A Fresh, but not Inexperienced, Face at the Helm of MAS

Vin Cipolla

Vin Cipolla, who took the reins at the Municipal Art Society as Executive Director early this year, brings a varied background in nonprofit and for-profit settings to his new endeavor. Prior to joining MAS, he was President and CEO of the National Park Foundation in Washington D.C. Bringing a national perspective and entrepreneurial experience to the venerable 116-year-old institution, Cipolla intends to maintain MAS’s relevancy and authority into the 21st century.

An eclectic resume. Cipolla grew up in the industrial town of Leominster, Massachusetts, a place he describes as “always in transition.” Educated at Clark University, Cipolla came to New York in his 20s, where he claims he found his home, and became “obsessed” with the City.

Describing himself as having “an entrepreneur’s DNA,” Cipolla founded two media companies, and brings a “love of new technologies and markets” to MAS. He also has a passion for planning and conservation, nurtured by his experiences at the National Trust for Historic Preservation as well as the National Park Foundation.

Cipolla says that the MAS position was “the only non-profit I would have taken this kind of a role in” at this point in his career because it bridges his interests in the built and natural environment. Urban parks were an area of particular interest to Cipolla while at the National Park Foundation, and major initiatives under his guidance included a program forging a connection between urban youth and national parks.

A different perspective. Having spent many years in Washington in various capacities, Cipolla maintains connections there, such as serving as vice chairman for the National Park Foundation. Pointing out the advantage his experiences and connections in the nation’s capital bring to MAS and the City, Cipolla believes access to national trends and opportunities will broaden the view of New Yorkers who can at times be “a little provincial” in outlook.

As an example, Cipolla explains that there are often dual, but not necessarily concurrent, conversations going on at the national and City level regarding infrastructure investment. While federal monies have become available, the City needs to influence Washington to consider infrastructure development as going beyond highway construction. He points to the issues of sustainability and the natural environment as other “vibrant federal policy areas” that the City should engage in, and hopes that the “hook” he has in Washington will prove useful. On the local front, Cipolla characterizes his relationship to the Bloomberg administration as very positive so far, and is encouraged by its openness.

Old institution, new directions. When asked in what new directions he might take MAS, Cipolla notes that MAS has a “long and very effective history,” and that his role is, at least partially, to serve as a steward of that history. However, Cipolla also plans to build on what his predecessors established, especially in the use of new media as a tool for advocacy and outreach. Cipolla hopes to bring economic considerations and understanding to MAS’s visions and ideas, hopefully leading to even more effective collaboration with the City. Cipolla would like to focus on a few key initiatives and plans to deepen MAS’s relationships with other advocacy groups, stating that “effective advocacy is a partnership strategy at its heart.”

Key programs which Cipolla hopes to further develop at MAS include the Urbanists initiative, which gathers young professionals to “bring their expertise and creativity to help solve problems in New York” and nurtures a continuing engagement with planning and urban design issues. Cipolla notes that many MAS programs revolve around seeking to “empower citizens to influence development outcomes.” An example is the Livable Neighborhoods Program, which trains people in community planning, and CITI Youth, which educates high school students about the planning process and navigating the Byzantine maze of political and bureaucratic processes.

Even as neighborhood-based preservation groups have flourished and community boards have increasingly become involved in planning, Cipolla believes that MAS still has an important place in the City. He calls the organization unique in its ability to command resources and engage the public. Cipolla says that MAS’s greatest impact lies in its ability to “put a spotlight on those things that represent the biggest changes for the City with outcomes that can last for hundreds of years.”

Looking ahead. Cipolla readily identifies the areas which he feels constitute the most critical issues facing the City: infrastructure; housing; investment in the natural environment; and currently planned mega-projects. Cipolla says infrastructure must be able to accommodate sustainable growth and meet the City’s future transportation needs.

Regarding housing, Cipolla invokes the collective need to “preserve the past as we build for the future.” He says continued investment in the natural environment and parkland is essential to the continuing livability of the City. Major projects like Moynihan Station, the Far West Side, and Atlantic Yards create exciting opportunities, because decisions made over the next decade will have a profound impact on the future of the City. — Jesse Denno


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