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Sunday, October 4, 2020

Business Leaders Feel Sidelined in New York City’s Recovery

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL - By Katie Honan and Jimmy Vielkind

New York City’s business leaders have looked for ways to help the city during its looming financial crisis, as they have done previously in tough times, but some say they haven’t found much of a partner in Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The new coronavirus pandemic has devastated the city’s economy and erased billions of dollars in tax revenue. Nearly 650,000 people were unemployed as of August and thousands of small businesses have closed since March.

Executives across major industries have offered their assistance, as they did in the 1970s and after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“I don’t feel like we have a plan as it relates to the city emerging better and stronger,” said Scott Rechler, chief executive of RXR Realty, a developer and property manager whose portfolio includes several midtown buildings.

Mr. Rechler was one of more than 160 business leaders who signed an open letter last month warning of deteriorating conditions in the city and growing anxiety over public safety, cleanliness and other quality-of-life issues. They urged the mayor to restore some essential services like garbage pickups and graffiti removal that had been reduced or eliminated from the city’s most recent budget.

Kathryn Wylde, chief executive of the business group Partnership for New York City, which gathered signatures for the letter, said the de Blasio administration needed to lay out a plan to address these issues. Mr. de Blasio has brushed off the letter, asking these top business leaders to instead help the city in its efforts to obtain borrowing authority from the state, and financial help from the federal government. However, he later restored some trash-removal services.

Some business executives say Mr. Blasio’s recently announced plan to revive New York City’s economy lacks details.

Mitch Schwartz, a spokesman for Mr. de Blasio, said the mayor has held more than 30 meetings and calls with advisory councils and business leaders since the start of the pandemic.

“We’re grateful for the input from businesses big and small as we continue to work together fighting Covid and bringing our economy back,” Mr. Schwartz said.

Last week, Mr. de Blasio unveiled a plan to revive the city’s economy, a “recovery agenda” focused on investing in a hub for public-health research, creating more high-paying jobs and providing additional funding to underserved communities. But the proposal, some business executives say, was short on details.

The mayor also recently attended the grand opening of One Vanderbilt, a new Midtown Manhattan office tower, lauding it as an example of good development, as its builders put $220 million toward fixing parts of nearby Grand Central Terminal.

“It’s really up to developers to come forward in that spirit of serving the surrounding community, if they want to get the support of the city government,” Mr. de Blasio said at a recent press conference.

RXR Realty’s midtown Manhattan office. ’I don’t feel like we have a plan as it relates to the city emerging better and stronger,” says the developer’s CEO.
 
The relationship between the city’s business leaders and Mr. de Blasio has never been warm. In his mayoral campaigns he has vowed to be a champion of the have-nots in an economically divided city. But with the city government facing a $9 billion deficit over the next two years, a slow return of workers to Manhattan offices and a surge in crime, the frustration in the business community over Mr. de Blasio’s “tale of two cities” rhetoric is boiling over, Ms. Wylde said.

In interviews, executives said they had better results connecting with members of the mayor’s staff, but these channels weren’t always sufficient to advance a policy or initiative. Ms. Wylde said Mr. de Blasio was friendly and even charming in private meetings. However, the mayor hasn’t appeared in person at a gathering of the Association for a Better New York, a group of civic and business leaders, since the eve of his 2017 re-election, business leaders say. The group is now hosting virtual gatherings, including an August session with City Department of Small Business Services Commissioner Jonnel Doris.

The association was born out of the 1970s fiscal crisis. Founder Lew Rudin met with other business leaders in 1971 and recruited other executives from multiple sectors to figure out ways to help New York City. In the ensuing years, the group’s members worked with city officials to help secure more federal assistance.

Mr. Rubenstein said he believed the mayor could get more help from the business community if he made more direct outreach.

“[The mayor’s] leadership would be essential in embracing the business community, and it has not been embraced,” said Tom Grech, the chairman of the Queens Chamber of Commerce, which represents small and large businesses.

 
Other business leaders said they have found the mayor to be responsive.

Hal Fetner, CEO of Fetner properties, an affordable-housing developer, said he called Mr. de Blasio in early September after noticing a higher number of homeless people in Midtown Manhattan. He said the mayor promised to look into the issue.

“He’s really getting an unfair shake right now,” Mr. Fetner said. “He is somewhat constrained with what he can do because, no different than you or I, he has a budget and the money is not coming in.”

Late last month, when the developers of Brooklyn’s Industry City abandoned their yearslong campaign for a rezoning they said would create thousands of new jobs, they blamed “a lack of leadership” that could have helped them win over local opponents.

 
Developers of Industry City in Sunset Park, pictured in December 2017, withdrew a project to rezone their property last month.
  Photo:  Elizabeth Shafiroff for THE WALL STREET JOURNAL 
They sought to expand a campus of 16 buildings in a waterfront section of Sunset Park that is now home to 550 businesses. But the local city councilman and community organizers pushed back, saying it would accelerate gentrification.

Mr. de Blasio never weighed in on the plan, saying he didn’t want to offer an opinion on private development.

Ms. Wylde and other business groups saw the project as a larger test of the business climate. They were stung by Amazon.com Inc.’s scrapping of its plans for a massive headquarters campus in Queens last year after opposition from local opponents and hoped Mr. de Blasio would assert himself on behalf of a project that would boost the local economy.

Real Estate Board of New York President James Whelan said previous mayors would have helped negotiate a solution.

“You have unemployment approaching Great Depression levels. We and others are issuing analyses on a monthly basis showing private investment is shriveling,” Mr. Whelan said. “If you want a progressive government, you need a prosperous city.”

Write to Katie Honan at Katie.Honan@wsj.com and Jimmy Vielkind at Jimmy.Vielkind@wsj.com

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