While discussing the suburban payroll tax revolt last night, I briefly alluded to USB’s looming decision to move back to Manhattan. I went to spend a little bit more on that story tonight as it highlights the importance of both fast transit for the suburbs and the allure of being close to it all.
The story goes a little bit something like this: In 1996, UBS garnered headlines when it became one of the first major financial institutions to move its headquarters out to Stamford, Connecticut. Thanks to some generous tax breaks by the state as well as the promise of subsidized office construction, the company parked its trading floor, the largest in the world, nearby the Stamford Metro-North stop.
Now, they want to move back. And why? Because they’re just too far away from where people live. Charles V. Bagli has more and his writing is very telling:
Now, though, UBS is having buyer’s remorse. It turns out that a suburban location has become a liability in recruiting the best and brightest young bankers, who want to live in Manhattan or Brooklyn, not in Stamford, Conn., which is about 35 miles northeast of Midtown. The firm has also discovered that it would be better to be closer to major clients in the city.
As a result, UBS is seriously considering a reverse migration that would bring its investment banking division and up to 2,000 bankers and traders back to Wall Street and a new skyscraper at the rebuilt World Trade Center, according to real estate executives and city officials.
“They just can’t hire the bankers and traders they need,” said one landlord who has spoken with UBS but requested anonymity so as not to alienate a potential tenant.
A piece in today’s Times delves even further into the employee reaction to this news. “I live in Manhattan, so I do the reverse commute,” Jon Gimpel, a UBS employe, said. “The train ride is like 45 minutes, then I ride my bike through Central Park to get home. If UBS moves back to Manhattan, I’ll save $300 a month in train fare and major aggravation. Awesome.”
And that’s the truth of it. Right now, people — especially younger people — want to be close to the city. They want to be able to commute to work with one fare card or walk or bike. They don’t the aggravation of a long train ride to and from work every day. They want, in a nutshell, the pinnacle of transit-oriented development.
Now don’t get me wrong; for some people, the Connecticut suburbs are a few place to live. One of my friends found himself working for a financial institution up there around four or five years ago, and he made it work. But the nightlife was very limited, and the restaurants varied from overpriced to mediocre. And transit-oriented development can work in the suburbs if the jobs draw from the resident base. Here, though, the jobs drew from Manhattan, and that doesn’t work.
I doubt UBS’ actions are going to signal some grand trend of big companies repatrioting to urban areas, but it’s worth dwelling on development priorities. The ‘burbs might be willing to grant the tax break, but the people want an urban life, transit and all. Once-an-hour commuter rail just doesn’t cut it.