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Forty years in, Alex Garvin is far from finished.

It's been four decades now since Alexander Garvin, then a senior at Yale University, was gifted a copy of Jane Jacob's "The Death and Life of Great American Cities." In the years since, Garvin has been a force in city planning and real estate in New York, wearing an improbable number of different hats along with his signature bow tie, a trademark he insists developed out of practicality rather than fashion concerns.

"I studied architecture in France after college and all the work there was done with pen and ink," Garvin recalled, "Imagine your tie getting in the ink? I don't care about the tie, but the draft would be ruined."

Here in New York, Garvin and his bow tie have been a part of five mayoral administrations, serving at various times as Deputy Commissioner of Housing, City Planning Commissioner, lead planner for Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and managing director for NYC2012: the city's bid for the Olympic games. Garvin has also spent time in the private sector, owning and operating residential buildings and balances out this interest authoring books and essays on urban planning and teaching undergraduate courses at Yale University and grad-level courses at the Yale School of Architecture. Despite his busy past resume, Garvin, 65, isn't ready for retirement any time soon.

"Really, my feeling is I'm just getting started," said Garvin, who launched his own consulting firm, Alexander Garvin & Associates, in 2004. "I have projects around the country ... Slowly, we're building up an interesting list of projects."

Garvin's firm specializes in the development of projects in the public realm, such as parks and neighborhood planning. Currently, the firm is consulting on East River waterfront development and land use analyses here in New York, a 4,500-acre park outside Memphis, Tennessee and a proposal for the Olmsted-inspired BeltLine park in Atlanta to name a few. Garvin says what sets his firm apart from others is the experience he brings to the table.

"I'd say I have a unique understanding of how cities work," Garvin said. "I've been looking at this stuff all my adult life. I know what works and doesn't work ... particularly with public projects where you have to balance many often competing needs."

Garvin says his understanding of these issues initially came not only from his coursework at Yale, but also from his love of exploration. On weekends as a young man, the Upper West Side native would take subway trips to far-flung neighborhoods just to see what was there. These days, when the situation warrants it, Garvin enjoys viewing his project sites from inside a helicopter.

"You can see things from the air that you cannot see from the ground. It's quite simple." said Garvin. "Like in Atlanta, when I got up in the air I could see this massive quarry. There's no road access and it would have slipped by otherwise. Now we're going to turn that quarry into a lake and Atlanta's largest park."

Garvin has a good view of the entire architecture/planning world from his perch as Adjunct Professor of Urban Planning and Management at Yale, where he's taught popular courses such as "Introduction to the Study of the City" and "Intermediate Planning and Development" for the past 38 years. From there, he's seen a real change in students, particularly architecture students, in the way they approach planning in the city.

"It used to be when I was teaching at the School of Architecture and I'd talk about getting neighborhood consensus on a project, I'd get a lot of blank looks," Garvin said. "Students couldn't figure out why you had to worry about what the community wants ... Now, students are both into high-design and community participation."

Nowhere, perhaps, has the need to meet the expectations of the greater community been more important than at Ground Zero. Garvin led planning for the Lower Manhattan Development Commission in the months following September 11. During his run, the LMDC approved Daniel Libeskind's Master Site Plan.

"There was no time I was more frightened for the city than in the time right after those attacks," Garvin said. "I believed it was my duty to help make people believe it was possible to do something great in Lower Manhattan. I don't think we did too badly."

With new buildings rising at Ground Zero and the construction of parks and public works booming across the city, Garvin says the future is bright. Though Fredrick Law Olmsted's Central Park is his favorite piece of architecture and planning in the city, he says the opening of another landscape will profoundly affect the city over the coming decades.

"The opening of the East River waterfront to the people will have a great effect on this city," Garvin said. "It's long overdue ... Finally, we're opening the waterfront back to the people."
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Author:Moran, Tim
Publication:Real Estate Weekly
Date:May 31, 2006
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