If anyone can say they understand the intricate inner workings of the city of New York, it’s Mark Thompson. He’s spent his entire career in urban planning and development, learning how cities run and grow, and now he’s hoping to parlay that knowledge into a City Council seat.
Thompson has officially filed to run for Dan Garodnick’s District 4 seat when Garodnick runs for comptroller. It’s a diverse district with a good chunk of waterfront, something Thompson already knows a great deal about from his work as the chair of Community Board 6, a position he thinks will set him apart in the upcoming campaign.
“Really it’s the experience, having been a person who’ve volunteered in the community for so many years and been extremely active and gotten things done,” Thompson said in a recent interview at his office in the Woolworth Building. “Between work and the community board, you’re always doing something, but it’s so much fun.”
Thompson grew up in Orange County and earned his undergraduate degree in city and regional planning from the University of Southern California. He moved east to attend Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, but switched over to the Kennedy School of Government after his first year. While a student in Boston, he was recruited by a program run byMayor Ed Koch to intern for the city one summer, working for the Human Resources Administration. When he graduated, he heeded the call of New York and moved back to work for the Department of General Services (now the Department of Citywide Administrative Services).
In 1990, Thompson moved to Estonia to work in development as the country transitioned out of the former Soviet Union, working with private developers and companies to create new businesses and help transition the communist system into capitalism.
“At the time, there was nobody else there,” Thompson said, describing how he served as a de facto cultural ambassador. “I was ‘The American.’ People would look at you like, do you have horns or things like that. There were still people there who thought Americans were evil.”
Gradually, over the course of six years, Thompson said people warmed up to him. He picked up Estonian and grew to love the country and felt like he had achieved what he went there to accomplish. When a friend called on him to work at his company, Thompson agreed, and he moved back to New York to work at Capalino and Company, where he’s now a senior vice president, helping clients navigate the complex arenas of government, fundraising and business.
“The Museum of Chinese in America was one of our clients. They had leased property in Chinatown and were creating a museum,” Thompson said, describing one of his favorite projects. “They needed help actually getting it done. They had to design, they needed more funding and they needed to be able to build it.” He worked to get the Museum through the numerous approval processes and find ways to get the money they needed.
His familiarity with such processes has also served Thompson well as chair of the Community Board.
“Being outside the city itself but in a quasi-public role, [you see] that a lot of it is just doing it and knowing who to call,” Thompson said. “Picking up the phone, calling to ask questions, just being persistent. People all want to help, they want to do the right thing.”
A good dose of politeness doesn’t hurt either, he noted. Thompson enforces rules of civil engagement at Board meetings, no matter how contentious the topic. One recent success for the Board has been tamping down the raucous pub crawls that plague the neighborhood on holidays like St. Patrick’s Day, which they accomplished by talking to local businesses and using reason rather than outrage to encourage bars to opt out of the giant events.
Thompson, like Garodnick, lives in Stuyvesant Town, and he hopes to focus on waterfront development as well as education and senior issues and quality-of-life concerns in his Council race. He’s starting his campaign with small events, getting to know more constituents, but said he feels confident that he’s already aware of the neighborhood’s biggest issues.
“I’ve always thought about doing it, but now I’m just at a point where I feel that I can contribute a lot,” Thompson said. “It’s what I’m doing as Community Board chair in a lot of ways—it’s the next step.”
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