With conditions decaying in New York City neighborhoods and business districts, a powerful corporate executive traveled to Gracie Mansion in July to meet with Mayor Bill de Blasio. He briefed the mayor on a plan — prepared by 14 consulting firms — for how City Hall could work with business leaders to overcome the pandemic downturn.
Mr. de Blasio appeared supportive. The executive, Steven R. Swartz, head of the Hearst media conglomerate, left feeling hopeful, as he later told others from the Partnership for New York City, a top business group.
But weeks then went by, and the corporate leaders began feeling that Mr. de Blasio was ignoring their concerns.
On Thursday, they struck back in the form of an open letter that publicly upbraided the mayor for neglecting “public safety, cleanliness and other quality-of-life issues,” which they said had led to “widespread anxiety” among New Yorkers.
The letter was signed by 163 chief executives and leaders, a striking array from some of the biggest companies in New York City, including Goldman Sachs, JetBlue, Mastercard, Morgan Stanley, Pfizer and Warby Parker, as well as from top law firms and real estate developers. They called on the mayor to take “immediate action to restore essential services.”
From the start of his mayoralty in 2014, Mayor de Blasio has prided himself on championing the working class and spurning the city’s business elite, drawing a sharp contrast with his predecessor, Michael R. Bloomberg, a billionaire with close ties to corporate leaders. That antagonistic posture rankled many top executives, but they mostly kept their criticisms private during the economic boom years that characterized most of Mr. de Blasio’s tenure.
Faced with a pandemic and its devastating economic consequences, the mayor and the city’s top business leaders now have little record of working together to draw upon. The letter from the chief executives underscores how the years of distrust are creating new obstacles for what Mr. de Blasio had hoped would be the start of the city’s “rebirth.”
The relationship is further complicated because Mr. de Blasio is term-limited. He leaves office at the end of 2021, so both sides have less incentive to patch things up.
For now, the companies say they need Mr. de Blasio’s leadership to help persuade workers that it is safe to return to the office and assure them that any quality-of-life problems that may have worsened during the pandemic will be addressed. The city needs the companies to return to help begin to restore the huge loss in tax revenue.
“It’s all a chicken-and-egg problem. Until the people come back, the streets aren’t safe. If the streets aren’t safe, the people don’t come back,” said Kathryn Wylde, the president of the Partnership for New York City, which sent the letter. “So somebody’s got to break the egg.”
To some extent, both the mayor and the business leaders are grappling more with perceptions than reality.
While the coronavirus presents unique threats to the city’s future, New York City has rebounded before, notably after the fiscal crisis of the 1970s and the attacks of Sept. 11. And the city has, for the moment, defied predictions and largely contained its outbreak, successfully ramping up testing and contact tracing while maintaining some of the lowest rates of positive test results in the country.
Moreover, the disorder described in the letter is not prevalent on most streets, where New Yorkers dine comfortably outside at night.
Shootings have increased to a worrisome degree in some neighborhoods, but in general, crime is nowhere near as bad as it was in the early 1990s. (Roughly the same number of people have been shot so far this year as at this point in 2010, during the middle of the Bloomberg administration.)
Some business leaders privately expressed concern that the public nature of the letter, and its suggestion of rampant disorder, could be counterproductive because it suggested that conditions were far worse than they actually are.
The report sent to the mayor in July outlined a number of potential partnerships between private business and the city government, and called for, among other things, flexibility in building codes, community-based child care and public-private partnerships to provide free Wi-Fi access to students through the school year.
On its face, many of the ideas appeared aimed at appealing to Mr. de Blasio, with proposals to support small and minority-owned businesses and to improve online learning.
The report, entitled “A Call to Action and Collaboration,” was less pointed on the subject of disorderly streets than Thursday’s letter, referring only obliquely to the need for “trust that the urban environment is healthy, secure and welcoming” in order to “attract and retain talent.”
At least publicly, Mr. de Blasio and his senior aides did not lash back at the business leaders in response to the letter. Mr. de Blasio urged the business community to lobby the federal and state governments for more aid to help patch the city’s big budget deficits caused by the outbreak.
“We need these leaders to join the fight to move the city forward,” Mr. de Blasio said.
Privately, de Blasio aides expressed frustration that the corporate executives were not pressing state and federal officials to do more to help the city.
Still, hours before, and in a very different setting, a similar message of discontent was being delivered to the de Blasio administration by a coalition of neighborhood business groups and local chambers of commerce from around the city.
In a 90-minute video meeting on Thursday with top city officials, including three deputy mayors and the police commissioner, the small business groups urged action on open-air drug use, drug sales, illegal vending and homelessness, according to two people who attended the meeting.
