Securing New York City’s future by changing the way we think: We must build more efficient housing, transit, energy and
As I recently approached my last board meeting as president of the Regional Plans Association (RPA), the region’s preeminent planning organization, I had an opportunity to reflect on where we stand as a region. Six years ago, when I began my role, New York City was experiencing unprecedented success. We had created a self-reinforcing cycle where the best and brightest wanted to be here. In turn, the most successful companies clamored to call New York home. This virtuous circle made New York the envy of the world, attracting investment and fueling our region’s success.
However, after years of growth, New York had become a victim of its own success. Our aging infrastructure was beginning to crumble as millions piled onto subway cars. The streets of our city had become so congested that it became faster to walk in Midtown. And many were finding it increasingly difficult to live here due to rising housing costs. As these challenges have grown, the gap between the haves and have-nots has reached unsustainably wide levels.
Today, having been the early epicenter of the pandemic, we are experiencing a structural shock that has altered the way we live and work. Our subway is operating with approximately two-thirds of the pre-COVID ridership. Today’s New York factories, our office buildings, are barely half full, leaving our business districts like empty shells. Homelessness and crime are on the rise, while our affordability crisis has worsened. Federal aid funds are drying up just as a looming recession threatens tax revenue, leaving our state and local governments with fewer resources.
Of course, this is not the first crisis facing our city and region. The New York obituary has been written ahead of time many times, and each time we have come back stronger than before. But the recovery of our region has never been inevitable. We bounced back thanks to clear-sighted, forward-thinking leadership. And today, we face a new test that requires leadership to abandon the playbooks of the past to move toward a better and brighter future.
As CEO of one of the region’s largest real estate companies, as a director of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, and as a former chairman of the RPA, I believe there are three priority areas of focus where this insightful leadership is needed:
- First, we must restore faith in our public institutions, particularly government. Government is the foundation that strengthens society during strong winds of change. But the public has become disillusioned with the way it uses its money. Every year, billions of dollars are spent on programs and projects that have far exceeded their schedule and budget, sometimes with little to show in terms of improvement.
- The second priority must be to overcome the plague of the “not in my backyard” mentality or NIMBY-ism. Throughout my 30+ years in real estate and the civil service, one constant has been that people want change, but not in their own backyard. Housing is too expensive, but they don’t want a new apartment building in their neighborhood. Those who sleep on the streets deserve help, but don’t build a homeless shelter on your block. The transition to clean energy is a priority, but no one wants a transmission line close to home. Our public transportation system is the lifeblood of our region, but someone else should pay for it.
- The final priority should be to think regionally. We are facing a growing affordability challenge that has the potential to reverse our positive cycle of self-reinforcement. Fortunately, New York City does not have to solve this challenge alone. Our interconnected region of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut holds the key to moving forward. When companies tap into our talent, they can access a region of more than 22 million talented, ambitious and diverse people. In turn, this connectivity allows unparalleled access to numerous vibrant and affordable communities while remaining connected to the greatest economic engine in our nation’s history.
At a time when ideologues, left and right, are building dividing walls, we need leadership that can build a bridge. As those on the left demand perfection over progress, we need leadership to provide pragmatic solutions. As those on the right cling to the status quo, we need leadership to provide logical analysis to unlock communities that are resistant to change. We need leadership that can be an honest broker, bringing together those at different ends of the ideological spectrum to move our region forward. We need leadership that understands that government cannot solve these challenges alone, but rather harnesses the ingenuity and discipline of the private sector.
This is the kind of leadership that has carried us through our most challenging times in the past, and that is the leadership we need today.
Rechler is CEO of RXR, a real estate company.