A diagram for a “public domain network” around Grand Central Terminal, as seen in the “New New York” report.
Chart: Rendered by FXCollaborative
New York should be back by now, and in some ways it is. Over the past few months, I’ve attended packed museums and sold-out concerts, shouted over diners at the next table, stood hip to hip in crowded subway cars and I’ve plodded behind tourists who have returned to the city that people all over the world wistfully mention “I wish I could see it”. But despite these peaks, the city still feels distant, plagued by anxiety, weariness and resignation. Maybe it’s just the New York I observe through the keyhole of my own experience; maybe you feel like it has returned to its old glamor and rhythm. How to measure a collective mood?
A new 159-page report deployed by Mayor Eric Adams and Governor Kathy Hochul fleshes out the unease. The tone is urgent and pressing, in part because the document does not attempt to gloss over the challenges. What started as a revitalization project for a handful of business districts has turned into a playbook for rewiring the city as a whole. “To truly establish New York City as the best place to work in the world, we must make New York City the best place, period,” the executive summary states in bold print.
Yet my discouragement mounted as I read, reaching a dismal fortissimo when I came to the charts summarizing the health of commercial areas. Manhattan’s business heartland, the core of New York’s prosperity, growth and identity for more than a century, is depressed. It’s true that offices have emptied before – after 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis, for example – but this time the abandonment is worse. In the mid-1970s, when New York’s population dropped by a million people in ten years, about 20% of office space lay fallow. This figure is now stuck at 21.9%.
Even when businesses pay rent, the buildings they nominally occupy still look like haunted mansions. The cold spreads outward. Downtown sidewalks are less crowded than before the pandemic (weekday foot traffic is reduced by 23%), restaurant tables are begging (a 35% drop in business) and stores are selling less. The gloom isn’t uniform: People are eating and drinking more in the Flushing Mall than they did in 2019 and buying more stuff at Fordham Plaza and the Bronx Hub. But New York’s tax base depends on Manhattan’s office-rich glass sierras, and if those aren’t restored in the foreseeable future, the city will have to adapt to that reality, and that’s not happening. . Developers are building more of the kind of real estate New York doesn’t need and not enough of the kind it does: homes. The gap between overabundant office supply and weak office demand is not closing, and some projections show it widening considerably over the next 15 years.
If this environment continues, it will usher in a fundamental change in the way New York works. Until the pandemic, the top priority for making the city an economic hub was to attract CEOs; white-collar workers converged here because that’s where the jobs were. Now, instead, the city’s future hinges on making it affordable, fair, and enjoyable enough to convince New Yorkers to stay (or would-be New Yorkers to move here) instead of telecommuting from Montana.
The task of figuring out how to do this fell to a team led by Daniel Doctoroff, a former executive at urban planning firm Sidewalk Labs and deputy mayor in the Bloomberg administration, and Richard Buery, CEO of the Robin Hood Foundation and deputy mayor. under Bill de Blasio. There is a certain irony in the stewardship of Doctoroff. In the Bloomberg years, politics was shaped by projections of an almost insatiable need for new office space. Doctoroff used this rationale to justify building the private fiefdom of Hudson Yards, which now looks like a relic revolving around a barren plaza and a permanently empty ship. This time, Doctoroff is selling a long menu of policy changes that includes a powerful push for bigger and better public space, to be led by a new public realm city czar.
Envisioning a new New York, the panel came up with 40 ideas ranging from the familiar to the obvious to the ambitious yet vague. The list incorporates the recent Adams pledge enable the construction of 500,000 new homes in ten years, more than double the rate of the last decade. You’ve got your congestion pricing, more dedicated bus lanes, EV charging stations, and cargo e-bikes – all good stuff that requires high-intensity tracking miracles. Number 18 on the wish list is “Creating a Sustainable Operating Budget Template for the MTA”. (Why didn’t anyone think of that?) Number 19 is “Maintain subway service during peak hours and dramatically increase subway service during off-peak hours.” Both sound great, but in the real world, the MTA, which only carries 60% of the passengers it carried before the pandemic, is threatening to raise fares and cut service.
The good news is that after years of boring matches between mayor and governor, Adams and Hochul seem to have the same agenda. Whether they can convince a ragtag group of city agencies and state legislators to come together, push new zoning regulations past restless and resistant neighborhood groups, or resist legal backlash and politics that change inevitably entails is another story. “Successful implementation of these recommendations will require an effective and motivated government, with appropriate and clear organizational and accountability structures in place,” the report points out. It will also require consistency, and I have my doubts about that.
The same report that is so skeptical of the future of office work also includes a passing mention of Hochul’s misguided plan to surround Penn Station with ten new office towers. And the day before Adams released this document, which aims to reduce vehicular traffic and vehicle pollution, he also released a new set of preliminary design options to restore the crumbling BQE, adding rear lanes which had previously been removed. If you like your infrastructure with a mid-century diesel-scented vibe, this is a great option. If you’re hoping for a bold reflection on the city of the future, not so much.