Regional Plan Association Chairman Scott Rechler Remarks at RPA Assembly 2019

Thank you again for coming to this year’s Assembly. 

I want to thank Tom and his team for putting together another fantastic event. 

Under Tom’s leadership, the RPA has tirelessly advocated for pragmatic, forward-thinking solutions to some of our most vexing problems to ensure the long-term vitality of our region. 

And I want to thank the RPA Board for their commitment to the RPA’s mission. 

As you heard from Tom earlier this morning, and in many of our morning breakout sessions, our region faces daunting challenges.

For example, after decades of growing ridership and underinvestment, our public transportation systems, particularly our subways, are in dire need of investment. 

Our streets are so gridlocked that buses now move slower than the average person can walk.

As we welcome new residents, our City is becoming more and more unaffordable, with the demand for housing overwhelming our ability to create new supply. 

Today, 50 percent of New York City households spend over a third of their income on rent. 

Nearly 500,000 of the most vulnerable New Yorkers spend the night in housing managed by the New York City Housing Authority – much of it in woeful condition.   

And, tonight, over 60,000 people, including 20,000 children, will sleep on our City’s streets or in a homeless shelter…

Yet, despite these many issues, at no other time in our City’s history have more people wanted to live, work, or visit here.

And while I love our West Coast friends, including Mayor Garcetti who gave incredibly thoughtful remarks, there is a reason that more Fortune 500 companies call New York home than anywhere else in the country.

And there is a reason that an iconic company like JPMorgan Chase would decide to spend billions of dollars to rebuild its headquarters in New York. 

The reason for this is pretty straightforward: There is simply no other city in the world that’s better positioned to excel in our 21stCentury, global economy than ours.

But this didn’t happen by accident. 

Instead, we got here thanks to decades of strong leadership and sound public policy that prioritized public safety and investment in infrastructure and public amenities. 

We pursued smart economic development strategies that diversified the City’s economy and spurred the creation of entire new neighborhoods to accommodate growth.

That said, clearly, our success has not been felt by all.

Our City may be thriving as a whole, but today we face an inequality gap at levels not seen since the Great Depression. 

On one page of the newspaper we read about the sale of a $236 million penthouse while on another we read of thousands of public housing residents living without heat.

This is a problem for our region. 

When the benefits of prosperity are not felt by all, it’s not only unjust, it’s unhealthy and unsustainable. 

While we all know growth is essential for prosperity, those on the outside rightly feel abandoned by the system and fear that growth will lead to greater inequality.

There is no better example of this dynamic than the sad saga of Amazon’s proposed move to Long Island City.  

Unfortunately, despite being presented with one of the biggest economic opportunities in a generation, New York managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

How did this happen?  To me, it represented a failure on many levels.

It was a failure on the part of project opponents, rather than working constructively to address the community’s legitimate concerns, many of them peddled half-truths, seemingly more interested in political theater than securing meaningful policy outcomes.  

As my friend, Hector Figueroa, head of the building service workers union correctly pointed out, the opponents enthusiastically declared success when the project collapsed...but what exactly was this success?  

Is success the elimination of billions of dollars in new revenue that could be used for better public transit and more affordable housing? 

Is success the elimination of more than 25,000 jobs? 

The list of those responsible for Amazon’s failure extends beyond just the project’s opponents.  

It includes Amazon itself.  

The company ran a national competition that ensured it got the best package to meet their strategic objective. But, the process turned many against the company, putting a bad taste in many New Yorkers’ mouths almost from day one.  

The company then failed to spell out how its project would benefit its soon-to-be-neighbors, missing a golden opportunity to build a coalition of supporters that were as passionate as the coalition of opponents.

And then there were the government officials who struck the deal with Amazon. Though they did a phenomenal job navigating Amazon’s process, they never were able to find a message about Amazon’s project that resonated fully with the general public.  

New York has always been a place where opinions are expressed…usually at a high volume…but, historically, we have had the leadership to forge compromise for the betterment of the region.

The fact that this didn’t happen here should concern all of us, regardless of what side of the Amazon debate you were on.

In this context, the RPA’s work is more important than ever.

The RPA is an organization that rises above simplistic soundbites, offering the kind of nuanced analysis and well-considered solutions that today’s challenges warrant. 

The RPA occupies an important middle ground in the critical, but often polarized, debate about our region’s future.  

The RPA pushes aggressively for investment and development, recognizing that, in a 21stCentury economy, for us to succeed we need to meet ever-growing demand by constantly renewing and expanding our infrastructure…our transportation infrastructure…our energy infrastructure…but also our housing infrastructure.  

