The City for an Urban Future’s New Report on a Better NYC
Photo: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg via Getty Images
“Faced with a long road to a full and equitable economic recovery, New York City needs bold and actionable ideas that can be implemented right now,”
notes the nonprofit Center for an Urban Future in the introduction to its new report, “Comeback City, 250 Ideas from New Yorkers to Revive NYC’s Economy, Spark Good Jobs, and Build a More Equitable City.” It surveyed 175 prominent people (executives, activists, restauranteurs, architects, politicians) and asked them for ideas; some are more practical than others, but all build on a faith in the resilience and potential of urban life. The full report is here, or peruse our selection of 25 that we found in various ways intriguing, from “feminist housing” to the establishment of a city “Department of Care.” Oh, and free subways, too.
1. Capitalize on the backlash surrounding restrictive voting laws to bring film and TV production back from Georgia, Texas, and other states with new incentives. –Jeff Zucker, president, CNN
Over the past two decades, the filmed-production industry has added tens of thousands of jobs and prior to the pandemic employed over 100,000 people full-time in diverse occupations ranging from set and costume design to editing, acting, and cinematography. It’s also an industry that has continued to thrive throughout the pandemic, as production on major films and TV shows barely slowed. But the industry has also seen production increasingly move to Georgia, Texas, and other states or countries, enticed by incentives and lower costs — leaving this valuable source of middle-class jobs vulnerable. NYC should capitalize on the backlash surrounding restrictive voting laws and bring back studios and production companies that moved South. Renewed incentives would ensure that film, TV, and commercial production bounces back even stronger than before and continues to provide economic opportunity to New Yorkers of all backgrounds.
2. Create NYC Coin: a local currency for the five boroughs. –Fred Wilson, founder, Union Square Ventures
Increased local spending, especially at New Yorker–owned and –operated retailers and restaurants, will be critical to creating an economic recovery that includes and sustains the small businesses across the five boroughs that have been devastated by the pandemic. One innovative way to encourage New Yorkers to spend within the city is by creating a local currency: NYC Coin. Local currencies keep money circulating within the community, strengthening the local economy. And with the emergence of cryptocurrency and the widespread use of digital wallets and contactless payment, NYC Coin would be relatively easy to implement. NYC Coin could provide benefits for vendors and consumers through sales tax exemptions, discounts, or other mechanisms, all while showing NYC pride and ensuring the money spent stays within the five boroughs.
3. Allow trailer parks in NYC. –Jonathan Peters, professor of finance, College of Staten Island
The decades-long success of the Goethals Community on the north shore of Staten Island, the sole trailer park in New York City, provides strong evidence that the city should be open to new, old, and perhaps unconventional urban-housing ideas. Simple and effective regulations could be implemented to assure that the facilities retain their affordable and stable cost status, such as requiring that land be cooperatively owned as opposed to leased or rented. Changing the city’s policy to allow new trailer-park projects would allow New York City to experiment with new housing options and support the expansion of the housing stock at an accelerated rate, creating jobs in construction in the short run and expanding housing stock in the long run.
4. Transform every tenth street across NYC into “people streets.” –Bjarke Ingels, founder, Bjarke Ingels Group
Improving personal mobility across the city and creating more lively and enjoyable outdoor spaces will provide the city economy with many little boosts and take far less time and resources than large-scale interventions. The city should start this reinvention by radically transforming city streets and changing how we use the Brooklyn Bridge. To start with, city officials should identify every fifth or every tenth street and turn them into “people streets.” Reformat these streets away from car traffic and instead have e-buses or e-trams, expanded lanes for bikes and scooters, and include much more open space. This would take pressure off the subway and divert expensive and time-consuming resources otherwise used to expand subway capacity. The city should also remove private cars from Brooklyn Bridge and have only dedicated, public shared electric mobility, bike paths, and much more pedestrian capacity — with the potential for public transportation in the form of electric buses or shuttles. This would create a spectacular public space over the East River.
