Leading one of the nation’s first community development corporations, Hope Knight, ’96 (XP-65), aims to write a new future for Jamaica in Queens, New York.
- January 10, 2020
Hope Knight, ’96 (XP-65), is president and CEO of Greater Jamaica Development Corp. (GJDC), begun more than 50 years ago to reseed the New York City neighborhood that adjoins John F. Kennedy International Airport. In the four years since she took over, Knight has engineered more than 4,000 mixed-income housing units, welcomed international retailers such as H&M, and lined up three major hotel-chain projects, which will add 1,000 rooms to the area. Working in her favor: a $13 billion airport reboot.
“I have a fascination with the built environment,” said Knight, a member of the New York City Planning Commission since 2015. “I look at a city’s transportation and how it’s serving its residents. I look at architecture. I look at how a municipality anticipates the future.” Her focus on the greater good has deep roots: after graduating early from high school, she sought an undergraduate education at a college steeped in doing good for others.
Knight lives in Manhattan with her husband, Steven Umlauf, head of global model risk management at Citi, and their teenage son.
Flight to the Long Island suburbs in the 1960s hollowed out this urban neighborhood. To stem that loss, GJDC was founded in 1967 to attract public projects that would trigger private investment. Those efforts brought a City University of New York college, civil and state courthouses, a one-million-square-foot office of the US Social Security Administration, the northeastern testing facility for the US Food and Drug Administration, and an AirTran connection that made the area a multimodal transit hub linking subway and commuter trains to JFK. We were rich in government and infrastructure but lacking in everyday needs such as dining and retail, which comes from private investment. For that to happen, we needed residential density, and that’s where my expertise came in to play.
Sixty-five thousand people applied for mixed-income housing at Alvista, a 26-story building with 379 rental residences. It opened in 2018. It’s a model that provides for a range of incomes, from a single person earning $35,000 to a family with a $130,000 income. Increased residential density is a pillar in the expansion of economic opportunity in the region because it attracts private real estate developers.
Economic development takes years, sometimes decades. For me, a measure of success is the number of affordable units we can bring to the area. Same with hotel rooms. Jobs. Stores. Dining. We’re expanding the local economy.
I fell into community development. I’d worked at Morgan Stanley (as vice president in the institutional equities division and as a vice president of strategic planning and e-commerce, in Japan) for five years. I was a new mother. I wanted a role where I could use my skills for a greater good. That’s when I got the offer to be COO of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone. I found my passion.
Every day is different in community development. Forty percent of the time I’m outside the office. I’m talking to developers. I’m raising funds. I’m ensuring that small local business owners are equipped to work with the national and international companies coming into our region. I like the diversity of my every day.
Education was the means to success in my East Harlem childhood home. My father was a professor. It was drilled into us to do well in school. My after-school activity was homework, and I learned to be self-sufficient doing it.
“I have a fascination with the built environment. I look at a city’s transportation and how it’s serving its residents.”
I was a good student in a hurry. I graduated from high school at 16. At Marymount Manhattan College I was educated by the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, an order founded on social justice, on going out and helping others. Later, when I was on Marymount’s board of trustees and became its chair, I served alongside the late Sister Teresita Fay, a principal at Arthur Anderson. She was a significant role model for me. I saw her working in the world, making a difference by enhancing the lives of others.
Retail, then city government, were my first jobs. I was director of management, planning, and analysis in the commissioner’s office of the Department of General Services, an agency that handled city real estate, property management, and procurement. When I decided to go to business school, people asked if was intimidated by the brainiacs I’d find there. “Nah,” I said, “I’m dating an economist."
Going to Booth created opportunities for me. I thought I’d go on to consult for public sector clients. Pretty quickly I realized that with a Booth education, I could do anything. The analytical framework I learned at Booth is something I’ve relied on ever since—that rigor.
For advice, I turn to my personal board of directors. My economist husband, my sister, my best friend, former bosses and colleagues. It’s a robust network. For me, the professional and the personal meld—it’s the same for both—and I’m OK with that.
The weekend commute to Chicago for Booth’s Executive MBA Program introduced me to the city’s downtown architecture and planning. I love to visit. Chicago is easy to navigate and get around in. That said, I never got used to the cold.
I read a lot, a little bit of everything, because I need to know a lot about the world to shape it. My hope for this organization is to spur private investment in downtown Jamaica. I want to create opportunities for our moms and pops, our small construction–related firms, so they can expand and participate in the region’s renewal—specifically the $13 billion JFK redevelopment project. Success is attainable. This is a vibrant community with tremendous transportation options for New Yorkers to live, work, and play here.
MORE IN THIS SERIES
Inside Chipotle with CEO Brian Niccol, ’03: Reshaping Fast Casual Dining »
Cummins' Mary Titsworth Chandler Is Fighting for 'A Good World That Is Getting Better' »
Vistria Group Cofounder Martin Nesbitt, ’89, on the Value of Bold Action »
Starbucks' Sandra Stark, ’95, on Strategy and Global Coffee Culture »
We'd love to hear your Booth memories, stories, connections...everything.
Rodney Jones-Tyson, ’98, Baird’s chief risk officer and head of its COVID-19 response, shared his perspective on innovation, preparation, and giving back.A Year Like No Other
For direct-lending fund manager Steve Czech, ’98, success means making both profits in business and strides in medical research.A Quantifiable Impact
We asked three managers and Booth experts with a firsthand perspective on human capital.How Do You Manage Millennials?