Professor Skyscraper

vishaan Professor SkyscraperIn a late September planning conference at N.Y.U., Vishaan Chakrabarti strode into the college’s Kimmell Center a healthy hour after the event began.

Taking his place onstage, the former city planning official and development executive began to speak about his favorite project: the redevelopment of Pennsylvania Station-in the planning stages for nearly two decades-an effort he led for developers Related Companies and Vornado Realty Trust.

“What I’ve finally come to realize about this is that as a city, we’re not sufficiently embarrassed by Penn Station,” he said. “You had a private sector that was willing to put $14 billion into that area that right now is the poor stepcousin to midtown, and we couldn’t get our collective act together to do it.

“We simply have a process that’s broken.”

This, more or less, is how Mr. Chakrabarti, 43, spends much of his time these days. The recently named director of the real estate development program at Columbia University’s architecture and planning school, he has been a constant presence at forums on development and transportation, quickly assuming the pundit’s role. Unbound by a profit-sensitive employer, he is free to spout on, uncensored, about how suburban growth is madness; to criticize the federal stimulus’ focus on road repairs; and to complain about mismatches in transportation spending, such as the new PATH terminal downtown being slated to cost more than $3 billion to serve 60,000 passengers a day.

The job of bulking up Columbia’s program is the latest turn for one of the more ambitious, young figures in the world of New York City planning and development, someone who has always managed to find himself in a prominent and public role, typically on the city’s most visible projects.

In many ways, Mr. Chakrabarti’s résumé reads like a book about the city’s real estate industry in the past decade, as he’s followed the industry as it grew steadily more ambitious before recently retreating from investment in the wake of the credit crunch and the recession.

 

TEN YEARS AGO, THE financial services sector was growing fast, expanding its real estate and bringing Mr. Chakrabarti along with it. An associate partner at the powerhouse architecture firm Skidmore Owings & Merrill, he worked on the design of Bear Stearns’ soaring new headquarters at 46th Street and Madison Avenue, and then pushed a fresh trading floor for the New York Stock Exchange with an office tower above it.

The next chapter was Sept. 11, 2001, and its aftermath.