The Closing: Carl Weisbrod

The former planning chief on his vivid memory of JFK, tackling racism on the city level, and how Times Square and Lower Manhattan can thrive post-Covid

Sep.September 21, 2020 07:00 AM

Carl Weisbrod (Photo by Studio Scrivo)

Carl Weisbrod has been a fixture in city government for more than four decades. He joined the administration of New York City Mayor John Lindsay as an attorney with the Department of Relocation in 1970 and was later tapped to spearhead the transformation of Times Square while also serving as executive director of the Department of City Planning. Weisbrod went on to found and lead the city’s Economic Development Corporation in the 1990s, where he secured the U.S. Tennis Association’s 99-year lease in Flushing Meadows–Corona Park. He led redevelopment efforts of Downtown Manhattan, before and after Sept. 11,  as a director of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. and created the Alliance for Downtown New York — the city’s largest business improvement district. Weisbrod was summoned to City Planning again in 2014 when Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed him to chair the commission and run the department. After playing a key role in shaping the mayor’s affordable housing program, including the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing initiative, Weisbrod stepped down in 2017. He has since served a brief stint on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board and now works as a senior adviser with the real estate consulting firm HR&A Advisors. Weisbrod is also on the board charged with redeveloping Governors Island.

Born: October 5, 1944
Lives in: Roosevelt Island, Manhattan
Hometown: Fresh Meadows, Queens
Family: Married

Before you entered city government, you worked as an anti-poverty attorney. What was that like? I graduated from law school in the tumultuous — and the only year that I find roughly remotely comparable to 2020 — 1968. It was a year of extraordinary change, obviously, and I really wanted to be a part of it. And so I went to work first in Harlem on 116th Street and Eighth Avenue and then in Mobilization for Youth’s Legal Services.

I was mostly suing New York City government all the time and representing squatters who were taking over abandoned buildings in Manhattan Valley and mothers who were living in squalid conditions in West Side hotels. And that had an enormous impact.

Was it strange to go from suing the city to working for the city? Well, one of the people I was suing constantly was Amalia Betanzos, who was John Lindsay’s commissioner of relocation. She was a very smart, very strong woman, really one of the true pioneers of the city and one of the real leaders of the Puerto Rican community in New York then. I was constantly suing her. She finally said to me, “Look, if you think you can do any better, come in and try to do it.” And so I did, and I found myself working on emergency housing issues.

What role should zoning and city planning play in combating racism? Zoning is one tool in a whole toolbox of planning. But both zoning and planning absolutely should be a big part of this discussion about not only race but poverty and how we address the extraordinary inequality that we have in New York and around the country.

What we’ve seen underscored by this pandemic is that it has affected people of color, low-income people, undocumented people, frontline workers — and the neighborhoods in which those various demographic groups are concentrated — in a highly disproportionate fashion. We have to do a lot more.

What is the focus of HR&A’s work? We do work really all over the country. We have a very good understanding of both the private sector and how that works and how government can both regulate and oversee the private sector appropriately in the public’s interest.

How has your work been affected by the pandemic? Has it shifted some of your priorities? It certainly has shifted our priorities to some extent because we are working now with very needy clients, whether they’re governmental, whether they’re private, whether they’re institutional, whether they’re advocacy organizations. It’s a very challenging time.

I’ve been through every single New York City crisis since the mid 1970s, including the city fiscal crisis. By far, this is the most challenging one of them all. Because it’s an economic crisis, it’s a health crisis, and it’s now a criminal justice crisis.

You played a key role in the transformation of Times Square and Lower Manhattan, both of which have become business centers in their own right as well as tourist attractions. Will those neighborhoods recover from the pandemic? We don’t go back to what we were before, however much some of us may have liked that, but we go on to better things. In the early 1990s, Lower Manhattan was in distress. It was a one-dimensional neighborhood. It had a commercial vacancy rate of about 25 percent. It didn’t have much in the way of housing. That started changing before 9/11. We introduced housing to Lower Manhattan. We started the idea of creating a mixed-use neighborhood. So will Lower Manhattan and Times Square be more vibrant than ever? When this pandemic is behind us, the answer to that is yes.

What were the biggest lessons you learned from the transformation of Times Square? There were those who said, “Oh, it’s going to be sanitized. It’s only going to be for the rich. It’s only going to displace poor people.” You know, that’s not what happens. It became such a populous center that people were saying, “It’s too crowded. … It’s too appealing to people from all over.” I never thought it would become a bastion for elitism. But I think one thing that will happen as we come out of this pandemic, I think this will be the place that will be reclaimed by New Yorkers.

