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Up Close with Urban Planning’s Purnima Kapur

Mar 13, 2015

Previously published in Real Estate Weekly

Real Estate Weekly kicked off its annual Women’s Forum at the Wyndham New Yorker with a one-on-one interview with NYC Department of Urban Planning Executive Director Purnima Kapur, who was appointed to the position in June by City Planning Commission chairman Carl Weisbrod.

Kapur joined moderator Lisa Knee, a Partner at EisnerAmper, to discuss her career and her current initiatives.

Knee: You began your career with the agency 25 years ago, and quickly rose through the ranks as director of the agency’s Bronx and Brooklyn offices, where you developed and oversaw some 40 rezonings. That’s really quite impressive. Now you’re in charge of the entire department. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got to where you are today?

Kapur: I grew up in India, where I went to undergraduate school. I then came to this country for graduate school [at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] to get a Master’s in architecture. There, I found myself taking more and more courses in urban planning. After having gone to a more technical school in India to study architecture, coming here and having the opportunity to really just explore whatever I wanted to at the graduate level was eye-opening for me. I did in graduate school what most kids do in undergraduate education—learning about the world and taking courses in economics, government, accounting, and statistics. I then decided to pursue a dual degree in both architecture and urban planning. And that's how I ended up in urban planning. I worked a little bit as an architect, but really fostered my professional life as a planner.

Knee: We can go through a laundry list of all the different projects you've worked on, both in Brooklyn and the Bronx. What are some of the most challenging or interesting projects that you worked on before you became Executive Director?

Kapur: Picking one project is not an easy thing. I started out in Brooklyn as a young planner; it was at the end of 1989. The '90s were really not a great time for the city, and we were going through a real recession. Brooklyn at that point was really, really different from where it is today ... the problems that we're facing today are good problems compared to where we were 20 years ago. Development in many parts of the city was really difficult. I had worked across the entire corridor, from Brownsville and East New York to Carnarsie, Mill Basin, Sheepshead Bay, Bensonhurst, Sunset Park, and Downtown Brooklyn.

But one of the more exciting projects I've done is watching the transformation of the waterfront in Brooklyn—in Downtown and in DUMBO and the entire East River—which has completely transformed from 10 or 15 years ago. … It took the City a long time to [understand that] the industrial uses that used to occupy our waterfront had gone. Then came the whole rethinking of "What do you do with the waterfront?" How do you open it up and make it more accessible to the communities that live a block away? So to me, that entire transformation is probably one of the more rewarding ones.

Knee: As Executive Director, how do you look at planning for growth? Now that you're in charge of all five boroughs, is there a different process that you go through?

Kapur: My role was different when I was directing the Brooklyn and Bronx offices; my world revolved around the boroughs and what was happening there. As Executive Director, I oversee all five boroughs. I have absolutely fantastic office directors—including two very strong women—that lead these boroughs, and I work closely with them and the rest of the agency… so yes, my role has changed somewhat, but I'm still working for the same agency.

Knee: How do you plan for a city that's doing great economically, but where there's still such a large disparity in income levels?

Kapur: That’s obviously a challenge. At this point, the city is doing well in terms of development, in terms of job growth, in terms of population. We are at 8.4 million [people], projected to grow to 9 million by 2040. However, this is a city that also has a very large population that remains rent-burned. More than half of all New Yorkers pay more than 30% of their income towards rent—many of us relate to that. We also have a situation where over 50,000 people are homeless today. For an economically strong city like New York, that’s really not acceptable. So the Mayor has… charged us with addressing those inequities as we look at urban planning. Housing is certainly a big part of it, along with economic development and jobs.

We have always been a city that has welcomed people. … Immigrants have historically brought energy, enterprise, and strength to the city, and many parts of the city today are revitalized through those efforts. How do we continue to create a framework that provides these opportunities for growth? So we're looking across the city, identifying areas that we think we can bring in new development. … We're not just creating plans for more housing, but looking at how to bring in needed services, schools, open space, jobs, and transit.

Knee: What about shaping the city really excites you?

Kapur: Most people [outside of New York] think of the city as Manhattan. But for those of us who live in New York, we know that there are many different neighborhoods. And what makes us really strong is the fact that we provide people options: to live in a high-rise apartment in Midtown if you want to, or to have a suburban home with a driveway in Staten Island or Southeast Queens. As an urban planning agency, we're really looking at all of those options and neighborhoods and providing that greater opportunity [across socioeconomic structures] … In New York City, even people who are working class have trouble finding housing, so we're looking how to provide housing options for people who make $30,000 a year to $100,000 or $150,000 a year.

