Alessandro Olivieri: Continuing a Family Tradition of Public Service

Alessandro Olivieri

It should come as no surprise that Alessandro Olivieri, General Counsel for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, decided to leave private practice for public service. When asked about the career change he made a decade ago, Olivieri credited some of his most important role models — his family members. Pointing to a commemorative piece on his office wall containing photographs of the Hudson River and his maternal grandmother, Frances “Franny” Reese, Olivieri spoke with quiet pride about her river conservation work with Scenic Hudson. On another wall hangs a plaque honoring his father, Antonio “Tony” Olivieri, a former New York City Council Member at Large and a New York State Assembly Member. His maternal grandfather, Willis L.M. Reese, a civic-minded Professor of Law at Columbia University, was also an important influence in Olivieri’s career path.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Olivieri is also a graduate of Columbia Law School, where he contributed to the Columbia Journal of Environmental Law. After law school, Olivieri became an associate at the law firm of Lord Day & Lord, Barret Smith; he later moved to Morgan Lewis & Bockius, where he practiced insurance and securities litigation. Olivieri speaks fondly of his time in private practice, but his family history in conservation and public affairs pulled him toward the civic arena. After two and a half years as head of the Parks Department’s disciplinary unit, Olivieri was named General Counsel in May, 2000. In 2002, Olivieri received the Agency Counsel Recognition Award by the City’s Law Department.

Olivieri says he was drawn to Parks because of the wide variety of issues facing the multi-faceted Department. As General Counsel, Olivieri not only coordinates with the City’s Law Department on ongoing litigation, but also advises Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe on a host of issues, including policy, environmental, and land use matters. The “psychic income” he receives from managing the complex issues related to the use of parkland, and the tangible results he is able to see firsthand, keep him in public service.

Challenges at Parks. The Parks Department is responsible for more than 29,000 acres of land, including 4,000 individual properties. Olivieri recognizes the importance of parks to City residents, and their passionate interest in the parks’ uses and design. Olivieri points out that if one were to ask five New Yorkers what was the best use for parkland, there would likely be five different answers, and they could all be right. Olivieri sees the role of the Parks Department as balancing these competing interests in order to maintain and create parkland that everyone can use and enjoy.

At times, as Olivieri explained, it’s difficult to make everyone happy. Olivieri cited the rehabilitation of Washington Square Park. Phase one of the long-disputed plan is currently underway and scheduled to be completed in early 2009. The renovation got off to a rocky start when neighborhood residents filed three unsuccessful legal challenges to the project. The residents claimed that the environmental assessment was flawed, and also that Parks had failed to disclose details of the renovation plan to the local community board. When asked why there was opposition to the project, Olivieri believes that any plan would have been met with some opposition because of the unique history of Washington Square Park. Olivieri also pointed out that Parks had worked closely with the Law Department’s Environmental Law Division in the development stages of the project. He also stressed that while community board approval was not required, Parks always considers the opinions of the community boards as a project moves through the public process.

Evolving Parks. Olivieri talked enthusiastically about the future of City parks. In particular, he’s excited about the Greenpoint-Williamsburg Waterfront Redevelopment. As a child growing up in the City, he never considered utilizing the mostly inaccessible waterfront. But things have changed since then. Olivieri described how Parks, through the Greenpoint- Williamsburg Waterfront Access Plan, is taking steps to provide a comprehensive and contiguous waterfront park along the East River, spanning from Williamsburg to Greenpoint. Under current zoning regulations waterfront property owners are required to build and maintain public access to the waterfront. Alternatively, property owners would have the option to transfer the property to the City. Parks would then maintain the waterfront as parkland, and the maintenance would be funded, in part, by annual payments from the adjacent property owners.

City parks have co-evolved with the recreational proclivities of City residents. While traditional ballfields, and pastoral space are still abundant, Olivieri cited examples of some non-traditional uses, such as the high-rope adventure course in Queens, the rings course in Riverside Park, and the many skate parks throughout the City. Olivieri praises the Bloomberg administration for its strong belief that parkland is not a luxury, but rather a necessity for the City’s residents. As General Counsel, Olivieri enjoys his role in helping to ensure that residents never have to go without this necessity. — Peter Schikler

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.