Tax Breaks Won’t Help, Public Investment Will

December 12, 2001. An op ed in the New York Daily News on the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan, by David Dyssegaard Kallick and James Parrott.

The newly appointed Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Corp. will meet for the first time next week. When it does, it needs to begin work, in an open process, on a plan to increase the attractiveness of lower Manhattan through public investments, not tax incentives.

Before the mayoral election, politicians and establishment leaders of all stripes seemed to believe the key tool was providing tax incentives to lure companies back.

All that may change with hardheaded businessman Michael Bloomberg in office. “Any company that makes a decision as to where they are going to be based on the tax rate,” he said recently, “is a company that won’t be around very long.”

Incentives just hand city money to private business, according to Bloomberg, who after being elected mayor turned down a $14 million subsidy that Bloomberg LP had lobbied to get.

He’s right. Providing tax breaks to businesses is the wrong way to make lower Manhattan attractive. Almost any place in the world can provide cheaper real estate. What other locations can’t beat is the value of being downtown, so the city’s effort should focus on increasing that value.

No other location has the prestige, economic and cultural excitement, specialized pool of talent and opportunities for interaction among people in related industries.

But the city can do plenty to enhance these advantages. In replacing the area’s damaged infrastructure, for example, it could put lower Manhattan at the hub of a greatly upgraded regional system of public transportation. There is talk already of major improvements in transit links to Brooklyn, Queens and the suburbs in all directions, with many creative ideas that are worth exploring.

We should also make sure lower Manhattan and the areas with nearby transit links have excellent public schools, high-quality child care and a wide array of affordable housing. And we should continue the trend of recent years toward an increasing number of attractions — restaurants, festivals, public spaces — that make lower Manhattan a vibrant center seven days a week.

Now is also the right time to aim for slightly lower density. The businesses that benefit most from being downtown will be drawn there. But some offices came to the area at a time when rents were cheap or before technology allowed back offices to be separate from main offices. These operations can be helped to locate in other parts of the city.

As with Times Square, government can play a role in identifying sites for redevelopment that serve business needs and the public interest. There are locations in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island that could provide less expensive office space to companies and real economic benefit to neighborhoods in need, while maintaining a healthy mix of office, retail, housing, industrial and other uses — and open space.

Finally, as the number of people thrown out of work by the disaster’s ripple effects grows, recovery from the economic impact can be linked to recovery from the physical impact. Public investment in repairing and building infrastructure provides an ideal opportunity to put people to work.

Finding employment won’t be easy for many of the displaced workers in the retail, restaurant, business service, airline and hotel industries. Government should help them find new jobs, and it should fund training programs to help them develop new skills and access to careers with good wages.

Bloomberg’s blunt opposition to tax incentives is welcome. Maybe a shakeup in the city establishment will provide a real opening for New Yorkers to rethink the kind of economic future this city really needs as it recovers from Sept. 11.

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