Vin Cipolla, 21st-Century Preservationist

Location: Before you started here at the beginning of January, you spent three years leading the National Park Foundation. That involves defending trees, not buildings, right?

Mr. Cipolla: Not true! There are 400 national parks, and most of those national park units are buildings. There are 22 national park sites in metro New York. And most of those are really buildings, historic monuments. It’s much more varied than people think.

Have you spent much of your life in New York City?

I have, almost my entire adult life, had an apartment here. There have been periods when I was here full time, and then long stretches when I wasn’t here full time. But through my entire adult life, I’ve been a part of New York, involved with New York, obsessed with New York, and I’ve started businesses here.


You’ve come in at a hard time for New York. Does MAS’s role change when the city and state are basically in economic survival mode?

Our role absolutely does change as the city changes. It gives an organization like MAS an opportunity to focus more on its thought-leadership position. There aren’t going to be as many immediate planning and preservation battles or crises to respond to—MAS is leaving what has been a very reactive period, of neighborhood concerns and historic preservation battles and zoning initiatives. A lot of that stuff has abated. Things are just happening a lot more slowly. It’s different.


One of the things you said you’d be doing in this job is advocating on the federal level for New York, and you had strong ties to the Bush administration. How’s it going with Obama?

I’m spending very little time in Washington. The administration’s moves in public infrastructure investment and thinking about developing a strong urban policy position are very encouraging and very exciting. With federal money becoming available, one would hope that those resources don’t channel just to old-think solutions. We don’t want billions of dollars of infrastructure money available to cities to go to interstate highways. There are other ways to invest those funds in sustainable transportation, in rebuilding urban fabric.

What’s encouraging is that this is a group of people that I think understands cities and believes in cities and believes cities are the future, and so intellectually, all of that potential is there. But then the bureaucratic realities of Washington are the risk, because what a lot of the forces will do is to take this new investment and push it down into backwards, retro, unsustainable investment activities. As an urbanist, that really worries me.


So—Moynihan Station. What are the realistic prospects of that getting funded?

The conversion of the Farley Post Office is the quintessential shovel-ready project. The plans are done. Senator Schumer’s office has been working very hard on it, in terms of directing resources. It’s a very complicated set of players that need to be aligned to make that happen, but we feel very encouraged.


Another thing that MAS has been vocal on lately is the redevelopment of Coney Island. You don’t think it can happen on private land, but don’t want the city to take it through eminent domain. How is that going to work?

It was publicly reported [in early April] that the city made an offer to the developer of about $105 million. The developer had about $93 million invested in the property that the city was trying to buy. So you’ve got the city offering the owner roughly a 10 percent profit, at a time when there are global real estate failings. It’s remarkable, really. Is it then the taxpayer’s obligation to increase the size of the profit? I’m a capitalist. You have to have a motivated seller, and an eager buyer, and we have an eager buyer who seems to have made a solid offer. Our hope is that that negotiation is successful and that the city does acquire the property.


So Joe Sitt is not going to hold out for the extra $50 million he wants?

I don’t know.


The M.T.A. has also been short of cash lately. What can be done?

I think we need to see a large and sustainable commitment at the federal and state levels for public transportation in this country. Period. And we need to change the funding paradigm and think in a different model in terms of what we’re investing in and what we’re building as a country. Until that happens, we’re going to have a deteriorating existing public transportation infrastructure, only small incremental improvements, and more burden on the back of public transportation consumers. It needs to be a global policy shift. I think we have a president who understands this, but I think we have a country that largely doesn’t understand this. I mean, just look at what we subsidize today. When you look at how little money goes to support public transportation vs. what goes to support roads, bridges and the automobile industry, it’s no wonder we’re facing fare hikes.


What’s your commute like?

I walk. Or take the subway. I live in Carnegie Hill.


The conversion of the Farley Post Office is the quintessential shovel-ready project.

What are some of your favorite newish architecture projects in the city?

On the new side, I really like the Standard Hotel. I like all the High Line–related stuff. Some of it may never become reality, but it’s easy to get charged up about that. It’s really cool. I like the New Museum. I like the cubes. I love DS+R, they just did Tully. I went on a hard hat tour, it’s absolutely magnificent. It’s so cool. So there’s been some great stuff happening—not enough. In this environment, you know, when are we going to get a great new building?


Would you say you have a pet issue?

I have a lot of pet issues. Public transportation is a pet issue. Social and business entrepreneurship is a pet issue. Another pet interest is responsible landlords. What we’re seeing now in New York is that as retail places are going out of business, which is very sad, some of the property owners now are boarding up, literally creating blight. It’s disrespectful to the people who live and work in those communities. It’s happening at a greater rate, and I think that’s really alarming. It’s very un-Jacobsean. The whole idea is for a building to be a good neighbor to the one next to it.


What’s your feeling about term limits?

I’m a fan of term limits. Political change excites me. I think there’s a very legitimate debate, but I’m a term-limits guy.


Does Mayor Bloomberg deserve another term?

He deserves another term if the city of New York elects him.


You haven’t been too vocal as a spokesperson yet. Are you the person who should be the one speaking for MAS?

I will be. I’m new; and we’re working on a lot of things internally right now. So I’m doing a little more listening now than I am talking.


Has it been a steep learning curve?

No. I’ve always followed all this stuff. But obviously I haven’t had the opportunity to work on it or act on it. The charitable environment is really under tremendous stress; and that’s very disconcerting and unnerving.


How much has MAS’s funding been off?

Probably about a 20 percent decline [from the same time last year].


What about MAS do you want to change or modernize?

I think that we have to embrace change, and really take advantage of new media and Internet communication to do our work. Planning and preservation advocacy, historically, has been a totally offline activity. There are wonderful aspects to that, it’s very familial. People understand how to interact with each other over many decades of work. New forms of communication represent new models for conducting this work that, actually, if you’re open to it, while it doesn’t have the same kind of emotional pieces, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t the same underlying integrity. And on the upside, there’s an opportunity to make things more populist, to get out of the elite-driven boxes that this work has been in over time.


Does MAS have a Twitter feed yet?

We do.


You do?

All that stuff is firing up. Vin Cipolla, 21st-Century Preservationist