The send-off for longtime City Plan Director Karyn Gilvarg didn’t include a brass band and a second line. But it did include decades’ worth of familiar, and thankful, faces.
Much of City Hall came out of its offices, and former planners and Mayor John DeStefano came from across town, Thursday afternoon to wish Gilvarg, a fond farewell, on her last day at work. Gilvarg will be splitting her retirement between New Haven and New Orleans.
Gilvarg has served as New Haven’s City Plan Department chief since 1994. She has helped guide deliberations on every development proposal large and small, and every evaluation of zoning and comprehensive plan rules, that comes before the city. A font of institutional knowledge with a professional and respectful demeanor, she has served without drama under mayors from Biagio DiLieto to John DeStefano and Toni Harp.
Harp said Thursday that she first got to know Gilvarg when they were both in graduate school at Yale University.
“Back then already, Karyn made an extraordinary impression on me: she was the calm, serious student with a twinkle in her eye,” Harp said. (Gilvarg would later say in her remarks that Harp had a twinkle in her eye, too.)
“She had an air about her to suggest she already knew where she wanted to go with her studies. Back then already, I had this idea I’d like to one day be more like her. And now, as she’s on the cusp of retirement, I have this idea once again I’d like to one day be more like her.”
Harp said when one looks at the many projects that Gilvarg has been involved in during her tenure, one can see the seriousness and care she took.
“The Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge will be a lasting tribute to her creativity – and her determination,” Harp said. “As I once heard someone describe it, New Haven could just as easily have had another bridge like the one over the Connecticut River, but Karyn just wouldn’t have it.”
Westville Alder Adam Marchand, who also serves as a City Plan commissioner, said to look around the room and see a fraction of the people in government and the community whose work has been guided by Gilvarg’s wise counsel.
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed but there’s a lot of building happening in New Haven,” Marchand said. “City Plan is a busy place because we’re a city on the rise. It’s a great place to be, and one of the reasons why is because we have an awesome planning office.”
He noted that despite running an understaffed office, Gilvarg and her colleagues have always remained the picture of calm — even when the people that they work with haven’t.
“Calm is a good attribute to have in planning because sometimes the people who come through aren’t that calm,” Marchand said. “I’ve seen some instances where there has been less than calm behavior, but never from the staff and never from Karyn.”
Donna Hall, City Plan’s senior project manager, said there were tears when Gilvarg informed City Plan staffers like her she was leaving. They were the next to know after she told the city’s Economic Development Administrator Matthew Nemerson.
“We’re very sad,” she said to GIlvarg. “Devastated, speaking for myself, but certainly we understand and it’s well earned. You and your family have made significant sacrifices over the last 23 years. You’ve worked weekends and late nights after all city staff has gone home to catch up on the endless work. You gave this job your all.”
Gilvarg reminded attendees that she had two tours at City Hall. She started in the department from 1978 to 1983, the end of which coincided with another active building period in town. She left and then returned in 1994. Those early years taught her the difference between taxpayers and citizens, she said.
“Taxpayers come to you and pound on the table and say, ‘Where is this and I want that,’” she said. “They make demands as they should. Citizens make the same demands but they’re also willing to help out. To serve on boards and commissions. While we all work for both, there’s a lot more reward working for citizens.”
She noted how those who’ve dedicated their lives to working in government are often derided as bureaucrats. She said she’s always thought of herself and her many colleagues over the years as public servants. And being a public servant is rewarding, she said, because one never has to think of a justification for what one does.
Working in public service, particularly in New Haven has been like being part of a big family, she said.
“We bicker, we dispute things, we have highly charged arguments,” she said. “But we come together again and again and again to accomplish things and serve.”