Twelve months ago, as New York paused to remember those who had lost their lives in the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, it was hard to be hopeful about rebuilding downtown Manhattan. No-growth activists dominated the debate about what should go up where the World Trade Center once stood, and their vision of downtown excluded a vigorous commercial revival in favor of a gigantic memorial site, cultural uses, and parkland.
Today, on the second anniversary of the bombing, the outlook is rosier. Impelled by business leaders’ concerns, Governor Pataki has jumpstarted the downtown planning process and helped focus it on a vigorous rebuilding of the commercial district. The resulting plan, while far from perfect, includes a welcome pledge to build up to 10 million square feet of office and retail space on the site, as well as a new hotel. The state is also moving ahead energetically with plans to restore and upgrade transportation to the downtown area, including building a new transit center on Fulton Street to link the subway and PATH lines. Having heard persistently from business leaders that better transportation is essential to lower Manhattan’s revival, state officials are also considering other worthy new transportation projects, such as providing rail access between downtown and the city’s airports. And the state has committed to some sensible short-term improvements, targeted at helping businesses now operating in lower Manhattan—adding new pedestrian walkways, for example, and re-opening some of the streets closed since 9/11. The planning process has actually advanced to the point that Larry Silverstein, the developer who controls the site and who has doggedly fought to have it redeveloped, has put his architects to work on designing the first of the towers that will rise from Ground Zero.
All good news. But the past year has also served as a reminder that any downtown revival also depends on a resurgence of New York City’s economy as a whole—and there the outlook is much more troubling. New York remains mired in a recession that it can no longer blame solely on the terrorist attack. Since the initial job losses immediately after 9/11, New York has hemorrhaged an additional 100,000 jobs in businesses ranging from motion picture production to apparel manufacturing to telecommunications to business services to, of course, finance.
Rather than lifting the private economy out of its steep fall, politicians have only piled new burdens on an already over-taxed and over-regulated private sector. In the past year, even as businesses faced economic uncertainty because of the war in Iraq and continuing questions about the city’s future as a business center after 9/11, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, encouraged by a political culture in the city that has shifted sharply left, imposed heavy new taxes and regulations on companies—adding up to the most anti-business agenda enacted in the city in more than a decade. The mayor also proved unable or unwilling to extract any significant concessions out of the city’s workforce that could help reduce the cost of government, lessen the tax burden, and provide some long-term budget stability for the city.
Even more troubling, it seems unlikely that any relief is on the way. The left-wing contingent that now dominates the city council is cooking up a whole host of new laws that will make doing business in New York ever tougher. And if the city’s budget fixes of the past year—including billions in new taxes—don’t succeed in plugging Gotham’s big deficit, still higher taxes might be on the way, especially given New York’s current political culture.
These days, some still say: “If you build it, they will come.” New York, which has spent the last 50 years stuck in a continuing cycle of boom and bust that has resulted in no lasting job growth, should know that such clichés simply aren’t true. The economic momentum that September 11 slowed could simply halt if city government’s hostility to enterprise persists. If New York’s political leaders don’t figure this out soon, the long and trying process of rebuilding lower Manhattan will have been wasted.