The 1948 Marshall Plan for Europe was approved with a four-year, $13 billion appropriation by Congress.
Lower Manhattan’s four-year Marshall Plan, apparently, will need a refill.
In one of the few actions that both the State Assembly and the Senate managed to take in the last month, the length of a major subsidy package aimed at renewing Lower Manhattan¹s business climate was doubled, passing at a time of extreme budgetary strain for both the city and state. The measure, which went through with little objection or notice, is another hometown victory for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, the powerful Lower Manhattan-based legislator who was the subsidy package¹s main proponent. All told, the incentives are projected to cost the city and state more than $200 million over the next four years.
The story of the incentives goes back to May 2005, when Mr. Silver called for a new subsidy package to renew downtown, terming it the “Marshall Plan for Lower Manhattan.” Later that year, the Legislature passed what was to be
a more than $200 million plan, with rent subsidies and tax exemptions at the World Trade Center, along with a set of breaks for office tenants, landlords and retailers throughout downtown. The bulk of the subsidies, which built on previous breaks, were billed as temporary at the time, with many expiring this year.
In a telephone interview Tuesday, Mr. Silver said that downtown¹s business climate is still at a point where incentives are needed to attract tenants, justifying the renewal of the Marshall Plan.
“I think everything has slowed down downtown,” Mr. Silver said. “The rebuilding of ground zero obviously has taken severe delays, so if you come downtown, you will still see that there is an area that is still in need of a revitalization.
“I think it’s a worthwhile investment to the city and state,” he added.
BUT IN THE EIGHT years since the terrorist attacks of 2001, there has been a tremendous array of subsidies thrown at Lower Manhattan, begging the question: How long will the government continue to prop up the district? In the attacks’ aftermath, the Bush administration committed $20 billion to the area’s recovery, and taken with some already existing subsidies, the roster of government incentives for businesses and landlords is now a thick alphabet soup of acronyms and program names: There is the Job Creation and Retention Program (JCRP); the Lower Manhattan Relocation Employment Assistance Program (LMREAP); a commercial rent tax savings program; liberty bonds; sales tax savings; energy savings; and more.
Any business tenant wishing to move to Lower Manhattan has a wealth of these programs at its disposal, and a recent analysis by CB Richard Ellis for Silverstein Properties found that four incentives would shave about $7 a square foot off the rent for future tenants of the World Trade Center–a major bit of savings.
And though Lower Manhattan hasn’t exactly become a vibrant coequal to midtown (it’s been the less attractive cousin for decades now, in terms of top office space), the downtown office market is in a dramatically different place than it was when the Marshall Plan was passed in 2005. The vacancy rate for downtown office space, then at about 12 percent, is now at 8.7 percent, according to Cushman & Wakefield, one of the lower levels seen in the past two decades (though it’s probably on the rise). Asking rents, then $31 a square foot annually, are now $43.
The four-year extension of the Marshall Plan pertains to two types of tax breaks: an abatement of the commercial-rent tax south of Canal Street, and a sales-tax abatement on equipment used to set up commercial space south of Murray Street. The city estimates the subsidies will cost it about $30 million this fiscal year, according to numbers provided by the Office of Management and Budget, and the state’s budget office estimates it will forgo about $18.6 million. The amounts are projected to be similar or greater in future years, meaning that the two governments will likely forgo more than $200 million over the next four years as a result of the Marshall Plan and its extension.
All this has left anti-subsidy advocates, who were critics of the 2005 subsidies, rather frustrated.
“If there was a cohesive, well-thought-out plan that took in the various needs of Lower Manhattan from the get-go,” asked Bettina Damiani, director of Good Jobs New York, “would we, in 2009, be talking about extending more
benefits, when literally, there has been billions and billions of federal dollars?
“This, again, pits certain parts of New York City against each other.”
Politically, there was no apparent resistance at all, perhaps a testament to Mr. Silver’s strength in Albany. It was pushed through the Assembly, and it passed the Senate, where it was sponsored by freshman Senator Dan Squadron. The governor signed the bill this weekend, and the mayor’s office supported it.
Just how to disperse subsidies and incentives around the city is, of course, a policy choice based on how and where lawmakers want to most encourage growth. Manhattan’s West Side has its own set of tax abatements, and there
are abatements available to office tenants outside of Manhattan.
Liz Berger, president of the Downtown Alliance, called the Marshall Plan subsidies “absolutely essential,” saying that the delays at the World Trade Center and uncertainty over the future of downtown infrastructure justify additional incentives. The downturn in the economy only adds to the case, as the gap narrows between midtown and downtown rents.
“Lower Manhattan is not immune from this crisis, but it comes to the table with one hand already behind its back,” she said. “We hear from brokers and owners on a regular basis that these incentives make the difference.”