Diversifying Beyond Wall Street

From crime capital to financial mecca, Bob Lieber has witnessed a New York with many personalities. What will its future hold after the supposed end of the Wall Street era?
  • Transcript


Question: How has New York City changed since the seventies?

Bob Lieber: I didn't really think about it in this context until I got in this job, but we moved to New York City in 1977.  New York City was on the verge of bankruptcy in the '70s and had slashed investment, and that was the famous President Ford New York City drop dead.  And when I moved here from Colorado, and prior to that from California, you developed some coping mechanisms to get around in New York which were survival instincts.  And you were always looking ahead, and you were always looking behind.  And you always wanted to make sure you knew what was going on at all times, because even during the day you had to be careful.  It was -- even in midtown Manhattan it was dangerous.  Walking through Times Square was dangerous, and there were lots of other places in the city you just wouldn't go because the risk to you physically was so high.  You could get robbed, you could get injured, and lots of things could happen -- mugged.  And so watching it from the '70s and then through the '80s and then the '90s and where we are now, I mean if you look at New York City's population, from 1975 into the mid-1980s we actually had a million people move out of the city, which is not good when you're trying to provide services for people that live here.  When you lose that kind of a tax base, it was devastating.

And then it was really starting in the 1990s where there was an increased focus on security and trying to make sure the streets were safe, improvements around the streets being clean.  And that really started to turn the tide about how New York was positioned.  And today we're at the largest population that we've ever had in New York City, almost 8.4 million people.  And just given natural population growth and what we want to do to expand our competitive position, we need to be able to build enough additional capacity to accommodate people for them to be able to live, work and play here, but also for them to be able to get around.  And I think also key to that is maintaining the quality of life gains that we've made.  So New York City is the safest big city in the country; crime rates have gone down dramatically every year that we've been in office.  The streets are clean now.  There's been a huge investment that's been made in terms of the education and improving our public schools, so people feel comfortable living here, and now there's a place where they can raise their families here.  And it's really important, particularly in an economy like we have now, that we -- we cannot go back and lose the ground that we've made in terms of the gains that have been made over the past decade or two in terms of really improving the quality of life.

Question: Do you see crime becoming an issue in the coming years as a result of the economic downturn?

Bob Lieber:  Well, surprisingly -- I think, again, when we look at the things that we have to do around the city, we've already made a number of budget cuts the last two years.  The cuts that are taking place in the uniformed services, particularly with police, and with education have not been as dramatic as it has been in the other agencies.  Again, we can't lose the ground that we have there.  But it's interesting:  when you look at New York City today, the labor force that we have in New York is as high as it's ever been.  Typically what you see in recessions or downturns is that people will leave the city.  It's too hard to get a job there; it's too expensive to live there.  But we have a very aggressive affordable housing program to build 165,000 -- restore or build 165,000 units.  We're more than halfway through that already.  And what we've seen is, kind of counter intuitively, that we are picking up people who are coming to New York City from other parts of the country because they think the opportunities to find employment are better here than where they are.  And they recognize that this is a place that's safe, and they recognize this is a place where they can move and raise a family.  So we're over four million people now in the labor force, and I think that's a testimony to the progress that the city's made.

Question: Will the supposed end of the Wall Street era change New York City’s personality?

Bob Lieber:  Well, I think that when you look at the contribution that the financial services sector make to New York City, it's disproportionate economics for the number of people who work here.  About less than 10 percent of the private employment in the city comes from the financial services sector, but in 2007, peak time, and the Wall Street represented about 35 percent of our payroll tax.  So a disproportionate contribution.  We don't want to lose that profile.  We don't want to lose our role as the financial capital of the world.  But what we do want to do is, we want to continue to look for ways that we can diversify our economic environment here and the industries that are in the city so that we're positioned to have businesses that are countercyclical or can absorb people that are getting laid off, or other economic downturns in other parts of the businesses.  So I think New York's role as financial capital of the world is probably greater today than it was three years ago, compared to London and some of the other places, and even in Asia, and we still have a very meaningful and important role in that.  But when we look at what we're also trying to do to diversify our economy and capitalize on what we think are our natural advantages -- and that's really people, right? -- now it's not shipping, it's not transportation.  New York's competitive advantage today is the people who live here and that work here.

So we're looking to try and grow our life sciences and biosciences industry.  We're looking to improve and increase our role around the fashion industry.  We're still the number one tourist destination in the country.  And what we're doing around the green sector and green jobs -- a bit amorphous about what exactly those jobs are.  They're all important opportunities for us.  Even niche manufacturing and industrial activities, along with technology, along with the tremendous migration that's taking place from traditional media to digital media.  I mean, the fact that we're doing this interview now in this format as opposed to writing it down for a story kind of signals how much change is taking place.  We want to make sure that we're the place where the best and the brightest want to be, where they want to be with other people likeminded about it, so that we have the ability to grow the job base here, to create more jobs and to expand the tax base so we can provide more services for the residents who live here.

Question: What will New York City look like 20 years from now?

Bob Lieber:  Well, I think what you're going to see is an increasing focus for people to live in denser urban environments.  When you look at the impact on the environment, dense urban areas have a significant advantage in terms of the contribution to the environment.  So I think our PlaNYC initiative to create a more sustainable New York City by 2030, 20 years from now, will reduce the carbon footprint of the city by over 30 percent; that's our goal.  I think that's going to have a meaningful impact, so I think you're going to have -- you'll see improvements in what takes place in the buildings, but I think you're also going to see improvements in the way transportation takes place.  I think transportation is a big issue for the city going forward.  We have to find ways to get people around more efficiently.  We have to rely more on mass transit.  We need cooperation and help from other parts of the government sector to help us do that.  And then I think we continually need to focus on the quality of our air, quality of our water, and our sources of power and energy that are coming in the city as well.  So I think those are all really important parts, and we've tried to address that in our PlaNYC initiative, which is 127 separate initiatives that are in place to try and prepare ourselves for the next 20 years.

Recorded on November 20, 2009