Allison Zampetti Went From Beijing Olympics Wannabe to Project Manager at Levien & Company

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When she was growing up in Connecticut, Allison Zampetti nurtured an interest rare for high school students.

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“I had a science teacher who was really passionate about construction, and I realized that I was passionate about construction,” said Zampetti (née Robin), 34, a project manager at Levien & Company. “He organized these monthly field trips, and we’d drive around town and look at construction sites together. That was the first time I realized that I really like construction a lot.”

Considering her background, this is less surprising than it may seem. Zampetti, who has worked on over $250 million in construction projects since joining the firm in 2009, was raised in the sailing town of Essex by a mother she refers to as “basically Martha Stewart”—she’s a “homemaker, chef, crafter and gardener”—and by a father, who was a  cabinet maker and antique restorer.

“When I was in elementary school, [my mother] started working as a baker and has now worked as a chef for the past 20 years, but her passion is gardening and making her home beautiful,” Zampetti told Commercial Observer, (whose house, it should be noted, is also decorated and organized impeccably.) “My dad has a specialized workshop in back of our house, [he was always] woodworking, finishing, polishing, whatever he was doing back there. Plus he would be in charge of executing projects my mom dreamed up in the house…I was always the ace helper.”

Building things was as natural a part of her life as riding a bike would be to most kids her age. While in junior high school, her father’s workshop—a barn behind their main house—burned down. Rather than call a contractor, her father led friends, neighbors and family members in rebuilding it themselves, Amish barn-raising style.     

“It was a great building experience for me,” Zampetti said. “We all came together and had a dry-walling day—we dry-walled the barn together. That’s the kind of town we grew up in. We were definitely a do-it-yourself family. I don’t remember ever having a plumber or electrician coming over. My parents just did it themselves.”

Zambetti seems to have inherited her parents’ do-it-yourself work ethic.

“She’s very smart, and she’s tenacious—a real go-getter,” said Gregg Singer, the president of Singer Financial Corporation who worked with Zampetti on the year-long predevelopment of 605 East 9th Street, a $60 million, six-story, 120,000-square-foot building (which is being converted into high-end dorms for Adelphi University).

“She worked with the architects, the mechanical and structural engineers and others, helping put together estimates for the construction costs and handling the logistics,” Singer said. “We were doing a lot of examinations of the building—because with a renovation, you want to examine the steel and the foundations to ensure they’re strong enough so the building will stay intact—review the architectural plans and all the plans including the electric, the plumbing, the elevator, heating and air conditioning. She looked for problems to make sure it all worked together in sync and went over the budget with the contractor to see what the costs would be.”

But that wouldn’t come for a while for Zampetti. Unaware there were careers for women in construction, Zampetti attended Cornell University with an eye toward an architecture degree but realized she’d prefer a career that allowed for quick movement through projects. 

“I’m someone who wants to come up with a solution, get it done, execute and move on,” she said, “whereas the process of first-year [architecture] studio was, ‘Why don’t you do that again?’ There were always iterations. You’re always reiterating your design, improving—there was no reward for hard work.”

She shifted toward construction, interning with a project manager Hobbs, a luxury homebuilder in Connecticut that has built homes for Judge Judy Sheindlin and Harry Connick Jr. 

“It was so much fun,” Zampetti recalled. “It [involved] ordering stuff, directing things on site, making decisions. I really love the process of constructing, building and seeing things come to fruition.”

But before Zampetti shifted from college to work in construction, she had a stint in the world of sailing, another childhood passion.

“The cheapest summer camp available in my town was a sailing camp,” she said of the Pettipaug Sailing Academy in Essex. “My dad grew up sailing and has a passion for it—he was a competitive sailor in high school. I went to [this camp] every summer from the age of eight to 16, when my parents said, ‘You have to get a job now.’ I got a job and then came back a summer later and started teaching sailing every summer. Teaching sailing was my passion. I was a competitive sailor in high school and college, and I knew about career potential in sailing.”

After graduating from Cornell with a B.S. in city and regional planning in January 2004, Zampetti was hired to teach sailing by the Lake Forest Academy in Lake Forest, Ill., a year-round job that involved teaching at high school and college levels.   

After a year and a half, she returned to the East Coast to be closer to her family and concurrently began two new and significant endeavors—her career in construction and an attempt to make the U.S. Olympic Sailing Team for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. (More on how that panned out in a minute.)

On the career side, she was hired as an assistant project manager for a midsize general contracting firm, Richter+Ratner out of New York, in October 2005. 

A few years into her time there, she caught a break when the project manager of the company’s biggest project at the time—the construction of a new building for the Bronx Zoo—left the firm and she was assigned to take over the project.

“It was a $45 million building, the Zoo’s Center for Global Conservation. It was one of the firm’s first forays into base-building construction,” she told CO. “The previous project manager had gotten it out of the ground, and I took over when we were starting to close on the building, the finishes, the systems, etc. It was a great, career-rocketing project.”

Zampetti worked on the zoo project for around a year and a half where she became an expert in how to handle the myriad personalities involved in such a project.

“There was a meeting early on in the project where my project executive wasn’t there,” she said. “The client started grilling us about a mistake we had made, and I was so taken aback. I sat there like, ‘I’m not sure what you’re talking about, but I will get to the bottom of it. I don’t have any information right now, so I can’t respond.’ A couple of weeks later, the architect said to me, ‘We can’t believe that happened, and how you handled that. You really got grilled there.’ It was a lesson in learning how to be a diplomat.”

