Joanne Witty

Overview

I have had a long and varied career, but for most of the last two decades I have spent the majority of my time and effort on getting Brooklyn Bridge Park off the ground, nurturing it along and seeing it through to a fully realized park.

My history with Brooklyn Bridge Park began almost 18 years ago when I was asked by my State Senator, Marty Connor, to serve on a newly formed local development corporation, originally called the Downtown Brooklyn Waterfront Local Development Corporation, and later the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation. It was created by the Brooklyn Borough President and other local elected officials to convince the Port Authority, the state and the city of New York that a park on the defunct Brooklyn piers was worthy of their support.

I was elected the LDC’s president and led a year-long public planning process engaging thousands and culminating in a broadly supported master plan for Brooklyn Bridge Park. Funding from both the city and the state followed and a state organization was formed to take the master plan to the next step. I was appointed a director of that organization and, later, of the successor entity created by the city. I am the Vice-Chair of the board of that new non-profit, the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation, which is building and running the Park.

My experience with the Park over time has been challenging, frustrating, exhilarating, disappointing, fascinating and instructive. I decided that my background and my bird’s eye view as an insider provided a rare opportunity to share the complexity, difficulty, pluck and luck required to achieve such an ambitious public project as Brooklyn Bridge Park. Henrik Krogius, the long-time editor of a local newspaper that had covered the Park throughout its gestation and realization, joined forces with me. His close observation and attention to detail, his newspaper archives and his many photographs taken over the years were a great contribution to our project. We shared the thinking and the writing; if we did not always agree at first, our different perspectives enhanced the product, and it was always a great team effort. I invite you to read our book and take a look under the hood of Brooklyn Bridge Park.

Lawyer

I have always been interested in criminal justice and focused on it at Barnard College where I wrote my senior thesis on the counterproductive nature of civil disabilities imposed on ex-offenders. Following graduation, I worked at the New York City Bureau of the Budget (now the Office of Management and Budget) looking for ways to obtain Federal funds for city services. This led me to the city’s foster care program where increasing Family Court oversight of placements would substantially increase federal funding of the program – a win for kids in foster care as well as the city. From there, I went to the Family Court to help implement the new foster care review process and to work on other administrative issues.

I left the Family Court to attend Columbia Law School where I enjoyed the return to academia. I was a Harlan Fiske Stone scholar and an editor of the Columbia Law Review. Thereafter, I practiced corporate and tax law for a few years at Debevoise & Plimpton. While I worked on pro bono cases and for several non-profit clients, I missed the public realm.

At my next stop, the Ford Foundation, where I was a Resident Counsel, I was able to use my lawyering skills to represent the portfolio managers who managed a multi- billion-dollar endowment of debt instruments, equities and alternative investments. At the same time, I was a member of the Reproductive Health Group making grants to prevent teen pregnancy and promote women’s health. The Foundation was nimble in responding to immediate needs. I participated in one such case, instigated at the request of Chief Judge Jack Weinstein of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York. Judge Weinstein noticed that a flood of frightened people who had been arbitrarily dropped from the Social Security Disability program by the Reagan Administration were appearing in court without counsel. I was part of a team that quickly put together a grant to the bar association to recruit and train private lawyers to handle these cases. Once the private bar was actively and effectively challenging the federal government’s action, the Reagan Administration backed down and began reinstating benefits.

Environmentalist

My career as an environmentalist has always been intertwined with my interest in civic engagement and voter participation. I served for ten years on the board of the national League of Conservation Voters, the bi-partisan political and electoral arm of the national environmental movement. The U.S. League produces an annual scorecard that rates all Members of Congress on their votes to protect the environment. Its mission is to elect and defeat federal candidates on the basis of their environmental records and to hold Members of Congress accountable for their votes. As Chair of the Nominating Committee, I helped to restore the unity of the environmental community behind LCV by recruiting the heads of various prominent national environmental organizations to the board. I also served as a Vice-Chair of LCV during my last term on the board.

For the last twelve years, I have been a board member of the Environmental Defense Action Fund. EDAF was created by the Environmental Defense Fund, a national environmental organization, to engage in political activity on behalf of sound environmental policy. EDAF lobbies on behalf of environmental legislation at both the state and federal levels. It also promotes awareness of environmental issues and engages specific demographic groups, such as mom’s and millennials, to vote based on their environmental concerns. I serve as Chair of the Nominating Committee and on the Political Committee of EDAF’s board.

For two years, I was one of two members of the Advisory Committee of the Export-Import Bank representing environmental concerns. In addition to participating in the development of the annual Competitiveness Report to Congress, I focused my time there on helping to increase the Banks’s renewable energy portfolio.

Political Activist

I have been convinced since college that civic engagement and political action are the key to democracy. I did not have a graduation ceremony at Barnard because we were on strike over Kent State and the Vietnam War. I found it discouraging that so few Americans voted, even in those tumultuous times.

I have worked on, and contributed to, many local and national campaigns for candidates I believed in. And I enjoy canvassing because I have a chance to have a conversation that could make a difference.

I am also active on behalf of issues that are important to me, like climate change, women’s health, responsible gun ownership and criminal justice reform. I believe we have to fight for things we believe in – with words, with organization and with votes.

Everything I have done in my life, from city and state government to the Ford Foundation to LCV and EDAF to Brooklyn Bridge Park and Freshkills Park has been connected to my belief in the importance of civic engagement and political activism.

Institution Builder

I am fundamentally an optimistic person. I think my temperament, in addition to my law school training, helps me think strategically. I am also a free associational thinker and a decent networker. These traits have combined to give me pleasure in institution building. During my tenure at the League of Conservation Voters, there were many institutional challenges that I helped LCV face, and I hope I left it a stronger organization for my participation.  It is an organization that has continued to grow in importance and impact under the leadership of Gene Karpinski, and I continue to support it.

The Brooklyn Bridge Park Local Development Corporation was rife with conflicts among neighborhoods and interest groups but, with the help of other centrists on the board, I was able to hold the group together to reach a very good result. Since then, on succeeding Brooklyn Bridge Park boards, as a community representative, I have been part of a group that has stuck together to maintain a community voice to complement the government members who represent larger and more distant constituencies.

And now with Freshkills Park, the largest reclamation of a sanitary landfill in the world, I am excited to build a strong private partner in the Freshkills Park Alliance to bring this incredible project to a much larger audience. Freshkills is the ultimate recycled park and a test case for cleaning water, reestablishing necessary habitat for birds, fish and other wildlife and creating a resilient nature preserve and park. At 2200 acres, it is different from other parks and speaks to different public needs. I am pleased to be a founder of the Freshkills Alliance and its Co-Chair, and to have another chance to move an important park forward.

Author

I wrote and published a Note in the Columbia Law Review when I was in law school, but Brooklyn Bridge Park, A Dying Waterfront Transformed, is the first book I have written.

The idea of a book took form many years ago. Whenever something happened that was interesting or annoying or amusing that would never see the light of day, I would say, “That’s going in the book.” It became a standing joke with colleagues, friends and family. The book itself took Henrik and me more than three years to write and another year to publish, starting with a narrative timeline and then organizing within that framework around stories that elucidated major themes in the process of park development. The 500 footnotes reflect an effort to document as much as possible.

We wanted to be accurate as to facts, and fair and balanced as to opinions. We tried to cover as many sides of multi-sided arguments as we could. But we do have a point of view: we think it is remarkable that we have a park at all, and we think it is a remarkable park.

Neither Henrik nor I know whether we have another book in us. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, click on the book icon to buy Brooklyn Bridge Park, A Dying Waterfront Transformed.