5. Make the subway free four days a week. –Gordon Davis, partner, Venable; former commissioner, NYC Parks Department
New York City’s economy won’t fully bounce back until the vast majority of New Yorkers return to riding the subway on a regular basis … More people on the trains will also make the transit system safer, which in turn will make even more New Yorkers — and tourists — comfortable riding the subway … To significantly boost ridership and help unleash a long-lasting economic recovery, city and state leaders should make subways free for four days a week until the end of 2021. If ridership hasn’t fully recovered by then, policymakers should consider half-priced fares for the first half of 2022.
6. Let there be much, much more neon. –Wellington Chen, executive director, Chinatown Partnership
To revive neighborhoods like Chinatown, the city should look to Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and other Asian cities that are bustling with energy, vibrancy, and light. The vibrancy and sense of identity conveyed by Asian night markets show what is possible if the city creates relief zone regulation to allow business districts like Chinatown to revitalize their economies. Manhattan Chinatown and other hard-hit commercial areas should be designated special relief zones, allowing for new advertising regulations, inviting neon signs and billboards that can highlight the culture, music, and art that makes these neighborhoods unique global attractions. The relief zone designation will allow investors to come in and put up the hardware, and advertising revenues can be split between landlords and merchants so that they have additional income, while also generating government tax revenue. This will create a sense of energy, vibrancy, and identity. It also gives hope and inspiration to the community and will foster new foot traffic in what has otherwise become a dead zone.
7. Fund a “feminist housing plan.” –Jessica Katz, executive director, Citizens Housing & Planning Council
To counter the disproportionate economic impacts of the pandemic on women, city officials should roll out a feminist housing plan to support low-income women living in New York’s affordable housing. The working definition of affordable housing in New York City requires 30 percent of household income to go toward rent. However, New York’s high cost of food, clothing, medical costs, transportation, and child care put added pressure on women and single-parent households, populations who are more likely to be low-income and have less to spare after rent contribution. The New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) should reformulate the definition of “affordable” to account for additional expenditures, income level, and household configuration to better support the economic recovery of women and single-parent households.
8. Save retail with city-backed master leases. –Alicia Glen, founder and managing principal, MSquared; former NYC deputy mayor for housing and economic development
The city should take aggressive action to ensure that New York City’s storefronts remain vibrant, funky, and as diverse as our amazing city. To do so, city government — likely through the Economic Development Corporation — could roll out a program to negotiate master leases with landlords that have vacant property at some scale and then sublease them to local purveyors, ideally at a slightly below-market rent. This would more or less apply the city’s structure for public markets to private property, creating an opportunity for landlords to rent out their retail spaces to a credit tenant and guarantee revenue for a set period of time, while also opening up shuttered storefronts to local entrepreneurs and restaurateurs looking to get back to work.
9. Help New Yorkers of color start and grow businesses in the marijuana industry. –Marlene Cintron, Bronx Overall Development Corporation
Following the legalization of marijuana this spring, there is a significant opportunity for this emerging industry to boost the city’s economic recovery and provide opportunities for New Yorkers disproportionately impacted not just by the pandemic but also by decades of unequal drug enforcement to start new businesses, build wealth, and create jobs. But without concrete steps from the city and state to ensure equity and inclusivity, larger, well-capitalized companies could take hold of the industry. The city and state should go beyond mandates for MWBE participation and reach out directly to New Yorkers of color with prior criminal-justice involvement who may need additional supports to break into the industry while it is still being formed. This might include financial literacy classes, marketing training, assistance with business formation and access to capital. New Yorkers of color must be afforded opportunities to own businesses in all aspects of the industry, from growing operations and edibles production to dispensaries and smoking lounges. This can help ensure that profits from businesses go to the communities harmed by decades of strict drug laws and unequal enforcement, while setting the market up for minority entrepreneurs to thrive.