Knee: Mayor Bill de Blasio recently unveiled what he described as a “game changer.” His new housing plan aimed at building 160,000 market-rate apartments, in addition to constructing and preserving 200,000 affordable housing units over the next decade. The plan calls for new development projects throughout all five boroughs and pledges more than $200 million to help foster this development. The plan also provide developers and property owners with incentives aimed at promoting affordable housing development. Can you elaborate more on this plan?

Kapur: This is perhaps the most aggressive housing plan that any mayor has put forth—at least in the past two or three decades. What they Mayor has charged us with is meeting this challenge of finding ways to encourage new housing development that can meet the needs of all New Yorkers.

We have started to do this a little bit in Greenpoint and Williamsburg. So far, these programs have been incentive based; as a bonus, if you do affordable housing, you get more floor area. We’re moving away from that incentive structure now; under the mandatory housing plan, you would be required to provide a percentage of [affordable] housing in areas that are upzoned.

Clearly, the City does not control a lot of land anymore—most of the City-owned land has been developed. We really are looking to the private sector to help get us there, and the City has actually put $6.7 billion—a huge amount of money—toward this effort. There are six areas that the City is looking to rezone, [including] East New York, the Jerome Avenue Corridor, Long Island City, Flushing West, and the Bay Street Corridor near Stapleton in Staten Island. In each of these areas, there are different market conditions and different built forms. So we're really engaged in the planning processes in each of these boroughs, working with the communities and trying to understand their needs and resources necessary.

We understand that we are asking the private sector to step up and build housing—we also need make it easier for the private sector to provide that housing. So the tax changes that were announced recently and will go through a public review process essentially remove a lot of zoning impediments. One thing we’re also doing is reducing parking requirements in areas that are well-served by mass transit. What we heard from builders is that this will reduce significantly the cost of urban housing ... and allow our subsidies to go much further and make more housing possible. The Mayor is also encouraging production of market-rate housing. We recognize that in order to provide housing, we need [it] at every level. Our interest in affordable housing does not ignore the fact that the city is growing across the board. We think this is a great challenge to have; we're at a stage today in New York where people actually want to come and build. There are cities across the United States that are struggling to invite investment.

Knee: One of the main focal points of the Mayor’s plan is the commitment to repurpose the Sunnyside Yards to create a little over 11,000 units. I believe the plan was for the entire 202-acre plot, and the City owns the air rights over 44 acres. But right after you announced the plan, Governor Cuomo issued a statement that the site was “unavailable for any other use in the near term." With respect to that, are plans still on track?

Kapur: I think many have recognized that Sunnyside Yards presents a huge opportunity. It is not an easy area to redevelop, as there are active train tracks [used by Amtrak, the Long Island Railroad, and the MTA]. The Mayor has announced that we will be undertaking a feasibility study to understand what the protection is for developing on those tracks and how that can be revised. I think anything we do there will require everyone to work together ... this is a long-term effort. We think there are areas along the edges that are easily developable.

Knee: Which areas do you see transforming over the next couple of years?

Kapur: I think the areas we are undertaking to rezone, with their opportunities for growth and new development. And Long Island City is [one area] that is really undergoing rapid transformation. Its industrial base remains very strong in many parts, and there are parts where the mixed-use trend is really taking shape. This is something that we see in many different parts of the city, and I think it's a really interesting trend.

Clearly, New York has always had its core industries—our central business districts with finance, insurance, and real estate remain huge economic generators. But we are also starting to see this dispersion of the economic basis. The tech sector in the past few years has really found a footing [in areas such as] Long Island City, the lower Park Avenue stretch, DUMBO, Williamsburg—these are all communities that are really seeing a real growth in new commercial investment.

Knee: This conference will have a panel discussing sustainable design and development. You often hear these catchphrases—can you tell us the difference between sustainability and resiliency?

Kapur: Sustainability and resiliency have become huge buzzwords. The way we look at it, sustainability is more actions, built forms, and strategies ... like harnessing wind or solar power to generate energy, things of that nature. Whereas resiliency is more combating nature's power; [Hurricane] Sandy really brought that to people's forefront.
New York City has more than 500 miles of waterfront—it's one of the largest waterfront cities anywhere, and most people don't think of New York City in that sense, because we're so densely built up. Post Sandy, that awareness has really come through.

We've been working closely with other city agencies in looking at our waterfront. The [Department of Planning] has undertaken a resiliency effort in which we're looking at 10 distinct areas along the Atlantic seaboard—all the way from Queens to Brooklyn to Staten Island to portions of Lower Manhattan—that were really hit hard by Sandy, and coming up with strategies to create [more resilient building forms].

We also took a hard look at our zoning provisions to make sure that any impediments to building more sustainable buildings were removed. The City is engaged in a PlaNYC exercise, which is looking comprehensively at the entire city and ... our strategies for sustainability.

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