BSA Commissioner Susan M. Hinkson Discusses Her Varied Career

Susan M. Hinkson

Susan M. Hinkson serves as one of the five Commissioners on the Mayor-appointed Board of Standards and Appeals. Hinkson, who is trained as both an architect and an attorney, was born and raised in the Bronx. Her father served as a justice in the Bronx County Supreme Court and her mother was a musician in the theater. Hinkson said her mother probably thought she would also go into theater, but around age fourteen Hinkson declared that she wanted to pursue a career in architecture instead. Hinkson did some acting, however, and, drawn to the technical aspects of the theater, also worked on set and lighting design. While studying architecture at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, Hinkson worked nights as a stage manager, and she is still a member of Actors’ Equity.

Architectural roots. Hinkson fondly recalls having crammed in an attic studio space at Pratt with three other students. Studying architecture before the shift had occurred to computer-assisted design, Hinkson learned to do everything by hand. She appreciates the human element of drafting, where the “brain is thinking with the fingers,” which she feels can be lacking from entirely computer-designed buildings. She said working by hand forced her to contemplate each line placement. 

After graduating from Pratt in 1981, Hinkson accepted a position with Artec Consultants, a theater design firm that specialized in the acoustics of performing arts facilities. With Artec, Hinkson found she was able to satisfy her interests in theater and architecture by working on music halls and opera houses all over the world.

In her next job at the City’s Department of Cultural Affairs, Hinkson also combined these interests. As Capital Program Manager, she managed design and construction for City-owned cultural institutions, such as the Public Theater, Museo del Barrio, and the Queens Theatre.

Melding careers. Her father’s judicial career inspired Hinkson to pursue a longtime interest in the law. She enrolled at New York Law School as a night student and continued to work at the Department of Cultural Affairs.

Hinkson earned her law degree in 1998, and then sought out ways to combine her architectural and legal experiences. Her interest in land use issues grew while serving as Sullivan County’s Deputy Commissioner for Planning and Community Development. Hinkson’s primary job was overseeing “Main Street” initiatives to rehabilitate and maintain storefronts along the retail corridors in the economically depressed Catskills region. Hinkson returned to the City in 2000 and joined Hill International Inc., a construction consultation and project management firm that contracted with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. As a senior project manager, Hinkson designed terminals and runways for Newark Liberty International and Teterboro airports. Her office was on the 72nd floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower, and on 9/11 Hinkson escaped just eight minutes before the tower fell. Post-9/11, Hill International relocated to a temporary office that offered little comfort for the shaken staff. They were located in a trailer at the end of an active runway at Newark Liberty Airport.

Buildings Department. Hinkson wanted to spend less time commuting, so she applied for the Brooklyn Deputy Commissioner position at the Department of Buildings. She landed the job in 2002, and was promoted to Borough Commissioner only a few months later. At the time, Buildings was undergoing many staff changes, and Hinkson and her staff often had to function without the benefit of institutional memory. New York City was in the midst of a building boom and the Brooklyn borough office was processing thousands of permits monthly. According to Hinkson, the job was a balancing act between allowing appropriate development and monitoring construction safety. Safety issues were a constant concern for Buildings. In fact, minutes after pulling into a parking garage on her first day on the job, Hinkson heard the rumbling as a building collapsed across the street. As Borough Commissioner, Hinkson always had to be prepared to rush to the site of a building collapse, many of which occurred in the middle of the night.

Moving to BSA. In 2006, Hinkson was appointed as a Commissioner to the Board of Standards and Appeals. Each of the Commissioners brings their own perspective to the Board. As an architect and an attorney, Hinkson finds that her role on the Board is a true melding of both disciplines. She employs her architecture training when examining how an applicant’s special permit or variance request is reflected in their building plans. She draws on her legal background when reviewing the arguments presented in support of or in opposition to an application. Hinkson loves to untangle the intricate matters that are presented to the Board. Although at Buildings she was constantly reviewing zoning resolution and building code issues, Hinkson notes that the Board often needs to perform an even deeper analysis informed by case law and its own decisions. She also notes that despite ongoing economic uncertainty, the Board continues to review applications for both large-scale developments and small homeowner projects.

Future plans. Hinkson’s term expires in 2013. While she has no set plans, Hinkson continues to expand her academic credentials and is currently enrolled in New York Law School’s Real Estate LL.M. program, which she will complete in the spring. — Frank St. Jacques

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