Living Her Values: Cali Williams on Our Future City and the Magic of Uncertainty
By Julia Gamolina, cover portrait courtesy of NYCEDC
Cali Williams most recently served as Senior Vice President at the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC) where her portfolio included leading the feasibility study and master plan for an overbuild of the 180-acre Sunnyside Yard in Western Queens. Over her tenure at EDC, she expertly led city-changing projects and initiatives in all five boroughs from design to implementation including the Downtown Far Rockaway rezoning, Jamaica NOW, and East Midtown Waterfront Esplanade. Prior to joining EDC, Cali worked as a consultant on affordable housing and transit-oriented development projects across the United States and Australia.
Cali holds a Bachelor of Science in Urban and Regional Studies from Cornell University and a Master’s in City Planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is a proud alumna of the Coro Leadership New York Program and a Next City Vanguard. A 5th generation New Yorker, Cali lives in Brooklyn with her husband Marlon and daughter Camilla. In her interview, Cali talks about two decades of experience with city planning around the world and how that has shaped her approach to the projects in New York City, advising those just starting their careers to embrace the beauty of uncertainty.
JG: How did your interest in the built environment first develop?
CW: I’m a fifth generation New Yorker, and always had a deep love, fascination and connection with my hometown. I was raised on the Upper West Side, in the same apartment that my grandfather grew up in and regularly passed the bench in Riverside Park where he proposed to my grandmother. I learned from him the importance of home, place, and belonging.
I was first exposed to the field of city planning as a fifteen year old intern for the Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messenger. While I was there, I was reviewing Borough Needs grant applications and saw an application to fund a dance program. I was a dancer, so I made the pitch to Ruth on why they should fund it. She said, “Go to college and study urban planning or public policy. Then come back and we’ll fund your dance program.” I followed her advice and applied Early Decision to the Urban and Regional Studies program at Cornell. Ruth was the first of my many strong female bosses and mentors.
What did you learn at Cornell?
I learned that there are many directions you can go in as an urban planner. I was exposed to all forms of planning from affordable housing, green infrastructure, and urban design, to technical pieces of zoning and land-use changes, real estate, and economic development. I was continually inspired by all my professors and had the great fortune to work with Ken Reardon, learning about community engagement and participatory action research.
What did you do first out of school?
When I got back from a semester abroad in Rome, I spent the summer interning at the Municipal Art Society (MAS). I did research for them and ended up writing my honor’s thesis on whether community boards are representative of the neighborhoods they serve - which they are not. Eventually Eva Hanhardt, my boss at MAS, gave me the advice to go out to the West Coast and learn about how transportation and waterfront development was happening there to bring that perspective back to New York.
I moved to the Bay Area thinking that I would eventually attend Berkeley for a Master’s in City Planning. I worked at Strategic Economics, a small urban economic development consulting firm, and at a national non-profit called Reconnecting America. I was lucky to work under and be mentored by Dena Belzer and Shelley Poticha and I developed an expertise around transit-oriented development. I loved working as a connector, convener, and organizer.
Did you go to Berkeley for your Master’s?
I actually ended up going to MIT. This was the year after Hurricane Katrina. I had been a founding board member of the San Francisco Community Land Trust, and in New Orleans they were thinking about how to form one. Through MIT, I got a fellowship to help do that, so I traveled back and forth to New Orleans to help convene national thought leaders and research how to support the creation of a community land trust, which now has been created. I have a deep love of New Orleans and was so inspired by the community activists I got to know there.
My second year of grad school, I interned and wrote my dissertation as a client report for the Somerville Community Corporation, an affordable housing developer. I came up with a strategy to develop and preserve affordable housing along the planned extension.
How did you finally land at the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC)?
Moving back to New York City after MIT was an easy decision. I wanted to take everything I learned from my decade of exploring cities around the world and make impactful changes in my favorite one. I chose to work at the EDC because I wanted to work on the biggest and most exciting neighborhood planning and real estate projects. I thought it would give me exposure and a greater understanding of politics and how decisions are made.
Tell me about your eleven years there.
I was responsible for all aspects of project planning, development, and oversight from identification and technical analysis to strategy and negotiations. I had the opportunity to lead projects varying from the sale of City-owned parcels in Jamaica, rezoning of Downtown Far Rockaway and expansion of the waterfront greenway in Manhattan.
