By Sarah Trefethen
Looking around Manhattan today, from the gleaming towers of the World Trade Center to the miles of bustling waterfront parks, to the throngs of tourists in Times Square, it’s easy to focus on how well-positioned the city is at the end of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 12 years in office.
That’s the position William Rudin, vice chairman and CEO of Rudin Management, took in his opening remarks at an event at Baruch College last week, a panel-filled morning of advice for the next mayor billed as “New York’s Next Urban Agenda”.
Rudin emphasized the need to continue investing on the city’s infrastructure, and advised the next mayor to take advantage of projects already underway, from laying high-speed cable in lower Manhattan to efforts to provide a one-seat ride from the city’s airports.
“There are so many things that are happening today that we are so confident to get done. These projects take years and years to get done… The new mayor will have to figure out a way to continue that momentum,” Rudin said as he opened the conference, presented by the Steven L. Newman Real Estate Institute in association with Zetlin & De Chiara LLP and Kasirer Consulting.
But that’s not the only thing he will have to figure out. Labor disputes, a shaky budget, climate change and a troubled educational system are all challenges that panelists said await the new resident of Gracie Mansion.
City employees represented by a total of six different labor unions have been working without contracts for four years. When the new mayor reaches agreements with the firefighters, teachers and other city employees, the city will owe back pay that some estimates put as high as six or seven billion dollars.
“For the first time in probably 40 years, the city doesn’t have a structural deficit, but it probably will again once we settle these contracts,” saidRobert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association.
“Bill de Blassio has laid out a very ambitions set of new spending proposals, and there isn’t going to be money to pay for a lot of those things unless there are some new efficiencies in the way the city does business.”
Public construction projects are one arena where the city could be more efficient, according to Yaro.
“We need to fundamentally change the way we permit, procure, design and deliver public construction… But to do that, the mayor’s got to make it a priority, he has to tangle with some vested interests,” he said.
Public-private partnerships are one way Yaro suggested public works could be more efficient. William Marino, the president of the infrastructure firm Star America and chairman of the Association for the Improvement of American Infrastructure, was also on the panel and said that New York and New Jersey are the only two states in the country that have not yet passed legislation that would open the door to PPP.
On the topic of infrastructure, Eugene Kohn, chairman of Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates and incoming president of the New York chapter of the AIA, warned that the threat of global climate change was a “momentous.”
“We really have to change our point of view because we’re living in an altered state,” he said.
And then there’s education. It’s not a real estate issue, until you start thinking about what it means to the city to have an appropriately trained and educated workforce.
In spite of an $8 billion dollar increase in annual education spending under Bloomberg, 70 percent of the city’s high school graduates still need remedial education in two-year institutions, according to Merryl Tisch, chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents.
The Bloomberg-era rezoning program has attracted the middle class back to the city, she said, and “they’re voting with their feet. This is a huge opportunity for our public schools.”
She called for action that would reduce “the delta between the rich and the working class.”
Everyone agreed that appointing a strong roster of deputy mayors, commissioners and department heads will be one of the new mayor’s first challenges.
Anderson suggested adding a deputy mayor for infrastructure. Kohn suggested a deputy mayor for design and planning, and that the director of the Office of Long-term Planning and Sustainability be made a commissioner.
“Let’s face it, the new mayor is going to hear a cacophony of voices — everything you can think of,” Anderson said.
“Only in New York can you get such a full range of opinions. So one of the best things we can do is come together on a few priorities…. I’m not sure what those priorities are, but we have a special responsibility to come together and not go to him individually and say ‘this is what’s really important.’”