Have you been disappointed with the progress of the mayor’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program? Yeah, I mean, I wish we’d seen more. It was clear that most community boards, even though they all support affordable housing in theory, voted against it. Some voted against it because they thought it didn’t go far enough. Some voted against it because they thought it went too far.

But as I‘ve said several times, there are neighborhoods that don’t want poor people moving in. There are other neighborhoods that don’t want rich people moving in. And there are many neighborhoods that don’t want anybody moving in. Hopefully, communities will see the light and how critical housing is to the future of the city — particularly affordable housing.

You live on Roosevelt Island. Do you still own an apartment in Miami? Yes, I have an apartment in South Beach.

How often do you go there? You know, not as often as I would like. We made a decision at the outset of this pandemic that we wanted to stay in New York, and we’ve been in New York throughout then — pretty much on Roosevelt Island for months. I left my last stint in city government with the expectation that we would go to South Beach a lot during the wintertime, at least. But that never materialized. I’ve just been too busy.

You grew up in Queens and the Bronx, right? Well, I grew up in Queens. I was born in the Bronx. I guess I was technically born in a Manhattan hospital, but my parents took me home to the Bronx Parkchester, where we lived. Then when I was about five, we moved to Queens, to Fresh Meadows. And that’s where I grew up, really.

What did your parents do? My father was a paper salesman with a company on the Lower East Side on Ludlow Street. And my mother was a bank teller at the Chase Manhattan Bank.

Do you feel like you were influenced by your neighborhood? I went to college at 16 in 1961, at the beginning of the social and political revolutions in the country. I arrived at both an impressionable age and at the beginning of what was a dramatic transformation in America. And that really became the foundation for almost everything I value today.

My political awakening certainly was John F. Kennedy getting elected president, and still to this day, I have this extraordinary, vivid memory of Kennedy going through a motorcade in Queens in the fall of 1960. He was driving by, and I saw him in person behind the window in his car, shocked because I had never seen him in color, shocked that he was so tanned. I was still a senior in high school, and two or three blocks from Jamaica High School a few weeks later, Richard Nixon gave a small rally on a rainy day that was pretty tepid, pretty pathetic. And then I knew that Kennedy was going to be elected.

Why did you go to school at such a young age? I skipped a grade or two. I thought at the time that it was great to get somewhere fast. I’m not sure it was such a good idea in hindsight. I think I was too young to start at college. But so be it. I survived.

Did you feel out of place socially? Yeah, I went to Cornell. I was 16 years old. The freshmen women were hardly interested in me. So, it wasn’t until I became a sophomore that there was any hope of getting at least a date.

Did you start out majoring in labor relations or did you find that once you got to Cornell? I started out doing it. I had to work my way through school for the most part. It was at a time when labor relations was, frankly, a much more dynamic field than it is today, and much of the labor force in this country was organized. And to this day, I have a very high regard for the labor movement. I think one of the reasons that the middle class has since fallen behind is because the private sector labor movement has really been diminished.

What jobs did you take to work your way through school? I mostly worked as a waiter in a sorority house. That was another way to actually end up having dates.

How did you and your wife meet? We were fixed up through a mutual friend.

Where was the first date, if you don’t mind me asking? We met for lunch at a restaurant that is no longer in existence in Union Square. That was in 1977. I remember the date precisely, mainly because it was the anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination. And we started living together shortly thereafter, and then got married in January 1979.

What’s your favorite thing to do outside of work? I like to play golf, but I also like to go on an annual Outward Bound trip that was originally organized by Arthur Levitt and John Whitehead. I’ve been doing that for 25 years, and I have to say that I’ve seen parts of the country and the world in a way that I feel so fortunate to have seen.

What was the most memorable moment? I think the most memorable thing was my first trip, which was in the mid 1990s, when John Whitehead was then in his mid 60s, and we climbed Mount Powell in Colorado. It was a gruesome and very difficult climb. To see John Whitehead, who had, in addition to being the former chair of Goldman Sachs, had landed in the first wave at both D-Day and Iwo Jima, climb that mountain was really inspirational because it was hard for me, and I was 30 years younger.

What do you want your legacy to be? What happens over the years is that you end up mentoring so many smart younger people — sometimes people my own age — but mostly people who become the leaders of the future and are sprinkled now throughout New York City government. That’s really my legacy. I know that they’re going to be the next generation, and I feel pretty confident that the city will be in good hands.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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