Lauren Soares sits down with Preeti Sodhi to talk about why she got involved with Spaceworks, what drives her career as an urban planner, and the lessons she’s learned along the way…
Lauren Soares (LS): You’ve been at Spaceworks since the very beginning. How did it all start?
Preeti Sodhi (PS): I initially interviewed for a job in the Capital Projects department of the Department of Cultural Affairs with Deputy Commissioner Margaret Morton and Assistant Commissioner Andrew Burmeister. At the end of the process, they suggested that I consider a position with Spaceworks, a new Cultural Affairs initiative that was hiring its first staff members. They forwarded my information to Paul Parkhill, the Executive Director.
LS: Why did you want to work at Spaceworks?
PS: As an urban planner, I’ve always been interested in design, architecture, and building things. I studied planning at an architecture school. After I graduated, I went to work on a redesign and redevelopment of the LES skatepark with Architecture for Humanity. The idea of doing that type of work on a citywide scale to help support artists, and working with an organization entrusted by the City to carry out this goal, made it a really interesting opportunity.
LS: You’ve taught me a lot about urban planning and the ways in which our cities are shaped. Why did you decide to become an urban planner?
PS: I grew up in New Jersey and always enjoyed coming to New York City as a teenager. When I was 17, I took a class at Barnard College pre-college program called Peril and Promise of the Modern City, where I learned about the history of cities and realized that urbanism is something you can study, especially through a cultural and historical lens. I then studied Metropolitan Studies as an undergrad at NYU and interned for the NYC Department of City Planning; that’s how I became more and more aware of the field of urban planning as a career. After that, I felt like pursuing a master’s degree in urban planning was the next step for me, and since I was really interested in architecture and design, I decided to study planning at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture and Planning.
LS: You’re the Project Director here at Spaceworks. What does your role entail?
PS: When I was hired by Paul Parkhill, I was the first employee. My job was to manage our real estate portfolio, capital projects, community engagement, and public funding. At any given time, Spaceworks has projects in various stages of development: concept, design, into construction. I manage the development of a Spaceworks facility from idea to construction to artists moving in. I work with architects and contractors, and I interact with city agencies that are funders and provide approvals for our projects. Community engagement is also a part of this process: talking to artists and residents so that we can respond to their unique needs, and developing partnerships with local artists and cultural organizations.
Not every project comes to fruition. For every project we’ve completed and opened, there’s a lot of projects that didn’t get past the idea phase. You’re trying to develop additional projects that don’t always work out. You’re submitting proposals to government requests for proposals and building relationships with developers to see if our types of spaces can be included in their larger projects.
Until our recent Director of Development hire, I was also responsible for handling all of our public funding applications and grant reporting. Capital funds, for example, helped to build the Williamsburgh Library space, and the NYSCA Dance Subsidy lowers the dancer rehearsal rate to $10/hour. I also provide support to the Executive Director, preparing memos and reports that capture the work we’re doing so it can be used in our conversations with funders and partners and city agencies.
LS: What are some of your proudest accomplishments at Spaceworks?
PS: Unless you do this type of work, people don’t always understand how difficult it is to work on building projects in New York City. Why I like working on the capital project side is that you can point to a tangible representation of your work. By the end of this year, there will be six facilities completed and several in active development. The most special project to me is our building on Governors Island, and I am grateful to be able to continue consulting on the project after I leave my full-time position.
LS: What are some of the challenges you encountered in this role?
PS: Working for a startup is always challenging. There’s something great about building something new, but there’s also the challenge of developing the structure of an organization because it doesn’t exist yet. It’s also hard when a project doesn’t move forward for whatever reason, even the right ones.
LS: You’re known in the office for your wise maxims like “work smart, not hard.” If you could leave us with a word of advice, what would it be?
PS: I didn’t originate this, but something that has been said a lot in the office lately is impact over intention. That might mean you can’t do as many projects as you want, but that’s ok.
LS: We’re going to miss you. What does your future look like?
PS: I think that as a professional, it’s important to learn what you can contribute and recognize when it’s time to make a change so you can develop more. I’m not really putting parameters on what that looks like right now. I’m going to keep thinking about how I can help other organizations with my skills to achieve some of these successes we were able to achieve at Spaceworks. I graduated from graduate school almost 10 years ago, and I want to reflect on the work I’ve done and think about where I want to go.