New York City Needs Big Ideas and Leaders Willing to Try Them

People like to write off New York City, and time and again, this city proves them wrong.

It’s never been magic, however — the resurrection of the greatest city in the world has always required grit and ingenuity, backed by its political, business and civic leadership exerting a will to match the moment’s greatest problems.

On the surface, the city’s recovery looks robust. The labor market is strong, and by this spring, New York’s economy had recovered more than 99 percent of the jobs it lost during the pandemic. Tourism is booming, and the city expects to receive more than 63 million visitors this year. Daily subway ridership in April hit four million for the first time since March 2020.

Today, though, these glimmers of hope are dulled by the existential challenges looming.

The five boroughs have lost nearly half a million people since April 2020, according to an analysis of U.S. census data for The Times by the Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit government watchdog. Much of that flight appears to be among the city’s wealthiest residents, further weakening its coffers.

Office workers — and in fact, entire corporations — aren’t returning to Midtown Manhattan, threatening not only the livelihood of restaurants and retailing in the central business district but also cultural institutions, chief among them Broadway.

Crime, including shootings, is falling but remains higher than before the pandemic. This, plus the general decline in the quality of life in the city, has led to isolated acts of random violence fueling deep unease about safety on the streets and subways.

Economic inequities have only deepened. More than 10 percent of Black New Yorkers are unemployed, according to the most recently available data, nearly twice the national average. Rents in the city are now comically unaffordable, even to the middle and upper-middle classes. More than 100,000 people are sleeping in city shelters every night, slightly more than half of whom are migrants seeking asylum, according to city officials.

The number of residents on cash assistance since the pandemic began has risen to nearly 500,000, a 47 percent increase since February 2020, according to an analysis of city data by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School.

Gov. Kathy Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams last year convened a working group — led by two former deputy mayors, Richard Buery Jr. and Daniel Doctoroff — to identify how to get the city back on surer footing. In December, the group published its findings in a report warning that New York’s economy was slowing and that its quality of life was getting worse.

“We’ve grown too accustomed to things that are not actually acceptable,” the report said. “We have all dismissed problems of our daily lives — buses that are too slow, streets that are too dirty, housing that is too expensive, terrible traffic — as the price one pays for living in a city like New York.”

That list of challenges is nowhere near exhaustive, but neither is the list of ideas for how to make New York more livable and workable. Compromises will have to be made, experiments and research done, but this board is persuaded that some of the ideas below will work. Slightly more than a year from now, when voters return to the polls in state and local primaries, they should cast their ballots based on the ability of Mayor Adams and Governor Hochul to build a coalition around finding effective solutions.

Here are the critical results they should look for:

A crowded Midtown Manhattan. What will happen to a city where businesses are no longer willing to sign multiyear leases for millions of square feet of commercial real estate? The rate of return to Manhattan offices has stalled at about 50 percent to 60 percent of the prepandemic level. The number of daily commuters to New York from its northern suburbs and Long Island on an average weekday remains low, about 64 percent of what it was in 2019, according to Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials.

As a result, much of Manhattan’s office space — about 23 percent, according to City Hall — is sitting vacant, sending the value of commercial real estate plummeting and costing the city an estimated $2 billion in lost property tax revenue alone through 2024, city budget officials calculate.

There’s no faster fix than for white-collar workers to choose to commute again. The empty office space means that tens of thousands fewer people are shopping, eating and playing in the central business district. Bloomberg News calculated that Manhattan workers are spending $12.4 billion less a year than they did in 2019. Broadway still has about 300,000 fewer theatergoers than it did before the pandemic, according to industry officials. Many restaurants have stopped serving lunch or seating customers after 9:30 p.m., an immense shift in New York’s culture with troubling implications for hundreds of thousands of people who work in the hospitality industry.

Mr. Doctoroff argues that there needs to be more housing in the district, through conversions of office space or, in some cases, tearing down obsolete office buildings in favor of apartments.

When it comes to drawing more people to Midtown, using one of the city’s greatest assets — its artistic and cultural life — could help. World-class museums could bring art into the street. The city could transform sterile streets with art or film festivals. The car-dominated stretch of avenues between Penn Station and Grand Central Terminal could be remade into a pedestrian greenway, with food trucks and buskers on hand. Removing much of the heavy truck and car traffic from Midtown’s clogged streets — a promise of congestion pricing — could reduce unpleasant noise, improve air quality and help New Yorkers who rely on public transit to get where they are going much faster. Many of these ideas come from the working group, and they are well worth the attention of City Hall.

Transit people use. In the coming years, the region’s mass transit system will need continued and steady investment from the governor, who controls the system, and from taxpayers in both New York City and its suburbs, even as the city’s transit patterns change, with more people riding mass transit during what were once off-peak hours.

Congestion pricing, which could begin as early as next spring, would charge most vehicles a fee for entering Manhattan south of 60th Street and is expected to generate an estimated $1 billion in revenue per year for the region’s transit system. It is both a smart climate solution and an essential source of funding and deserves continued support from the city and the state.

Yet more than funding infrastructure is needed to sustain robust growth. Even as crime has dropped, it remains elevated, and the public deserves to feel more confident in the city’s public safety.

An increase in affordable housing. New York’s limited supply of housing has led to soaring rents. High rents make it harder for families to stay in the city; they make housing an increasingly large part of household budgets; and as a result, living near where you work is virtually impossible, extending commutes.

Housing affordability could be considered New York’s most urgent challenge, yet no issue has produced as much political dysfunction and failure. Early this year, Governor Hochul put forth an ambitious plan to build more housing in the region by challenging the suburbs’ exclusionary zoning laws. The proposal was hardly radical: Other states have overturned those laws, which have put a stranglehold on housing production, driving up housing costs. At the same time, state lawmakers introduced key tenant protections, known as “good cause eviction,” to help keep New Yorkers in their homes. New Jersey has similar common-sense measures on the books.

There’s more that Mayor Adams can do to put an affordable roof over people’s heads as well. He can slash through the bureaucratic morass to hire the tens of thousands of workers the city needs at agencies that preserve affordable housing, like the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. More hiring could also help get homeless people out of shelters and into permanent housing faster.

Unbelievably, these proposals have gone nowhere. New York also needs Mr. Adams to work together with Ms. Hochul to take up their ample bully pulpit and promote the building of more housing across the region. That might mean charming, swaying or pestering stakeholders — from suburbanites, to state lawmakers, to housing activists and the state’s business community.

With so much broken, New York’s leaders need big ideas on the table — and partnership. The mayor would do well to ask members of the public, too, what it would take to get them back in the city’s core. He might be surprised by the imagination behind the answers.

During the darkest days of the pandemic, some declared New York dead. They were wrong, of course. New Yorkers — the ones who have kept their communities alive and vibrant with art, food, music and imagination — made sure of that. But for this city to defy the odds again, New Yorkers need more from their leaders.

Throughout its history, New York has been the world’s destination for leaders, for dreamers and hustlers, outsiders and misfits; a place that belongs to no one and everyone all at once. Those who love New York City will have to come together to keep it so.

Source photograph by Victoria Kotlyarchuk, via Getty Images.

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