10. Subsidize the gussying up of storefronts. –Susan Fine, principal, Turnstyle Market
The city could induce capital improvements in these storefronts with a tax abatement similar to the old Industrial & Commercial Incentive Program (ICIP), where the benefit of the abatement exceeds by 20 percent the cost of the improvement (and abatement is spread over time to level the impact on city revenues). An economically challenged landlord could even “borrow” the value of the abatement, much like tax credits are traded. Similarly, a tax incentive could be given to convert ground-floor retail to uses that have social benefits and provide life but can afford to pay only a small rent, similar in concept to the community facility bonuses for new construction. Whether these uses are preschools or art installations, a short-term incentive can jump-start street life until the landlord finds an income-producing use or longer-term tenant. To be effective, the incentive should be as-of-right to avoid a long regulatory process. It would also be wise to enact legislation which sunsets the benefit to induce landlords to invest now.
11. Suspend the bureaucracy. –Tim Tompkins, former president, Times Square Alliance.
When the city launched Open Restaurants last year, it unleashed the unbelievable entrepreneurial energy and creativity of New York’s business owners — and all it took was waiving the normally restrictive rules and bureaucratic permitting processes for restaurants to set outdoor tables … City officials should learn from that experience and enact a one- or two-year waiver on other restrictions that have stifled business formation and growth in New York. For example, for the next year, the city should ease the restrictions on people setting up businesses out of their NYCHA apartment or in their brownstone. But don’t stop there.
12. Set up an entrepreneurial matchmaking service to help small businesses share storefronts. –Jessica Johnson, president, Johnson Security Bureau
To take advantage of New York’s many vacant storefronts, the city should implement a cooperative business property ownership model, incentivizing co-locating businesses within one space. Supporting cooperative uses of space would allow small businesses to assist one another and achieve greater autonomy. New York City Housing Preservation & Development (HPD) and other city agencies could provide availability listings directly to small businesses with plans to co-locate, reformulating the current opportunity zone model to support community members doing business within their own communities.
13. Encourage micro-offices throughout all five boroughs. –Rosemary Scanlon, economist, former divisional dean, NYU Schack Institute
Remote work during the pandemic has reset the expectations of hundreds of thousands of office workers who used to commute into Manhattan and reshaped the office needs of countless city employers. Many employers and employees still see the value in coming to an office — but perhaps not just one central office in Midtown. The city should help businesses adapt to the new, post-pandemic normal and keep people in New York City by encouraging and incentivizing businesses to implement satellite offices throughout the five boroughs. The city could support existing private co-working spaces, as well as streamline rentals for empty storefronts to be used as neighborhood office space. Supporting accessible, neighborhood co-working and office spaces would help anchor neighborhood restaurants, cafés, and retail shops surrounding the satellite office spaces, providing necessary support for outer-borough small businesses and limiting the strain caused by lengthy daily commutes.
14. Tell everyone they better “Get Out.” –Michael Dorf, founder and CEO, City Winery
It’s likely that office work in New York has changed for good. Many if not most white-collar workers will continue to work remotely or adopt a hybrid of on-site and virtual work. But when they do come into the office, those same workers will need to do more to support the city’s gathering places — the restaurants, bars, pubs, and performance venues that have been devastated by the pandemic and are hanging on by a thread. That could mean holding a meeting in a restaurant, or hosting a conference at a small-events venue. The city should create a media campaign with the phrase “Get Out!” to encourage workers to make use of New York’s array of unique venues.
15. Turn public libraries into places to help small businesses get started. –Dennis M. Walcott, president and CEO, Queens Public Library
New York has long benefited from strong commercial corridors in the boroughs. Now with shifts in offices toward remote work and some reluctance around mass transit and long daily commutes, there’s an opportunity to take a neighborhood-centric approach to economic recovery … The city should stimulate new business formation in a number of ways: cut back on the regulatory hurdles to starting a business, launch grants to stimulate new businesses in areas where specific amenities or services are lacking, and provide a new level of support for the training, coaching, and hand-holding needed for any first-time operation to succeed. One of the best ways to scale up that support infrastructure is through the city’s more than 210 branch libraries, including new partnerships between public libraries and other strong community-based organizations providing small business and entrepreneurship assistance. The city can use the reach and trust of libraries as the core infrastructure needed to bring people together around a whole range of neighborhood-based economic development services.
