The Prophet of Urban Doom Says New York Still Has a Chance

Dr. Van Nieuwerberg chuckled. “Somebody’s got to pay the bills,” he said.

He noted the irony of his own circumstances, prophesying a city laid waste by remote work. “And here I am in my office five days a week,” he said.

Already the numbers support a doom cycle. On an average weekday, nearly half of New York City’s workers stay away from the office; on Mondays and Fridays, the share is even higher. Subway and bus ridership are down by one-third from prepandemic levels. Major crimes rose more than 20 percent last year, and more than 300,000 people left the city in the first year of the pandemic, taking a total income of more than $21 billion. If office values decrease in proportion with usage, city revenue from property taxes will drop by $5 billion a year, Dr. Van Nieuwerburgh said.

“So this is a train wreck in slow motion,” he said. “The second shoe has yet to drop.”

But he was quick to say that the downward cycle need not lead to Armageddon on the Hudson.

“What happens to New York City from here on out depends on the actions we take and the policy decisions that are made,” he said. “It’s not inevitable. There’s various degrees to how bad this can get. There’s a scenario in my mind where it’s not as bad as feared, if we make all the right policy decisions. There’s lots of other scenarios where we don’t.”

His introduction to New York offers some insight into this moment, and how the city might temper it, he said. After completing his doctorate at Stanford, he moved to New York in 2003, when Lower Manhattan was still recovering from the shock and exodus following Sept. 11. Many predicted a doom loop then: Fear of terrorism would cause residents and companies to leave the city, especially downtown, creating the kind of void that we see in Midtown today.

But then the government subsidized construction of new housing downtown and the conversion of commercial buildings into apartments. Instead of spiraling downward, Lower Manhattan thrived. Similar measures, with a big infusion of state and federal money, might greatly ease the damage from remote work, he said.

“In a best-case scenario, we remove 30 or 40 percent of the office stock in New York City, turn it into wonderful housing. New York City has all these great amenities, it’s a wonderful place where young people want to live, regardless of where they work.” He imagined people telecommuting to jobs in other parts of the country by day, then convening at bars in the Village by night. “That to me is the vision of New York City,” he said.

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