Professor Skyscraper

The private real estate sector slowed dramatically-the stock exchange plan was shelved-and the new Bloomberg administration turned to the Planning Department to leave a mark on the city, particularly by spurring growth in sleepy, underutilized swaths of Manhattan, and by rebuilding Lower Manhattan.

Plucking him from Skidmore, the new Department of City Planning director, Amanda Burden, brought on Mr. Chakrabarti as the agency’s Manhattan director in 2002. From that perch, he helped create a plan for a revitalized downtown and lead major efforts such as the High Line and the rezoning of the far West Side, along with the failed push to put a football stadium over the rail yards by the Javits Center.

With the real estate boom in full swing, private developers reached for the skies. Mr. Chakrabarti left the city in 2005, and, after a brief, uncomfortable stint back at Skidmore, he took a job at the Related Companies and Vornado Realty Trust, leading their plan to completely redo Penn Station. Known as Moynihan Station, the project sought to move Madison Square Garden to the Farley Post Office, and thereby unleash more than 5 million square feet of development rights. The $14 billion project was perhaps the city’s most complex development deal, and Mr. Chakrabarti was at its head-giving presentations to then Governor Eliot Spitzer and sorting through the array of agencies and actors involved. Hampered by uncertainty and cost, that large deal collapsed when Governor Spitzer left office. (Mr. Chakrabarti is still working on a smaller form of the project.)

As the Moynihan deal slowly unraveled, Mr. Chakrabarti also led the planning on Related’s proposal to develop the West Side rail yards-the football stadium site-a $15 billion investment of its own.

Through all of this, he was the public face-a visibly self-confident (his critics call him overconfident) salesman who was eager to talk to the community, reporters or the long list of constituency groups involved with his projects. Mr. Chakrabarti’s eloquence was one of his best qualities in winning whatever support he did.
The local Community Board 4, for instance, abhorred the concept of a stadium, but respected Mr. Chakrabarti.

“He was very well thought of out here in the CB4 community,” said Anna Levin, a City Planning commissioner who was then chair of a land-use committee on the board. “He was always accessible; he was always thinking. I think he had some excellent, comprehensive ideas about good planning in the neighborhood.”

 

AFTER THE DEVELOPMENT BOOM cratered in the absence of financing, there was little activity left at Related for Mr. Chakrabarti, and like the industry as a whole, he retreated from the development business. By his telling, Columbia approached him this summer, looking for someone to build up its real estate development program, which was adding resources and full-time faculty and expanding from two to three semesters. His chair was endowed by Marc Holliday, the chief executive of SL Green, the city’s largest commercial landlord.

Professor Skyscraper