17. Let small businesses set up shop in city parks. –Anthony Ramirez II, founder, The Bronx Beer Hall
The success of outdoor dining and Open Streets last summer shows how the city can let small businesses innovate to enliven neighborhoods and boost revenues after the devastating first wave of the pandemic. It’s time to double down and further develop how business is conducted outdoors. New Yorkers once again are flocking to parks, so why not harness that enthusiasm to boost small businesses that have been devastated by the pandemic while providing new amenities in open spaces across the five boroughs? New York City should repurpose sections of select city parks for commercial activity, including food vendors, outdoor dining, and events. Then, the Parks Department could issue permits to interested businesses with pricing tiers based on the size and type of business or event, rolling in cleaning and maintenance fees so garbage doesn’t pile up and the city stays clean and inviting.
18. Establish a “Curb Recidivism Fellowship” to provide new supports for youth who’ve been involved in the criminal-justice system. –Clayton Banks, CEO, Silicon Harlem
The city should develop a “Curb Recidivism Fellowship” that covers tuition and living expenses for youth that have been exposed to the criminal-justice system. Youth fellows would benefit from training at a community college or technical institute and receive mentorship to help divert mentees from future justice involvement. An effective and equitable post-pandemic recovery requires addressing the scourge of crime brought by the pandemic while also increasing the gaps in educational attainment that prevent countless New Yorkers from accessing the good-paying jobs driving the economic rebound.
19. Expand “Freelancers Hubs” across all five boroughs. –Rafael Espinal, executive director, Freelancers Union
Roughly one-third of New Yorkers earn income from freelance work. To revive the city’s economy, the city should invest in creating free hubs to support the independent workforce. Today, New York is home to a single city-funded Freelancers Hub, which is operated by Freelancers Union. It provides a free co-working and networking space for independent workers in film, writing, and media. Because the space and programming are free to freelancers, we have found that the majority of our members who utilize the space are lower-income workers who don’t have the financial capacity to join a paid co-working space. The Hub also provides free legal and financial assistance and programming that enables independent workers to upskill, receive financial counseling, and access legal assistance. Creating Hubs in all five boroughs will help stimulate the use of underutilized commercial spaces, while giving independent workers the tools they need to grow their business and succeed financially.
20. Ban private cars in Manhattan. –Vishaan Chakrabarti, Founder, PAU
Manhattan’s 2,450 acres of roadway (nearly three times the size of Central Park) are overwhelmingly devoted to private-car travel. The city should ban private cars in the borough and reallocate much of that street space to parks, sidewalks, and dedicated bus and bike lanes. Taking back this street space — while still allowing for vehicle access for commerce, rideshare, and the disabled — could bolster the region at a time when it is reeling from the loss of millions of tourists and hundreds of thousands of office workers. The reclaimed public space could be used for new street vendors and sidewalk cafés, homeless services, better waste management, and the increased pedestrian traffic would boost street-front retail. The city has seen the increased use of parks and the great success of Open Streets and outdoor dining during the pandemic. It should take these lessons to heart and make a visionary commitment to reclaiming public space for the nearly 80 percent of Manhattanites who do not own cars, while drastically reducing regional traffic into the CBD. Once streets have been adapted to new uses, which itself will create new infrastructure jobs, dedicated bus rapid transit would decrease commute times, congestion, and air quality for marginalized populations across all five boroughs outside Manhattan and the tristate region.
