Tell us about your work

Outside Purnima Kapur‘s office, the spires and towers of downtown Brooklyn sparkle in the early fall sunlight.

“Everything we create here is for people to live and work in,” says Kapur, 45, wearing a smart black suit and perching on the windowsill, “and if we don’t understand that, we haven’t succeeded as urban planners.”

As director of the Brooklyn office of the City Planning Department, Kapur is responsible for directing urban design and land use policy. In day-to-day terms that means she balances the needs of communities and business in mapping out neighborhoods.

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On any given day she might meet with members of a community to hear their concerns about having enough sidewalk and park space, for instance. Or she might talk with real estate developers and attorneys about balancing their desire for profit with a community’s need for mixed-income housing and retail stores.

Presently one of her biggest concerns is supervising the controversial redevelopment of Brooklyn’s historic Coney Island, including the now-closed Astroland amusement park.

“Developers are looking at the bottom line, and my job is to make sure the public interest is protected.”

The majority of the Coney Island amusements area is privately owned but the city’s redevelopment proposal calls for acquiring the land and turning it into a park that includes rides, Kapur says. The proposal also includes new retail and affordable housing in the surrounding area.

“It’s gritty, it’s kitschy, it’s not Disney, it’s got its Brooklyn identity and we don’t want to lose that,” she says, her dark hair and eyes shining.

Proposed last November by Mayor Bloomberg, the plan has met plenty of opposition from amusement operators, owners and some neighborhood residents, but Kapur says she and other planners have sought a balance.

“We all love Coney Island; it’s the birthplace of amusement districts in the world,” she says. “But if you go there today, it’s clear Coney Island is past its prime.”

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

I grew up in India, where I went to undergraduate school , which she describes as a “big, teeming city,” and earned a degree in architecture from the School of Planning and Architecture in 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.

She worked briefly as an architect in India and came to the U.S. in her 20s to obtain a master’s of city planning and a master’s of science in architectural studies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.

Here, I found myself taking more and more courses in urban planning. After having gone to a more technical school in India to study architecture, coming here and having the opportunity to really just explore whatever I wanted to at the graduate level was eye-opening for me. I did in graduate school what most kids do in undergraduate education—learning about the world and taking courses in economics, government, accounting, and statistics. I then decided to pursue a dual degree in both architecture and urban planning. And that’s how I ended up in urban planning. I worked a little bit as an architect, but really fostered my professional life as a planner.

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.

Soon after, she moved to New York and began working at the City Planning Department.

“When I first moved here India was home for me, but at some point that shifted,” she says. “I love that New York City brings together people from so many different backgrounds.”

New York requires its residents to live in close quarters. While that can add to stress, she likes the ways sharing space and resources can affect attitudes.

“In a city like New York, [many people] don’t have a backyard, so you go to the park,” she says.

“You don’t have a car, so you take the subway and you learn to deal with sitting with people you don’t know,” she continues. “Our sidewalks, our parks, our plazas — our public spaces become our private spaces.”

How was your experience as urban planner?

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.

“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.”

How does your work benefit the community?

She says having lived in the city’s largest borough gives her insight into Brooklynites’ concerns, such as preventing out-of-scale development in brownstone neighborhoods. Residents agree and credit her with care and skill at communicating.

“People of the ‘brownstone belt’ are concerned about out-of-scale development. Purnima, because she was a resident of that area, understands,” says Jerry Armer, former chairman of Community Board 6, serving Park SlopeCarroll GardensRed Hook, Cobble Hill and Gowanus.

“She’s able to explain complex zoning issues to people who aren’t trained in those issues … [and] she’s honest about, ‘What does this mean for a guy who owns a house or a business?'”

Developers respect her backbone and work ethic.

“We don’t always see eye-to-eye, but she’s forthright in terms of what she thinks is a good idea and what she thinks is not,” says Jed Walentas, a real estate developer who’s worked with Kapur on numerous projects.

“She is always fair. Also, she is always knowledgeable and informed — her energy and intelligence leads to that.”