The Real Deal New York

At the desk of: Marisa Lago

The City Planning director on Brooklyn embroidery, LaGuardia flight patterns and dumpster diving in agency trash
By Kathryn Brenzel | October 01, 2017 01:00PM

Marisa Lago (Photos by Michael McWeeney)

Marisa Lago’s office sits on the 31st floor of the Equitable Building at 120 Broadway in Lower Manhattan — a fitting home for the Department of City Planning. The 40-story, block-wide tower inspired New York’s landmark 1916 zoning resolution, which placed limits on buildings’ heights and established setback requirements to prevent the obstruction of light and air. Lago, 61, started her career at the department in 1983 as an aide. After more than 30 years in city, state and federal government — including at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the U.S. Treasury Department and as president of the Empire State Development Corporation — along with a five-year stint in the private sector working for Citigroup, she found her way back to the agency in January. That’s when Mayor Bill de Blasio tapped her to replace Carl Weisbrod as the department’s director and as the chair of the City Planning Commission. In her role, Lago, who has a law degree from Harvard University, oversees 320 people and reviews roughly 450 applications each year. She’s also charged with promoting the mayor’s affordable housing agenda, often by initiating rezoning efforts. Lago rejoined the department right after it launched the land use review process for the Midtown East rezoning, and she has since overseen the rezoning of downtown Far Rockaway, which is expected to add 3,000 residential units to the area. She and her husband, Ron Finiw, an architect, are currently renovating their apartment in Tribeca.

Embroidered  Brooklyn

Lago lived in Brooklyn until she was 5 years old, when her family moved to northern New Jersey. One of her memories from those years is going with her father to pick up her grandfather — who worked as a cook on a tugboat— from the piers at what is now Brooklyn Bridge Park. Her mother made this Brooklyn-themed embroidery, which features different neighborhoods and borough icons, in 2005. She also made all of Lago’s clothing when she was growing up. “I always had the best embroidered bell-bottoms because my mom was so good,” Lago said.

Goose slippers

These bird-shaped slippers don’t get much wear because they’re hard to walk in, but they’re too unique and sentimental to part with. A colleague gifted them to Lago in 1994 when she left City Planning for a position in Boston’s economic development agency. “When I was leaving, one of my colleagues said, ‘Marisa, you are going to Boston. They dress so conservatively, so you need gray pinstripes,’” she said. “And he gave me the slippers.” The joke lives on.

Globe collection

These globes have been given to Lago by friends over the years to acknowledge her extensive travel — she’s been to 86 countries. She visited 43 countries — including Afghanistan, South Sudan and Vietnam — while working as the U.S. Treasury Department’s assistant secretary for international markets and development during the Obama administration. She said she was struck by how economic development work abroad is focused on “alleviating poverty, helping the most disenfranchised, but also figuring out the role of government.”


Lago, who received her bachelor’s degree in physics from Cooper Union in 1977, said she’s likely part of the last generation of physicists to be trained on a slide rule. She now has an affinity for retro mathematical tools and purchased this abacus at an open-air flea market when she visited Beijing in 2011.

Deal tombstone

When Lago was general counsel for the city’s Economic Development Corporation in the early 1990s, she and Weisbrod (then president of EDC) negotiated the expansion of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens. This is the deal “tombstone” to commemorate the $150 million bond that was issued for the construction of Arthur Ashe Stadium, the site’s main arena, in 1994. She said: “The single toughest [challenge] was getting the Federal Aviation Administration to change the flight patterns at LaGuardia during the weeks of the U.S. Open. If you watched the U.S. Open years ago — even on TV — you could hear the jets.”

Occupation tile

Lago’s parents gave her this tile, which is part of a popular occupation-themed comic series in Spain. Lago’s has an attorney, since she received her law degree at
Harvard in 1982.
The title reads in Spanish, “A lawyer lives here,” and has a speech bubble above the cartoon lawyer that says: “I am the law, yes sir, the law.” The daughter of Spanish immigrants, Lago didn’t learn English until she started school. “My parents gave me the gift of never speaking to me in English,” she said. “I went to kindergarten at P.S. 8 not speaking a word of it.”

1969 plans

When Lago was at City Planning in the 1980s, she nabbed these documents from the trash, which included the department’s famed 1969 “Plan for New York City.” “They were in the garbage, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is my city, these are gems,’” she said. “When I came back here, planners saw it and said, ‘Oh my gosh, you’ve got the ’69 plan!’”


When Weisbrod left the city’s EDC in 1994, he hired an artist to make these vases for his senior staffers. Lago was “heartsick” when hers broke during one of her office moves. When she met with Weisbrod years later before taking over for him at City Planning, she saw his vase and told him that hers had shattered. Sure enough, when she moved into the office, Weisbrod had left it for her.