The group had been organized with the help of the Real Estate Board of New York and included at least one labor leader, Gary LaBarbera of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York.
“I live in Harlem, and the trash is not being picked up,” said the president of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, Jessica Walker, who signed the letter and took part in the video meeting. “This is being felt all over the city, and we want to make sure it doesn’t get too far.”
The local business groups said that the city could inspire some confidence if it began encouraging its own sprawling work force to return to the office.
The one-two punch from New York City’s business class was not coordinated, according to two people involved in its planning. But it highlighted the long road to recovery for the city, and raised questions about whether a mayor with a little over a year to go in his tenure can dismiss these complaints as just coming from the wealthy.
“We do not make decisions based on the wealthy few,” the mayor said in August, when asked about rich New Yorkers possibly abandoning the city. “That’s not how it works around here anymore.”
Bill Neidhardt, the mayor’s press secretary, said Mr. de Blasio shares the concerns of business leaders about cuts to city services and genuinely wants their help with a solution.
For City Hall, that has meant help in seeking funds from Washington and long-term borrowing authority from Albany, in the hope of forestalling layoffs of city workers on Oct 1. Many of the signatories of the letter have good relationships with state leaders, including Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. (Mr. Cuomo and Mr. de Blasio, both Democrats, have had a long and fraught relationship.)
“There is a simple message — help us get long-term borrowing,” Mr. Neidhardt said. “For the people who have the ear of lawmakers and decision makers, we desperately need your help.”
Ms. Wylde said the group does not support the long-term borrowing that the mayor and his advisers favor. “They think the problem is money. The problem is not money. The problem is uniting the city around a practical plan for recovery,” she said.
The letter reflected frustration among business leaders after the publication by the partnership of the report that was presented to Mr. de Blasio at Gracie Mansion in July. “It didn’t seem to result in any action,” Ms. Wylde said.
Then in August, Ms. Wylde said she became alarmed when a survey of her members showed, surprisingly, that even as the pandemic appeared to be largely under control in New York City — with roughly 1 percent of tests coming back positive — fewer major businesses were planning to return to their offices than had been planning to do so in May.
While state and city guidelines permit offices to be filled to half-capacity, neither the mayor nor the governor, fearful of a new outbreak, have pushed hard for office workers to return. Most buildings are below 10 percent occupancy.
The letter began to circulate later that month among partnership members and attracted signatures quickly, including from sports organizations like the National Basketball Association, and even past donors to the mayor, such as Steven Rattner, a Wall Street financier and a former adviser to the Obama administration.
But Ms. Wylde said she waited to publish it until after Labor Day, in part because of concern among some members, who had spent the pandemic outside the city, that they would be criticized for weighing in on New York’s future from afar.
“They felt it was unseemly to be writing from the Hamptons,” she said.
Still, the letter set off howls among some Democrats and progressives who saw the call to address quality-of-life issues — and the support it garnered from the city’s former police commissioner, William J. Bratton — as an endorsement of punitive policing to deal with problems of poverty, drug addiction and homelessness.
Mark Treyger, a city councilman from Brooklyn, said the letter reeked of “chutzpah” and the executives could instead be offering to pay more in taxes. “There are folks worried about facing eviction — as opposed to executives worried about a gum wrapper on the sidewalk,” he said.
Several of the signatories have been antagonists of Mr. de Blasio in the past, including John Catsimatidis, a billionaire Republican grocery magnate who has run for mayor before and has toyed with a run in 2021. Others, like Blair W. Effron, of the investment bank Centerview Partners, have been supporters.
“It’s not about being a Democrat or a Republican right now; it’s about being a New Yorker who loves New York,” said Mr. Catsimatidis, who has returned to his Manhattan office after several months in the Hamptons. “These people are going to be moving their companies.”
Lisa Sorin, president of the Bronx Chamber of Commerce, said she signed the letter as a last resort. The Bronx is struggling to address street homelessness, graffiti and illegal vendors, she said. Commercial corridors are filthier than ever.
“You can only be but so patient. We are in unprecedented times,” said Ms. Sorin. “That explains why we needed to stand on the rooftop and scream.”
Kathryn Garcia, the city’s sanitation commissioner who is leaving her post to explore a run for mayor, said she understood the anxiety voiced in the letter. The budget cuts to her department had taken a toll on New Yorkers, she said, especially those who spend time at parks where bins are overflowing with trash.
“It’s one of the few things that New Yorkers are allowed to do,” she said, “and we’ve made it unpleasant.”