Planning leader looking to change history

By Konrad Putzier

Purnima Kapur

Purnima Kapur

Last summer, Purnima Kapur left Brooklyn behind and moved her office to the Department of City Planning’s headquarters in Lower Manhattan.
As the agency’s new executive director, she now oversees its 300 employees and operations across the entire city. But New York’s largest borough still has a special importance to her.

“I miss Brooklyn, it’s sort of where my planning heart lies,” she said, speaking ahead of her keynote appearance at Real Estate Weekly’s annual Women’s Forum today (Wednesday).

Kapur began her career in the Department of City Planning’s (DCP) Brooklyn office in 1989, and later ran it as director from 2006 to 2014.
Brooklyn was the place whose diverse and worldly population made her, an immigrant from India, feel at home.

And she returned the favor (for those who like gentrification), playing an important role in the borough’s economic and demographic boom of the past decade.

At the turn of the millennium, Kapur worked on the precursor of Downtown Brooklyn’s rezoning, ushering in the current high-rise construction frenzy.
More recently, she headed the DCP’s East New York study, which will serve as a guideline for the neighborhood’s rezoning.

East New York happens to be at the heart of Mayor de Blasio’s push to create 80,000 new units of affordable housing over the coming decade. For Kapur, this has the welcome side-effect that Brooklyn’s development will continue to play a major role in her work.
Earlier this year, the DCP unveiled details of the rezoning, which it hopes will lead to the creation of 7,250 new housing units and 1.26 million s/f of commercial space. According to Kapur, the neighborhood is an ideal candidate for rezoning because of its infrastructure.

“It’s one of the few neighborhoods outside of Atlantic Center that has the highest concentration of subways, as well as the Long Island Railroad,” Kapur said. “It takes less than 30 minutes to lower Manhattan. This is a neighborhood that has the potential to be very, very desirable.” Moreover, she pointed out, East New York once had a much larger population than it does today — meaning its infrastructure can likely accommodate a surge in residents.

In 1960, 60,000 people lived in East New York, according to New York YIMBY, significantly more than the current 48,000.
Kapur explained that the DCP conducted 40-50 town hall-style meetings with local residents in the run-up to the re-zoning. The DCP also organized walking tours of East New York and hosted workshops in schools.

The goal, according to Kapur, was to better understand the residents’ needs. And she soon learned that most of them weren’t categorically opposed to rezoning — on the contrary. “It’s a very diverse community, and it has people that are very interested in change,” she said.

It is hardly surprising that Kapur puts such an emphasis on meeting locals. After all, it’s how she first decided to become an urban planner.
As an architecture student at the School of Planning and Architecture in her native New Delhi, she wrote her thesis on a makeshift housing settlement in Delhi. Her research involved visiting the settlement and talking to locals.

Although initially tasked with designing a new settlement, Kapur became more and more interested in the way locals decide how to build and where to live. She even went as far as visiting a remote village to figure out how the migrants’ rural background influenced their choices. This research, she said, sparked her interest in housing policy.

After briefly working as an architect, Kapur left India in 1986 to pursue a Masters degree in Planning and Architectural Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Upon graduation, she immediately got hired by the Department of City Planning and hasn’t left the agency since.
“I had never done planning at that level, but it was neighborhood-centered, which had certain degree of appeal,” she recalled.

Although Kapur knew little about New York, she quickly learned on the job and began to appreciate the city’s opportunities. “New York City is as urban and as fabulous as it gets as an urban planner. It is the ultimate city,” she said. She would know. During her time in Brooklyn and the Bronx, she had her hand in more than 40 rezonings. She helped transform neighborhoods as diverse as Port Morris, Coney Island, Greenpoint and Gowanus.
As a long-time Cobble Hill resident — she now lives on the Upper East Side with her husband and 18-year-old son — she also experienced the borough’s transformation on a personal level.

“It used to be dangerous to walk down the streets at night,” she recalled. “People who live in Cobble Hill now just look at me like I’m crazy when I say that.”

In Cobble Hill and other neighborhoods in Brooklyn’s North West, urban renewal came with a cost: skyrocketing rents that pushed out low-income residents.
Purnima Kapur and the DCP are working hard to make sure this history will not repeat itself in East New York.

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