the city’s real estate industry in the past decade, as he’s followed the industry as it grew steadily more ambitious before recently retreating from investment in the wake of the credit crunch and the recession.
TEN YEARS AGO, THE financial services sector was growing fast, expanding its real estate and bringing Mr. Chakrabarti along with it. An associate partner at the powerhouse architecture firm Skidmore Owings & Merrill, he worked on the design of Bear Stearns’ soaring new headquarters at 46th Street and Madison Avenue, and then pushed a fresh trading floor for the New York Stock Exchange with an office tower above it.
The next chapter was Sept. 11, 2001, and its aftermath.
The private real estate sector slowed dramatically-the stock exchange plan was shelved-and the new Bloomberg administration turned to the Planning Department to leave a mark on the city, particularly by spurring growth in sleepy, underutilized swaths of Manhattan, and by rebuilding Lower Manhattan.
Plucking him from Skidmore, the new Department of City Planning director, Amanda Burden, brought on Mr. Chakrabarti as the agency’s Manhattan director in 2002. From that perch, he helped create a plan for a revitalized downtown and lead major efforts such as the High Line and the rezoning of the far West Side, along with the failed push to put a football stadium over the rail yards by the Javits Center.
With the real estate boom in full swing, private developers reached for the skies. Mr. Chakrabarti left the city in 2005, and, after a brief, uncomfortable stint back at Skidmore, he took a job at the Related Companies and Vornado Realty Trust, leading their plan to completely redo Penn Station. Known as Moynihan Station, the project sought to move Madison Square Garden to the Farley Post Office, and thereby unleash more than 5 million square feet of development rights. The $14 billion project was perhaps the city’s most complex development deal, and Mr. Chakrabarti was at its head-giving presentations to then Governor Eliot Spitzer and sorting through the array of agencies and actors involved. Hampered by uncertainty and cost, that large deal collapsed when Governor Spitzer left office. (Mr. Chakrabarti is still working on a smaller form of the project.)
As the Moynihan deal slowly unraveled, Mr. Chakrabarti also led the planning on Related’s proposal to develop the West Side rail yards-the football stadium site-a $15 billion investment of its own.
Through all of this, he was the public face-a visibly self-confident (his critics call him overconfident) salesman who was eager to talk to the community, reporters or the long list of constituency groups involved with his projects. Mr. Chakrabarti’s eloquence was one of his best qualities in winning whatever support he did.
The local Community Board 4, for instance, abhorred the concept of a stadium, but respected Mr. Chakrabarti.
“He was very well thought of out here in the CB4 community,” said Anna Levin, a City Planning commissioner who was then chair of a land-use committee on the board. “He was always accessible; he was always thinking. I think he had some excellent, comprehensive ideas about good planning in the neighborhood.”
AFTER THE DEVELOPMENT BOOM cratered in the absence of financing, there was little activity left at Related for Mr. Chakrabarti, and like the industry as a whole, he retreated from the development business. By his telling, Columbia approached him this summer, looking for someone to build up its real estate development program, which was adding resources and full-time faculty and expanding from two to three semesters. His chair was endowed by Marc Holliday, the chief executive of SL Green, the city’s largest commercial landlord.
“In a denser city, in a more complicated city, how do you find people who know how to make value?” Mr. Chakrabarti said of his charge at the school. “It’s a tradesmanlike act: figuring out what things you can do to create more value from a site.
“That’s what I think we can teach in a way that just didn’t exist before in the marketplace, because it’s really about value creation where your peers don’t see that value.”
This is no easy task.
In recruiting, developers, who generally have more of an eye for revenue than for design, tend to look to the halls of business schools, and Columbia’s development program doesn’t typically jump to the top of the list, development executives say.
The program is within the architecture school-developers and architects historically clash over differing motives, though not always-which makes it rather unique in the world of academia, but also something of an outlier. (N.Y.U. just brought in a new chair of its real estate program, Jim Stuckey, a former city official and executive at Forest City Ratner.)
A big question for Mr. Chakrabarti’s observers is whether this is a long-term gig, or simply a way station as the ambitious planner-turned-developer-turned-academic again reaches for a large role in New York’s development.
“Long term, I think Vishaan has always managed to find himself in great places,” said T. J. Gottesdiener, Skidmore’s managing partner and a former colleague. “Someday Vishaan might be running the city in some way.”