Walter Thabit

By Jennifer Bayot for The New York Times

  • April 4, 2005

Walter Thabit, a leader among city planners in pressing cities to build low-cost housing and encourage diversity in blighted areas, a movement now known as advocacy planning, died on March 15 at his home in Manhattan. He was 83.

The cause was complications of Barrett’s esophagus, in which esophageal cells change because of irritation, said his son Nikolai.

Mr. Thabit approached urban planning as an activist. Projects should benefit a site’s residents, he argued, not politicians or developers.

Working as a consultant and offering his technical skills, Mr. Thabit helped members of more than a dozen communities in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania create their own development plans in response to city redevelopment proposals that threatened to displace many residents.

For example, when New York City’s Committee on Slum Clearance set its sights on Cooper Square on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, neighborhood residents turned to Mr. Thabit for help in drawing up a plan that they succeeded in persuading the city to adopt in 1970.

More than 60 percent of the apartments that have since been built or renovated under the plan are low-income units, according to the Cooper Square Committee.

In 1964, Mr. Thabit founded Planners for Equal Opportunity, a progressive group with 600 members. It was succeeded in 1975 by the Planners Network.

Mr. Thabit was born in Brooklyn on Dec. 20, 1921. He received a bachelor’s degree in design from Brooklyn College and master’s degrees in sociology from the New School and in city planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

After working as a planning analyst in New York, he was director of the master plan section in Baltimore’s Department of City Planning from 1954 to 1958. He then worked as a planning consultant.

In the late 1960’s he was New York City’s planner for East New York, Brooklyn, and he later described the area’s challenges in his book “How East New York Became a Ghetto” (New York University Press, 2003).

From 1976 to 1980, he was senior planner for New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, and from 1980 to 1988, he was an associate city planner in the city’s Department of Transportation.

Mr. Thabit’s marriage to the former Frances Thargay ended in divorce. He is survived, in addition to his son Nikolai, of Brooklyn, by his companion, Frances Goldin; two other sons, Paavo, of Gardiner, N.Y., and Darius, of Cambridge, Mass.; a daughter, Alia, of West Burke, Vt.; a brother, Robert, of Brooklyn; a sister, Ethel Boorady, of Dunedin, Fla.; and two grandchildren.