'Wake-Up Call': Real Estate Leaders Say Subway Shooting Must Sharpen Focus On Public Safety
A mass shooting on the New York City subway in Brooklyn last week put at least 29 people in the hospital and the entire city on edge. It was also yet another piece of evidence pointing to the decline of the subway as a reliable and safe function of city life, the city’s real estate and business leaders say, and a stark reminder of what is at stake if the vital transit system's safety doesn't improve.
“It was just another blow to the psyche of New Yorkers,” Manhattan Chamber of Commerce CEO Jessica Walker said. “We really do need to continue to focus on this. Public safety at this point is No. 1 in terms of our economic recovery.”
Frank James, 62, was arrested last Thursday and charged with carrying out a terrorist attack on a mass transit system. Two days earlier, he allegedly opened fire on an N train in Brooklyn, leaving 10 people suffering from gunshot wounds and over a dozen others needing medical attention.
While many were quick to point to the rarity of such mass casualty events on the subway, it is certainly not the first high-profile incidence of violent crime on the system of late. In January, a 40-year-old woman was pushed to her death on the track at Times Square in an act of seemingly random violence, which followed a slew of assaults in the transit system last year.
Murders were down in New York by nearly 16% year-over-year in March, according to the New York Police Department’s monthly crime statistics, but overall crime was up by 36% and citywide shooting incidents jumped by 16.2%.
Even optimists about the city’s resilience, who view the recent shooting as a tragic one-off, admit the level of crime in the city is more elevated than it should be.
“People who take the subway every day are going to continue to take the subway every day; you’re not going to get anybody who routinely uses the subway who is going to stop because of that event,” Durst Vice President of Public Affairs Jordan Barowitz said, adding the company’s office portfolio didn't see an occupancy dip following the incident.
“Subways have a bad rap at this moment, and Tuesday's event does not help," Barowitz added. "It's clear the ecosystem for returning to office is complex, and there are a lot of variables: Covid, public safety, subways and changing work-life dynamics.”
Crime is on the rise in transit systems around the country, and in New York, the major crimes on the subway between Jan. 1 and April 10 were up 68% from a year earlier, The Wall Street Journal reported, citing NYPD data.
In February, Mayor Eric Adams — a former police officer who campaigned for office on a public safety platform — released his “subway safety plan," which involved sending teams of police officers, outreach workers and clinicians onto subways and removing homeless people from the trains.
Since the shooting, he has floated the use of weapon-detection technology in the systems and has said he would double the number of transit police on patrol. He has also called for more state funding for psychiatric services.
“Those who dismiss these incidents of violence as an aberration are kidding themselves,” Partnership for New York City President Kathryn Wylde said. "They're in a state of denial."
The partnership released data from a poll of the city’s private sector workers last month that showed 74% of public transit commuters say safety on transit has gotten worse since the start of the pandemic. Just 38% of those polled said they were optimistic about the future of the city, though over 70% of respondents said they were committed to the city and said they wanted to be part of its recovery.
“There are definitely increased incidences of violent and irrational behavior. It's absolutely the No. 1 reason why people are reticent to return to work," Wylde said. "They are concerned about the commute and just feel, I think, a sense of personal insecurity that pre-pandemic they didn’t feel.”
New York’s office occupancy was at 38.3% the week of April 6, according to the latest figures from Kastle’s data systems workplace occupancy barometer, a high-watermark for the city post-pandemic — but it is still below the national average, and was recorded before the shooting.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority said ridership dropped 5% the day after the shooting, per NBC, and it was far lagging pre-pandemic levels before that. Some 5.5 million people used the subway each day before the virus, compared to just 3.1 million last Monday.
“This was an unfortunate incident and hopefully another wake-up call for the city and the state and the MTA to just flood the subway system with additional police presence to give people comfort and to help us transition back to normality,” said RXR Realty CEO Scott Rechler, who formerly was on the board of the MTA and was vice chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
In 2020, Rechler was early in encouraging his team and peers to return to ride the subway, and he said he is continuing to do so now. Occupancy in RXR’s office portfolio in the city is still at an average of 35%, he said, though he said that fluctuates on different weekdays and in different buildings around the city.
Based on his conversations with tenants, he predicts companies are now formalizing and implementing their return-to-work policies — hybrid or otherwise — which will show up in occupancy numbers over the next two months.
“It's been a tough beginning of the year," he said. "From the woman that was pushed off the platforms and police being shot to just these random shootings that happened to get innocent people … It's not just happening in New York. It's happening throughout the country right now.”
He said Adams has taken all the right steps to improve public safety and has confidence that the city will recover its psyche.
“New Yorkers are resilient," Rechler said. "We know how to dig deep and move forward. And just like after 9/11, we don't let terrorism paralyze us, and we push forward.”
Manhattan Chamber of Commerce’s Walker said it is still possible to reverse the problem, although she has no doubt shootings and violence negatively impact tourism and office returns.
"This incident, which was just tragic, was something that was broadcast to the world,” she said. “What we need to do now is acknowledge that this is a huge impediment to getting New York City back to where it needs to be. And that this is where we need to focus.”
Vijay Dandapani, the CEO of the Hotel Association of New York City, agreed if a public perception that the city is unsafe develops — as was the case in the 1970s and '80s — it will be a “serious damper” for tourism. NYC & Co. has predicted 56.5 million tourists will visit New York City this year, 1.3 million fewer than it had predicted before the omicron wave of the coronavirus. Still, Fred Dixon, the president of the agency, told the New York Times in February that the city is still the most desirable place to visit in the country.
"It's important for us to keep in mind that New York City is a very safe, large city. But there is clearly a rise in violent crime,” said Sam Chandan, the director of the Stern Center for Real Estate Finance at New York University.
“We can't afford to be complacent," he added. "Our current system is not sustainable with the levels of traffic that we have today. And how we address a potential fiscal crisis in our public transportation system is one of the most significant issues that we face as a city and as a real estate industry over the course of the next couple of years. We don't want people to be deterred from taking the subway."