FORT HAMILTON, N.Y. (March 24, 2023) -- Lydia Williams, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers North Atlantic Division chief of real estate, was in junior high school when she first took a civics class. The class made her decide then that she would become an attorney.
“I was so enthralled with the analytical problem-solving nature of the attorney role in the justice system,” Williams said. “During that class, I said, ‘ooh, I love this stuff.’ I was dead set on doing criminal work in the justice system, ultimately and possibly, with a career path to a judgeship.”
She majored in criminal justice with a minor in psychology, graduating in 1992 with a Bachelor of Science Professional Degree in three years from East Carolina University. However, in her third year, she took a criminology class and concluded she should not pursue a career in criminal justice.
“I realized very quickly that I don’t have the heart for criminal work,” Williams said.
Criminal justice was challenging for her personally because of the emotional investment this type of work demands, coupled with the need to remain detached. However, she said she wasn’t worried about adjusting her focus because there were so many areas she could pursue.
“I had already committed to a legal career path. I was a few credits off from getting my bachelor’s, and I wasn’t about to redo my major, because I didn’t have the stomach for criminal work,” Williams said. “So, I went on to law school and during your first year, you take courses called Property 1 and 2. And I liked it. I just really liked it. Other areas were interesting to me, but property was one of my favorites.”
She graduated from Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law in 1998, and one of her first jobs in real estate was an internship with the City of Houston, also later working with Shell Oil Company, Inc. supporting real estate litigation.
“I say your career path sometimes gets laid out before you based on the opportunities that come your way,” Williams said. “I say that, meaning real estate seemed to be a recurring opportunity for me out of law school, and it quickly developed into my major area of concentration in terms of my legal career.
“I think that those quiet times with the real estate diligence materials is where I extended my love of real estate. You can spend hours, days and weeks working out a solution in real estate, and then you determine one day ‘I got it. This is the answer!’ It’s almost an epiphany. It’s gratifying in that you’re able to solve and deliver that component to the project, program or mission you have out there.”
Williams spent more than 20 years working as a real estate attorney before she became the associate director of real estate for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, overseeing the management of the MTA’s tenanted portfolio of real restate for commuter rail lines and the New York City subway.
“It was the opportunity to take my expertise to the next level,” Williams said. “When I transitioned to go work at the MTA, it became evident to me that there’s a lot of opportunities out there that are outside of my traditional legal background, and there were opportunities to continue to grow and lead on the business side.”
While with the MTA, Williams saw an open position for the chief of real estate at USACE New York District. She applied and began working with USACE in 2019. Shortly after, Williams got the opportunity to apply to become the chief of real estate at NAD and began working at the Division in 2020.
“It was a transition for me to come and bring all my subject matter expertise from a real estate standpoint to the Corps and to deploy those skills,” Williams said. “It’s been a constant learning opportunity for me because real estate is real estate wherever you go. However, when you come in from outside an organization, you really have to understand their house rules or how they go about doing the thing that you already know.”
Williams loves working with USACE and was “super excited” when she was offered the position at NAD.
“One thing unique about the Corps is the mission is like none other,” she said. “There is no other mission that you could get in the private sector that is like this. We touch and concern so many areas of the public interests that no one else ever involves themselves in on a normal basis. That’s kind of the impact for me. It gives you that ability to serve our nation in a way that’s unique and different from anything else you’ve ever done.”
Williams reflected on her career thus far, saying she was grateful for the opportunities that she has had.
“I feel at times humbled by the fact that the impact in what I do has such wide-reaching effects,” she said. “I recognize implicitly that the opportunities of this particular position that I am in, and even leading the New York District and various roles that I’ve had over my career, aren’t available to everyone. So, I’m tremendously grateful for them and recognize they are in and of themselves a reward for hard work and effort. They are not to be taken lightly. I’m humbled by the sheer breadth of the things I am able to do and the teams I have been so fortunate to lead.”