While in her early years with the firm, Zampetti purchased a boat and began training to try to make the 2008 U.S. Olympic Sailing Team.

“[That involved] lots of local racing,” she said. “There are a few fleets along the northeast coastline that have very competitive co-ed fleets for these types of boats. I couldn’t afford a coach, so you find other good sailors and ask to sail with them. It was very much a budget campaign.”

Zampetti trained for several years and qualified for the Olympic trails in Newport, R.I., in 2007. She needed to finish first to make the Olympic team; she finished 14th. That ended her sailing career, and after marrying a man less seafaring than she was (he gets seasick), she sold the boat.

When Richter+Ratner underwent a series of layoffs in 2009, Zampetti was without job but not for long. Her boss there recommended she contact Ken Levien at the real estate project management owner’s rep firm Levien & Company. She was unemployed for just two weeks before joining Levien as a project manager. 

From the first meeting, Zampetti proved herself to be “very, very quick-witted,” Levien, the company’s president and founder, told CO.

“People who are quick-witted are usually extremely intelligent,” Levien continued. “Her deep understanding of construction, as well as her ability to do complex financial spreadsheets for our side of the business, was very valuable.”

While also attending New York University for a Master of Science degree in construction management (she graduated in 2010), she began work for Levien on the biggest project of her career, a multiphase, $200 million renovation of the Park Avenue Armory at 643 Park Avenue between East 66th and East 67th Streets.

The Park Avenue Armory.
The Park Avenue Armory.

“It was a large project—we were taking over for another project manager—and I became part of the Park Avenue Armory team, doing all the financials,” she said. “They had a lot of city and state funding on that project, so I helped manage the documentation for the project.”

Zampetti also worked on the renovation of the Museum of the Moving Image, at 36-01 35th Avenue, in Astoria, Queens, a project that was “even more complicated from a financial perspective” due to the ever-changing factors involved in government funding.

The museum project ended for her in 2010, but she worked on the armory until November 2015, when she went on maternity leave for her son Nicholas, now 14 months old.

The armory project came with a host of complexities. In addition to involving multiple phasesthe project held interior landmark status. The client was both grandly ambitious and a not-for-profit, and the building was operational throughout the renovation. 

In terms of knowledge and experience acquired, the Park Avenue Armory project almost served as a degree of its own.

“My primary responsibility was finance, meaning tracking all project costs, which can be complicated because there are multiple parts to every project, including the sheer volume of invoicing that comes in, and tracking costs as they relate to how we can get reimbursed by the city or state,” she said. “My role grew. I organized and led the weekly project meetings and did the meeting minutes. With a project like that, the team becomes at least 20 people at every meeting. Being able to keep everybody on task and focused for two-, two-and-a-half-hour meetings every week is a big challenge. Part of what I learned there was how to manage all the people—to get people to show up prepared and know exactly what they’re supposed to do when they leave.”

Among the challenges she faced on the project, “We were doing this historic interior renovation,” (the numbers here are rough estimations, used for example). “In general, you go through and budget the whole building. Then [a] woodworker comes back and says, ‘For me to do this room, it’ll take $2 million.’ Well, if his work costs $2 million, then we can’t afford the rest of the room. But we know he’s the guy who’s got the quality to do the room. We can’t afford him, but he’s the only one responsible [enough] to do it, and [if we take] the next step down, we’re perhaps damaging an artifact of history. So you get stuck in this position where you know you need to use a certain vendor, but you need to convince them to do a lesser job in order to fit your budget. But he has this integrity, and says, ‘No—this is a piece of art. I must do my very best.’ ”

Asked how she resolves such a situation, she said it happens through negotiation and the implementation of creative solutions.

“[In this case], we helped [the artisan in question] develop an internship program to help defray some of his labor costs and talked about deductible alternates—ways to cut portions of the scope [of the project] out, and give it to people who are less expensive.”

These days, Zampetti’s biggest work project is the $55 million redevelopment of 540 West 53rd Street, a 110,000-square-foot affordable housing project in Midtown West for the Clinton Housing Development Corporation. After years of working on cultural projects, Zampetti is excited by the different challenges she finds in working on residential real estate.

“The pace is different, and the teams are definitely different,” she said. “With the cultural projects, you have a lot of constituents—there are varying priorities. For a residential building, the goals are very clear—how do we do this affordably, how do we maximize the dollar, how do we market this best? Very different goals and priorities. It’s more clear cut in a lot of ways.”

Outside the office, Zampetti was recently elected secretary for Commercial Real Estate Women of New York (CREW), which provides mentoring, networking and career-guidance opportunities for women in the commercial real estate field here.

As if this doesn’t keep her busy enough, the Murray Hill resident also teaches an online, graduate-level course in construction budgets and cost management at NYU and does various crafting projects including quilting a blanket for her son Nicholas with a map of New York City on it.

Looking ahead, Zampetti is excited about taking on new challenges like her residential project, and Levien said it’s just this enthusiasm—combined with her intricate knowledge of project particulars—that will make her an industry leader.

“Allison is one of our stars,” Levien said. “She’s one of the people who will help lead the next generation at our company.”