Holly Leicht, the executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, announced today that she is leaving the non-profit to work at HUD, where she will be the federal agency’s regional director for New York and New Jersey, filling a position that has been vacant since former Bronx borough president and Office of Urban Affairs director Adolfo Carrion stepped down as Region 2 director in 2012.
While the new position might seem a departure from the parks advocacy that she has been immersed in since coming to the non-profit in March 2011, Ms. Leicht spent much of her career working in housing and urban development. Before joining New Yorkers for Parks, she was the deputy commissioner for development at the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. At HPD, she implemented a juried competition with the American Institute of Architects that resulted in the widely-celebrated Via Verde, a green affordable housing project in the Bronx that is considered a blueprint for introducing sustainable, cutting edge architecture into an area that was historically defined by blandly functional design.
Before joining HPD, Ms. Leicht also worked as the Director of Planning for offsite projects at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation; she has also worked at the Municipal Art Society.
In her new role at HUD, Ms. Leicht will focus on the region’s ongoing Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts, working under Shaun Donovan, her former boss at HPD, who left the city agency to become HUD Secretary in 2008.
“Focusing on the Sandy recovery feels like it brings in a lot of what we’ve been working on in terms of open space, as well as my background in housing—many of the municipalities are working at building up natural areas along the waterfront,” Ms. Leicht told The Observer. “I think there’s a lot of synergy between the work I’ve done at New Yorkers for Parks and this new role.”
Though the office of regional director has been empty since Mr. Carrion stepped down in February 2012, a task force, whose mandate ended this September, has been handling Sandy recovery operations since the natural disaster, according to Ms. Leicht.
“New Yorkers for Parks has had extraordinary success under Holly’s leadership,” said Edward C. Wallace, Chairman of New Yorkers for Parks, in a statement. “It’s rare to find a leader who possesses such a sterling combination of passionate idealism and strategic pragmatism. Thanks to that combination, New Yorkers for Parks has truly made an impact and delivered results during her nearly three-year tenure.”
At New Yorkers for Parks, Ms. Leicht led the agency during a prosperous era for parks, with the Bloomberg administration lavishing funds on parks expansion, adding more than 730 acres to the system with 2,000 more in the works at Fresh Kills. More controversially, his administration championed public private partnerships, which helped to pay for innovative greenswards like the High Line and Brooklyn Bridge Park, but also brought criticism for allegedly exacerbating the city’s growing inequality, a central focus of the de Blasio campaign.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has yet to name a new Parks Commissioner, has discussed the possibility of redistributing funds collected by wealthy parks conservancies, a move that critics say runs the risk of hurting successful non-profits and the parks they manage with minimal benefit to poorer ones.
Ms. Leicht, whose last day at New Yorkers for Parks will be January 10, said that there are many challenges ahead for the city’s parks—”The Bloomberg administration has been hugely successful in creating new parkland, but haven’t really kept up with maintenance,” she opined. Deciding how to distribute funds between capital and maintenance needs, as well as determining the future of public private partnerships are the major parks-related challenges facing the new administration, she said, adding that the answer will involve addressing parks disparities without “pitching partnerships out or cannibalizing the successful ones.”