Commentary: Fix NYC. The Region Will Follow

By Gerry Khermouch

The scope of the World Trade Center disaster--and the inflow of capital that will help repair the damage--is prompting a sweeping evaluation of New York City's future. It's also spurring hope that, at long last, New York and surrounding areas might begin to tackle problems from a regional perspective. Suddenly, there's no time to waste waging beggar-thy-neighbor development wars between New York and New Jersey or squabbling among the city's five boroughs over resources and jobs. Now that the attacks devastated land and rail lines operated by the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, the region's foremost planning entity is set to play a key role in reconstruction.

JUST A DIVERSION. But history, practicality, and the need to rebuild downtown New York as quickly as possible make lofty talk of a breakthrough regional approach a diversion. "That rhetoric makes me nervous at a time that needs a more concrete approach," warns Michael Slattery, vice-president for research at the Real Estate Board of New York Inc. The focus must be on the downtown business district. It's only when that area is restored to vibrancy that other regional goals should be taken up.

Sure, some regional plans have a chance of success. Long-sought transit projects, such as an expanded Secaucus, N.J., transit hub or a Hoboken-Lower Manhattan-Brooklyn link, would benefit both the region and the financial district. Despite the worsening fiscal climate, a new sense of urgency could muster a consensus to make those happen, says Robert D. Yaro, executive director of the Regional Planning Association.

Other ideas that have bubbled up since September 11, from dispersing more of New York's white-collar jobs to other boroughs to crafting regional-development compacts, don't belong on the agenda. Creating alternative business centers within New York "is not of primary importance now," says Kathryn Wylde, president of the New York City Partnership & Chamber of Commerce. Using federal relief funds outside lower Manhattan could backfire. Congressional support for aid "could evaporate very quickly if this turns into some kind of economic development engine" for all of New York City, Slattery says.

Most pie-in-the-sky is a hope that a coordinated regional approach will end New Jersey's and other rivals' seduction of businesses away from high-priced Manhattan. True, development officials around the country are backing off for now. For the longer term, even advocates for New York argue that governments shouldn't try to influence where businesses locate. Forget about the big picture. New York needs to make rebuilding Lower Manhattan Job No. 1.

Associate Editor Khermouch often writes about urban planning.

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