I loved guiding my teams through uncertainty, mentoring staff and building strong relationships across agencies. A commitment to inclusion, collaboration, and teamwork guided my work. As you’ve noticed, a theme across my career is strong female mentors, and I was lucky to work under Maria Torres-Springer, Alyssa Cobb Konon and Madelyn Wills here.
Tell me about the Sunnyside Yard project that you were spearheading.
The master plan for Sunnyside Yard, a 180-acre rail yard in the center of NYC, provides the opportunity to think about the long-term future of the city and the region. We’re facing so many huge challenges from climate change to the housing affordability crisis. This project gives us an opportunity to think what is the city that we want to be part of and leave for future generations.
Part of what inspired me to lead the team and become the Director of Sunnyside Yard is the opportunity to lay the groundwork in a way that is inclusive. That commitment has led all of my work. Inclusion is about doing engagement differently. It’s not about checking boxes, it’s about going to kitchen tables, and meeting people where they’re at. It’s about going to the events in their communities and trying to be transparent and educational and hear what people’s concerns are.
What else do you take away from your time at the EDC?
I had a lot of incredible opportunities during my tenure at EDC to help shape the future of NYC. I excel at building teams, making connections others might not see, and navigating through bureaucracies and shifting political landscapes. At EDC, I was able to hire, mentor and grow my staff while instilling a commitment to inclusion, and racial and economic justice.
Regarding bureaucracy, how do you move projects forward at a place like the EDC?
The projects at EDC are very long-term. You need to celebrate small successes. You’re not going to have instant wins and not everyone is going to love all the projects all the time. You need to balance the bigger vision with the smaller milestones. It’s important to be inclusive, patient, and stay true to your values. Learn how to understand and listen to people to be able to navigate what people’s core values are and what’s driving people in their work.
You’ve recently left the EDC. What does this moment mean for you? How do you want to grow and where do you want to grow?
I had been at the EDC for eleven years and chose to leave EDC in June. I took a pause over the summer to reflect on my career, learn to surf, and spend time with my two-and-a-half year old daughter. I wanted to have the opportunity to reflect deeply at this juncture on what I’d like to do next professionally. There are a lot of exciting opportunities to work on today’s pressing and critical work in NYC right now to address climate change, economic, and racial inequities.
I’m glad you mentioned your daughter. What has motherhood taught you?
Becoming a mother to Camilla was a wake-up call for me. Experiencing her curiosity, playfulness and willfulness has forced me to think about how I want to spend this time on earth and how all of my decisions will impact her and future generations. More than anything I want to live my core values, invest in time with family and our growing community and do work that is fulfilling and impactful.
Who are you admiring right now?
Part of my passion for NYC comes from my earliest experiences exploring and getting lost in different neighborhoods. I’m an avid reader and love Rebecca Solnit’s “A Fieldguide to Getting Lost.” I had the great fortune of not only meeting Rebecca at MIT but also taking a long rambling walk with her around Cambridge. I recently re-read that book since it has special meaning for me during this time right now.
How would you describe your general approach to your career?
My approach has been to be open, curious, and thoughtful, and regularly checking in on, “Is this aligned with how I want to be in the world, and the difference that I want to make in the world?” Sticking to that and being clear with myself and with others have been my drivers.
We were talking about mentors before. Who are yours?
I’ve been lucky to have many inspiring mentors and co-conspirators throughout my life. I named a few already but I'd also add Dan Kaplan, David Quart, Charu Singh, and Melva Miller. I’m also incredibly grateful to my husband Marlon, also an urban planner, who holds me accountable and challenges me to a better person.
Finally, what advice do you have for those just starting their careers?
Remain flexible, try things out, and be open to changes. Careers are long, and you’re going to be able to work on different things, so it’s okay to not have it all figured out. Try out working in the public sector. Help other people, listen to other people - you never know who you’re going to come across or work with in the future.
It’s also good to be honest when you’re struggling, to seek out mentors and to not be afraid to take risks. We’re all learning together and it’s critical that we support each other at all stages of our careers. Mostly though, remember that there’s no rush to have it all figured out and there’s beauty and magic in the uncertainty.