21. Turn Eastern Parkway into a “global cultural destination.” –Anne Pasternak, director, Brooklyn Museum
New York City and State should invest in turning America’s first great European-style boulevard, Eastern Parkway, into a new type of cultural destination. Its wide sidewalks are able to accommodate large numbers of pedestrians. In just a few blocks, it links Brooklyn’s biggest cultural institutions: Brooklyn Museum, Prospect Park, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and Brooklyn Public Library. And it is a connector of economically and culturally diverse neighborhoods. The city should recognize this world-class asset and launch a marketing campaign to elevate its potential as a global destination for arts and culture and bring new economic activity to the surrounding neighborhoods. And it should activate the Parkway with a new calendar of major events to complement the annual West Indian Day Parade that brings millions of people to the neighborhood every Labor Day.
22. Help struggling performing-arts groups by providing free rehearsal spaces in schools. –Randi Berry, executive director, IndieSpace
As the performing-arts industry has been one of the most adversely affected by the pandemic, supporting theater and dance organizations will be necessary for recovery and for bringing tourism back to the city. The city could pair public schools with performing-arts organizations to provide programming to students in exchange for free rehearsal space. This would expand arts education while providing arts organizations access to physical space. Scaling this program would reduce expenses for artists and provide arts programming to schools at no additional cost.
23. Provide a basic income for artists to work at cultural organizations. –Sally Tallant, president and executive director, Queens Museum
Working artists contribute so much to New York’s vitality, but they have been among the hardest hit during the pandemic. To provide a boost to this crucial part of New York’s cultural fabric and economy, the city and state should replicate or borrow from government programs created to aid artists during previous economic emergencies, like the city’s own federally funded Cultural Council Foundation Artists Project, which in the late 1970s placed over 500 artists with community organizations and paid them each $10,000 a year (equivalent to over $44,000 today) to make public art installations, perform, teach classes, and lead workshops. New York City should revive aspects of that pioneering program together with new basic-income programs being tested in California. The city should give 10,000 artists a basic income, operated through the cultural institutions. With this funding, institutions like the Queens Museum could employ, provide health care benefits, and provide workspace for about 10 to 15 artists. This would be an effective employment strategy that supports institutions along with individual artists.
24. Invest in NYC’s greatest engine of social mobility: CUNY. –Michelle Anderson, president, Brooklyn College
For the city to achieve an economic recovery that lifts up New Yorkers of all backgrounds, it needs to invest in institutions that are engines of social mobility and advancement. And there is no institution in the entire country, let alone New York City, that is a greater force for social mobility than the City University of New York. But for CUNY to continue to provide transformative opportunities to hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers every year, the system needs to be able to provide students — so many of whom are the first in their families to go to college — with an educational environment that allows them to envision new possibilities and different worlds. First, this requires major new investment in hiring. The system was understaffed before the pandemic, and when faculty and staff are stretched, they cannot provide the life-changing individual advisement and coaching that empowers students to rise out of poverty. Second, the city must invest in CUNY facilities before it’s too late. CUNY has endured deferred maintenance since the 1970s, and it’s taking a massive toll. Chemistry labs have to be closed and research halted, and classes regularly have to be relocated due to leaks, HVAC issues, and other structural issues. When a water main breaks or a bridge crumbles, the city is held back. We need to think about the physical campuses of CUNY in the same way — as essential infrastructure that powers New York’s economy. These campuses are the routes within the city to move up.
25. Create a “Department of Care” to strengthen local capacity to reimagine, maintain, and care for public spaces. –Justin Garrett Moore, program officer, Humanities in Place, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
To help New York City recover equitably from the pandemic, city leaders will need to make major new investments in expanding and rethinking public space to meet the needs of communities and neighborhoods across the city. In order to build trust in this process and ensure that outcomes are truly inclusive and equitable, the city will need a much stronger mechanism to facilitate conversations about how communities will be affected and what needs to be done in advance of physical changes.
One solution is to create a Department of Care. Working across government agencies and with community-based organizations and local leaders, this entity would be charged with building local capacity to address ongoing maintenance and care needs for public spaces — before committing to physical changes in the built environment. The Department of Care would enable New York City to go beyond the BID/conservancy system and build out community-level infrastructure of maintenance and care for the spaces we use every day.