The debate about the physical development of New York City inevitably focuses on large-scale projects: Atlantic Yards, Hudson Yards, and the World Trade Center site. But those massive developments are not where most job growth typically takes place; they largely involve relocating existing jobs much more than creating new permanent ones. The current slow-down in development brought about by the recession provides a chance to refocus attention on how urban planning can create jobs. With unemployment at 10 percent in New York City, we cannot afford to miss any opportunities, and a number of good ones are in front of us.
A large part of my career has been spent as an entrepreneur in the city, building businesses here, raising capital and creating employment. I know from experience that New York City is a great place to launch and nourish a business. High taxes certainly don't help, but they don't negate some other remarkable advantages. Those include: density and the availability of extraordinary talent with a wide range of skills; access to markets and the sheer size of the business community; 24-hour services including the subway system, restaurants, and business-service providers, and the presence of first-rate academic institutions with talented and creative graduates eager to stay in New York and get working.
And what's probably most important to entrepreneurs is the availability of convenient, inexpensive, flexible space (for working and living). This is where the megaprojects fall short. They tend to provide expensive space that's configured for traditional office, retail, and residential needs. They hold little of interest to entrepreneurs. They lack the informality and flexibility that are so much a part of the start-up process. They don't inspire or mingle with the interests, attitudes, and needs of most entrepreneurs, whether these new businesses are professional services or production-oriented.
As renowned economic development expert Richard Florida writes: "Garages, warehouses, historic buildings, affordable housing - all of these are the places where dreams and economic innovations take hold... Jane Jacobs once again put it best and most simply: 'New ideas require old buildings.'"
It's the traditional New York City neighborhood that suits the entrepreneur, with its mix of storefronts, upstairs apartments, inexpensive street food, and 24-hour diners. This is what New York has to maintain if it's going to incubate new growth businesses, and convenience will always be a crucial part of the mix for entrepreneurs. That's why we need to focus special attention on the preservation of neighborhoods close to the business core. These are in all five boroughs, but proximity and ease of access to Manhattan matters for many.
Two opportunities and challenges facing the city deserve particular attention at the moment:
First, the Garment District in midtown Manhattan could soon be facing more zoning changes that could fundamentally alter its character and undercut its growth potential in the process. The District - located on Manhattan's West Side, south of 42nd Street - is a neighborhood that has, over the years, developed the highest concentration of fashion businesses and talent anywhere. Many of those businesses are small ones; others started small and have grown to become among the best-known companies in the world. And the District has become a hot-bed for other entrepreneurs, including small non-profits and theaters.
The Garment District is the epitome of an incubator district: a dense concentration of designers and related businesses, flexible space for start-ups, proximity to both Parsons and the Fashion Institute of Technology, and a steady influx of new designers and other creative entrepreneurs eager to prove themselves. We should be very careful about disturbing such a successful recipe for sustainable economic development. New York's fashion industry generates $10 billion in wages annually, and fashion manufacturing represents more than one quarter of all manufacturing jobs in the city.
Second, the new 17-acre campus of Columbia University, being developed on the West Side at 125th Street, provides another opportunity. The campus offers enormous advantages to the city, expanding New York's intellectual base and research capacity, and the challenge for the city now is to ensure that, as it develops, the surrounding areas benefit sufficiently from job generation. This, in part, requires that the nearby neighborhoods have the amenities and attributes needed to attract the entrepreneurs and related businesses that the new campus can inspire.
New York will always be a city of mega-projects. It's a city of big dreams. The challenge is to ensure that those dreams are compatible with business growth and do not undercut the job-generating potential of the city's fundamental fabric of urban neighborhoods.
The author is President of The Municipal Art Society of New York (www.mas.org).