At the same time, the RPA recognizes that to generate public support for investment and development, we must ensure that this investment is carried out efficiently and effectively and that the broader public doesn’t just incur the costs, but also, more importantly, receives its benefits.

For the RPA, this isn’t a new approach.  It’s an approach that it has deployed since its founding nearly 100 years ago.  

Case in point is how the RPA approached solving our region’s transit crisis. 

Few crises are more dire.  It is no exaggeration to say that when our transit system sneezes, our entire region catches a cold.

If we are to remain successful, our transit system must meet modern standards which requires significant investment.  

Yet the MTA, the agency that would be responsible for much of this investment, is a broken bureaucracy that groans under layers of red-tape, duplicative processes, and antiquated work rules.  It has completely lost the trust of the commuting public. 

This is why the RPA’s approach to our transit crisis was not an “either/or” approach, but a holistic “both/and” approach.  

On the one hand, the RPA has pushed for funding…much more funding…for the MTA such as supporting congestion pricing since 1996.  

On the other hand, the RPA has also consistently pushed for wholesale reform at the MTA with the goal of improving project-delivery speed and reducing project costs.  

Over the past year, to help achieve these goals, the RPA put together a robust “ground game” with Tom, the team, and members of the RPA Board spending hours listening to both supporters and opponents and then working to build an unprecedented coalition of civic and business organizations to push for much-needed policy changes.  

And today, instead of my having to say, “wait till next year,” I’m happy to report that thanks to the leadership of Governor Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins, and Speaker Heastie, key elements of our agenda are now being set in-motion.  

These elements will result in real reform at the MTA and the nation’s first congestion pricing plan, making tens of billions of dollars available to modernize our system.

We can take a brief moment to recognize this achievement, but our work is by no means finished. 

In fact, this is when we need leadership the most. As herculean an effort as getting to where we are has been, that’s actually the easy part.  

Now, we have to execute. 

Luckily for us today, the MTA has an incredible team at its helm, including Pat Foye, Ronnie Hakim, Janno Lieber, Phil Eng, Cathy Rinaldi, and of course, Andy Byford, our #1 draft pick charged with bringing our subway system into the 21stcentury.  

In the years ahead, as they seek to make real change at their agency, it will be up to the RPA and all of us here to both hold their feet to the fire and to continue to support them as they make the tough decisions to get the job done. 

As we look into the near- to mid-term future, it is clear that this region needs effective leadership.  

That means leadership that recognizes our City’s strengths and works to promote them.

That means leadership that understands that the fruits of our City’s success must, over time, be enjoyed more equitably than they are today.

That means leadership that reaches out to all stakeholders, regardless of their opinion, and treats everyone with respect while working constructively to reach consensus.

And that means leadership that is focused less on the gamesmanship of Twitter wars and more on the hard work of governing and solving problems.

And speaking of leadership that looks to tackle some of the major challenges that we as a region and a nation are facing today, there is no better example than this year’s keynote speaker, Jamie Dimon.

As the Chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase, Jamie has positioned himself as one of the most thoughtful advocates for smart solutions to some of our country’s most difficult problems.  

If you haven’t yet read Jamie’s annual letter this year, I encourage you to do so. 

In it, in addition to outlining a vision for the largest bank in the United States and one of the largest banks in the world, Jamie outlines his vision for how we as a country can better succeed, including a roadmap of achievable, pragmatic proposals for reaching this goal. 

And he is putting his company’s money where his mouth is, rolling out: 

  • A new $500 million dollar “Advancing Cities” initiative, 
  • A $150 million Small Business Forward program to support women, minority and veteran-owned small businesses, 
  • And, the JP Morgan Chase Fellowship Initiative, which provides leadership training to young men of color from economically-distressed communities.

In addition to playing a lead role on the national stage, it also goes without saying that Jamie remains one of the most important players on the local stage, heading up one of the City’s largest private employers. 

As mentioned earlier, we couldn’t be more excited that he has recommitted his firm to New York City in the form of the company’s new Park Avenue headquarters project, through the recent midtown East rezoning effort, another RPA supported initiative. 

Leading this effort on the part of JP Morgan is my friend and the head of Global Real Estate for the bank, David Arena. 

David and Jamie both know firsthand what it takes to build stronger communities.  

We are incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity now to hear from both of them, and to get the benefit of their perspectives on the future of the New York region and America. 

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the stage, David Arena and Jamie Dimon.