Avi Schick’s foray into the world of economic development has been swift. Less than two years ago, Mr. Schick, 41, was a deputy in the state attorney general’s office, the lead prosecutor on Eliot Spitzer’s suit against former New York Stock Exchange Chairman Dick Grasso.
A longtime attorney, today he sits as president and acting CEO of New York State’s powerful development agency, with control over numerous multibillion-dollar projects such as the redevelopment of Pennsylvania Station, the Javits Center expansion and the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn. With a new administration in Albany and the top position vacant following the recent resignation of the Empire State Development Corporation’s co-chairman, Patrick Foye, a well-connected Mr. Schick is pushing to make his temporary role at the agency’s top a permanent one, according to people with knowledge of his plans.
Reviews of his 15-month tenure as ESDC president, a key oversight position, are mixed as he has formed powerful allies and a set of detractors.
His supporters, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver among them, speak of an intelligent, active, competent official who has been a highly effective administrator for the projects in his purview.
His critics—who include numerous government officials, business executives and others who have worked with him—paint almost the inverse picture, claiming they find Mr. Schick forceful, uncompromising and often slow-moving, to the point where having a working relationship with him becomes difficult. Comparisons to the steamroller model of Mr. Spitzer, his former boss, are myriad.
Mr. Schick began emerging in the public’s view about a year ago, when he appeared at a City Council hearing on downtown. Reading a brief statement, he announced that Governor Spitzer would reinvigorate the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, an agency Governor Pataki had left to dissolve and Mr. Spitzer had criticized in his 2006 campaign. Mr. Schick, already serving as one of two top officials at ESDC, was then appointed chairman of the reborn Lower Manhattan agency, giving Mr. Spitzer a presence downtown.
After that April hearing, Mr. Schick quickly assumed the position of the state’s go-to guy on a multitude of issues, spanning from the Performing Arts Center planned for the World Trade Center site, to the administration of tens of millions of dollars in grants, to wooing financial titan Merrill Lynch to remain in a location downtown.
A physically imposing Orthodox Jew from Brooklyn, Mr. Schick is cordial and warm in casual conversation, noticeably fidgeting his legs as he sits and talks with a confidence about his work. The posts of LMDC chairman and ESDC president, which also includes overseeing the $4 billion-plus Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn and the possible use of eminent domain for Columbia University’s West Harlem expansion, keep him tied to his work, so much so that he has said he’s added a visible set of gray hairs to his previously jet-black beard.
His tangible successes, his associates and advocates say, include helping substantially enhance a bid to keep Merrill Lynch downtown and reaching a compromise agreement over the Survivors’ Staircase in the World Trade Center site, transporting it into storage before it will be moved to the memorial museum to rise at Ground Zero. The New York Landmarks Conservancy was delighted with his work, and is planning to give Mr. Schick an award next month.
Such actions and advocacy downtown have earned him plaudits from one of the most powerful men in the state, Mr. Silver, the Assembly speaker, who said he has a close relationship with Mr. Schick.
“I think he’s been very effective,” Mr. Silver said. Should Mr. Schick be in the running for the ESDC chairmanship, Mr. Silver said he would back the move. “I would absolutely support it because I’ve seen him work 24 hours a day, literally 24 hours. He’s done very well.”
The developers of Atlantic Yards, Forest City Ratner, also give high marks to Mr. Schick, with CEO Bruce Ratner praising him for his intelligence and competence.
“He’s got a combination of legal ability, leadership and also being able to pull together both lawyers, agencies and the private sector,” Mr. Ratner said. “Compared to other people I’ve worked with in government, he’s on the very, very top.”
Still, Mr. Schick seems to have a large set of detractors, particularly surrounding his dealings in Lower Manhattan. Numerous officials from multiple spheres of government, downtown residents, people in the business community, and others who have worked with him claim, in often caustic terms, that Mr. Schick has carried a prosecutor’s mentality with him to his job, working poorly with others and rarely yielding in his positions, slowing progress on projects.
“He’s impossible to deal with,” said one former government official. “There’s no sense of collegiality or team spirit.”