Manhattan needs its people back. But do the people need Manhattan? Covid-19 may not be a pause, as Gov. Cuomo puts it, but a rupture — one that has vast implications for New York.
For half a century, New York’s growth policy, stripped of some subtleties, has been as follows. Step one: Build up a dense corporate office hub centered around 150 blocks of Midtown Manhattan. Step two: Improve transit, so that you can move these millions of commuters onto the island of Manhattan every day in crowded metal tubes, and then, at the end of the day, move them back out.
This solved a bunch of problems that plagued midcentury New York.
First, middle-class flight from the city. We fixed that by moving people back and forth from Westchester, Long Island and New Jersey during the day. Second, working-class flight from Manhattan. Manhattanites who no longer walked to work from tenements to the docks or the Garment District could take the subway to new jobs in restaurants, retail, cleaning — serving a huge office market.
Yet this system was in peril even before the outbreak. Subways and commuter lines were beyond capacity at peak hours, and even off-peak. Developers had overbuilt, thanks to cheap global money.
Midtown’s prime-office vacancy rate last November was 10.4 percent, compared to 8.9 percent two years earlier — with “supply outpacing demand,” city economists noted, thanks to massive new construction at Hudson Yards and in Midtown East.
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