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07.30.2008
Profile: Vishaan Chakrabarti

Yoko Inoue
 

Vishaan Chakrabarti
Executive Vice President of Design and Planning
The Related Companies

From his office on the 26th floor of the Hearst Building, Vishaan Chakrabarti points towards his floor-to-ceiling windows, intent that his guests look out on Clinton, the West Side neighborhood below. “Right out that window is the most protected neighborhood in all of America in terms of zoning and low-income housing standards.” Chakrabarti, who last week was named Executive Vice President of Design and Planning for Related Companies, has been thinking a lot about Clinton—and other neighborhoods that could be keys to preparing New York for tremendous growth in the coming years—as he tries to turn the long-talked-about Moynihan Station into reality. The most important question, he believes, is how to build necessary infrastructure. To stop thinking big “is a wild mistake… Are we going to build the infrastructure that keeps up with all that development? That’s where the challenge lies. We’ve got competitors who are doing that much better—and not just London. It’s Shanghai, it’s Hong Kong, it’s Mumbai.”

While much of the Moynihan Station project has focused on the use of the Farley Post Office as the new Beaux Arts home for Penn Station—a nod to the original torn down between 1962 and 1964—Chakrabarti said that anyone who has thought of the bigger picture realizes that more than the station needs to be rehabbed: “There are really interesting questions about why the area around Penn Station never grew the way the area around Grand Central did.” But whatever the causes, he believes the area needs office buildings, hotels, and residential space in addition to the new station. He hopes the Amtrak bill that recently passed in Congress will help people see the need for a vastly overhauled transportation hub on the West Side. Although trained as an architect, he said that design comes lower on the list of priorities when brokering a deal as huge and intricate as the Moynihan Station.

As head of the Manhattan office of the Department of City Planning from 2002 to 2004, Chakrabarti, 42, advocated for the development of the Hudson Yards, a plan that’s still very much a part of his vision of the future city, with high-density housing close to transportation. But a project like that, he said, can only be accomplished through public-private partnerships: “The private sector built Grand Central terminal and the original Penn Station, right? So it always amazes me when I read some of this stuff [disparaging the involvement of the private sector]. I don’t understand people’s lack of historical understanding about how much of New York City is actually built that way.” There’s no reason why Moynihan Station and the Hudson Yards, he said, should be an exception.

The nattily dressed Chakrabarti, development’s answer to Gay Talese, talks and writes a lot about what he sees as misguided ideas about city planning, particularly the notion that big is automatically bad. Call it the Jane Jacobs effect, but a lot of people get nervous when developers arrive on the scene. Chakrabarti understands the instinct to protect a neighborhood’s scale, but he believes that in a world with gas prices heading towards $5 a gallon, we can’t afford to think low-rise anymore. “The idea that you would keep the largest transportation hub in the Western hemisphere— Penn Station, which is busier than all three airports combined —low density is environmentally irresponsible.”

The public is a lot more savvy about planning than even ten years ago, he contends, in part because the doings at the World Trade Center site became tabloid fodder. But he is still frustrated by the small vision of some of his fellow New Yorkers: He cites a woman at a planning meeting who asked him why he kept talking about the growth of New York. “Isn’t New York grown up?” she wondered. That kind of thinking astounds Chakrabarti, who argues that staying still is functionally the same as regressing. “I believe New York is fundamentally much more an Asian city than it is a European one—in its context, in its culture, in the way it builds things… A lot of people don’t want to hear that.”

Still, on recent trips to China, he has been horrified by the amount of demolition: “It is astonishing how much urban fabric has been torn down in inner city Shanghai and inner city Beijing.... They’ve lost their Sohos and Tribecas, while pieces of their West Village are hanging on for dear life.”

But New York, Chakrabarti worries, currently suffers the opposite tendency, with preservation being used as a tool to stop development. At the same time, the criteria for saving buildings have proven inconsistent: Why aren’t more modern buildings being saved, too? And if they are, where is the line drawn between what’s worth preserving and what isn’t? “I think preservation has a place. I think the bigger problem with preservation is that it’s fundamentally an asymptote.” He points to the Meatpacking District as a case in point: What started as an effort to keep the low-scale character of the neighborhood led to zoning that bred a local “Hotlanta.”

Chakrabarti feels that great cities depend upon a balance of infrastructure, density, and preservation. When one of these veers off kilter, its future is in danger. He sees the High Line—he’s on the board of Friends of the High Line—as a good model: “One of my favorite notions about the High Line is that it’s a structure that Robert Moses built and Jane Jacobs would love. I will argue to my death that it’s going to result in the most architecturally ambitious neighborhood in this city and it’s going to do everything she talked about.” Not all of Moses’ legacy is worthy of derision, he said. “It’s just balance.”

Angela Starita