A Ground Zero Wish List
It's this simple: If New York City reduces business taxes, extends not only the LIRR but also the Metro North to lower Manhattan, cracks down on street vendors, creates cheaper options for parking cars in the financial district, restricts truck deliveries in the area to non-business hours, hardens utility lines against terrorist attack, and maybe helps companies pay for security services, the financial services industry might just stay.
That was the message Monday at a meeting of the city council's finance committee titled "Financial Industry in Lower Manhattan: Has Government Helped Enough to Rebuild after September 11, 2001?" The answer from AMEX vice president Ron Shindel, a retired New York City cop whose last assignment was recovery at the WTC site, was an ominous "no."
"If incentives for remaining in lower Manhattan do not materialize here in the near future," Shindel told the committee, "then the Amex will become another company forced to look for incentives elsewhere." But they really, really want to stay. Honest! "[C]onsider our suggestions as though they come from not only a trusted friend and neighbor," Shindel advised, "but also from a trusted friend and neighbor who is looking for reasons to remain in the neighborhood."
Now Mr. Tynic, my neighbor growing up in (hard hittin') New Britain, Connecticut, was also a trusted friend and neighbor, and his only request was that my brother Jesse and I not trample his lettuce plants when we retrieved our wiffle ball from his yard.
AMEX seems a slightly more demanding neighbor. Besides the usual request for tax incentives, a "municipal garage that would allow for affordable, legal parking" would be neat. AMEX would also like the Metro North link to the financial district, so commuters from Westchester and Connecticut can enjoy a ride to work that does not involve a transferi.e., a commute that does not require any time on the New York City subway.
It's not just the overcrowding that makes the subway icky, Shindel said. After all, he added, "The subways are again dirty and have again become a safe haven for the deranged persons, the homeless, the panhandlers, and the peddlers." And another thing: Those damned street vendors; they're "un-taxed, unregulated, and out of control."
And how about more pedestrian-only thoroughfares?
And cleaner streets. And less truck traffic.
And a pony . . .
OK, AMEX didn't ask for a pony. But it's still quite a list. And we'd better heed it, too, because, Shindel warned, "the potential for an exodus from lower Manhattan is all too real."
There's no denying that the financial industry is vital to New York's economy, providing thousands of jobs and millions in tax revenue. And New York is certainly doing a lousy job rebuilding lower Manhattan. As the New York Post pointed out last week in a salvo of editorials, the reconstructing process seems stuck in neutral. Even when (if) they build it, it's unclear who will come: According to the Comptroller's Office, ground zero plans currently call for creating office space for which there is no identifiable demand. The number of jobs in lower Manhattan is still below what existed on September 10, 2001.
But for all that 9-11 changed, AMEX's wish list reflects how much remains the same.
For one thing, for years corporations have threatened to leave NYC unless they received millions in city tax incentives and other subsidies.
The Giuliani administration gave away billions in the name of saving or creating jobs, but the record was mixed. The rationale for such incentives is that the high taxes here create an incentive for firms to relocate out of the city. But while taxes are undeniably high in New Yorkthe state's tax burden is the nation's heaviestthe overall cost of doing business here is lower than in eight other states, including neighbors Connecticut and New Jersey, according to a recent survey. Besides, if low taxes were the only factor in business location decisions, Wall Street would move to New Hampshire. New York obviously has more going for it than the Granite State.
But a lot of AMEX's demands aren't financial in nature. They are, in Shindel's phrase, "quality of life" issues, and QOL is sometimes just a codeword for sanitizing the city. Push the strip clubs from the tourist areas, get the homeless out of Midtown, and make the island of Manhattan (below 96th Street) in the image of your favorite mall.
AMEX would like it if their traders could drive into work if they please, not get stuck behind some truck in traffic, avoid beggars on the subway or avoid the subway altogether. It'd be convenient, in other words, to eliminate the city's inconveniences, like those annoying sidewalk vendors.
Lucky for AMEX that no one took offense when the exchange began back in the early days of the stock market as a place for traders who couldn't get a seat in the NYSE and instead hawked and haggled in the street. Calling themselves the curb market, they didn't move inside until 1921.
That was probably inconvenient for NYSE traders trying to walk to and from work. "Too bad, fancy-pants," the curb guys probably said. "Welcome to New York."