Robert Yaro on Wednesday at the Regional Plan Association's offices. Mr. Yaro is retiring from the group. Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal

Robert Yaro, a fierce advocate for the New York City region in an era that included a deep disinvestment in public infrastructure, rugged recessions and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, is retiring from his post running the Regional Plan Association.

He will be succeeded by Thomas Wright, the organization's executive director.

Mr. Yaro is "kind of like an oracle for the industry. Everybody wanted to hear what he wanted to say on any subject," said Janette Sadik-Khan, a principal at Bloomberg Associates, an international consulting organization, and a former New York City transportation commissioner. She is a former board member of the Regional Plan Association.

Mr. Yaro, 64 years old, came to the group in 1989 and became president in 2001, when he was thrust into the role of helping lower Manhattan rebuild after the terrorist attacks.

"All of the big systems were busted," he said of New York City when he started at the association. "It's been rewarding to see this place not only get back on its feet but become the center of the galaxy like it was when I was a kid," said Mr. Yaro, who grew up in Kew Gardens, Queens.

The nonprofit association was founded 92 years ago to create a plan for the region—Long Island, southwestern Connecticut, northern New Jersey, the lower Hudson Valley and New York City—that was swelling with an immigrant population.

Mr. Yaro heightened the group's power to sway mayors and governors on policies including the construction of a new neighborhood on Manhattan's far West Side and the revival of a plan to build the Second Avenue subway line.

"He cost me a lot of money over the years," joked Richard Ravitch, a former chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and former lieutenant governor of New York state, who also serves on association's board.

Mr. Yaro wasn't afraid to propose changes that were unlikely to succeed—or seemed so—including those that rankled powerful politicians and business leaders.

He opposed the construction of a new football stadium for the New York Jets on the West Side, even though it was a favorite project of the then-mayor, Michael Bloomberg.

"It didn't make a newly elected mayor with a lot of clout and a lot of self-confidence, it didn't make him happy," Mr. Ravitch said.

The association instead proposed a mixed-use district, much like what eventually would become the Hudson Yards project that is now under construction.

Mr. Wright said Mr. Yaro's strength had been looking at issues a different way. "You can talk with 20 people about something and 19 of them will come at an issue in largely the same way and he'll say 'No, no, no,'" he said.

Most recently, Mr. Yaro fought successfully to limit the permit for Madison Square Garden to 10 years at its site to help push the arena to move and make way for a new Penn Station.

Mr. Yaro will retire at the end of the year. He said he planned to spend time with his wife gardening and boating at a 280-year-old farmhouse they recently purchased in Connecticut, just within the border of the region the plan association covers. He will continue as a senior adviser at the group and to teach at the University of Pennsylvania.

Mr. Wright, 45, said he first met Mr. Yaro in a graduate seminar at Columbia University 21 years ago, where Mr. Wright was so intrigued by the group that he wrote his thesis on the detailed plans it creates that have helped shape real policy decisions. To be sure, to the extent the group's goal is promoting planning cooperation between New Jersey, New York state, New York City and Connecticut, its work is far from realized.

Mr. Wright said he was interested in working on plans to change the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and on the MTA Transportation Reinvention Commission, an advisory group whose 22 experts include Mr. Yaro.

In the Arena

Robert Yaro has been an influential in planning for a quarter century.

1989: Joined the Regional Plan Association.

1996: An RPA plan calls for mixed-use district on far west side of Manhattan, leading to today's Hudson Yards project.

1997: Co-founded and became co-chair of Empire State Transportation Alliance, working to fund MTA capital programs.

2001: Appointed president of the plan association. Helped convene alliance of civic groups to shape lower Manhattan's rebuilding after Sept. 11 attacks.

Successfully pushed for a 10-year permit for Madison Square Garden to make way for a new West Side train station.

Source: WSJ reporting

Write to Laura Kusisto at laura.kusisto@wsj.com