Shanghai's skyline changes every six months, F&T Group President Michael Meyer says, and he should know.
The New York-based businessman visits China often in his role as a key leader of an international development and real estate company with deep roots in the world's second-largest economy, and he has witnessed the country's high-speed evolution with his own eyes.
He told me over chicken-parm rolls at a pizza place overlooking Ground Zero Monday afternoon that the country's emergence will be a major storyline in the future of New York City and that the city's leaders would do well to keep an eye trained on the Far East.
I first went to China before Tiananmen Square, and China was a fourth-world country; it was so poor back then. Now, a generation later, it's challenging us for economic, technological and scientific dominance in certain spheres, he explained.
In the seventies and eighties, you had people coming from China, Taiwan, Korea and other areas of Asia to escape economic deprivation, but now everybody's going back because the economic opportunity is there.
Asia's Growing Prominence
Meyer says the future of New York--and of America as a whole--lies in large part in its ability to adapt quickly enough to the changing paradigm being posed by Asia's rising prominence.
If the United States can boost and maintain its position as the premier destination for bright people seeking opportunity, and New York can remain the center of world commerce, finance and culture, then the economic downturn can correct itself and America will surge back. It's a belief he's held for years.
He remembers the 1980s, when the Japanese began to buy up New York real estate including Rockefeller Center, and the concern was that the Land of the Rising Sun would usurp the U.S. as the world's dominant superpower. But then the 1990s happened, and Japan fell into a decade of economic stagnation, and such dire prognostications were proven wrong.
One morning in his twenties, Michael Meyer shared breakfast at Windows on the World, on the top floor of the World Trade Center's Windows on the World restaurant, with a Hong Kong businessman who told him something about New York's resilience that he has never forgotten.
He told me 'a lot of people lost a lot of money betting against New York. I'll never bet against New York. I think the long-term prospects for New York are strong,' Meyer recalled.
But he said the city's future is being severely limited by a regulatory regime that leaves big dreamers either unable or afraid to tackle visionary projects that would help to usher in a new New York era.
If you want to do a large-scale project that's not as-of-right, you need to get the city's blessing in a number of areas, a process which is long and excruciating, and therefore very expensive, he said. Two things result: either the project is abandoned, or the project is done in too safe a way in order to get it approved and financed.
In other words: if city procedures are not amended, builders will increasingly avoid major, skyline-changing developments and game-changing buildings like the ones that repeatedly redefined the face of New York over the past century. Instead, they will continue to build boring, big-box retail outlets, prefab luxury condos, and other uninspired projects they can easily pump out to make a quick buck.
Energy and Innovation
F&T Group, founded and led by Michael Lee, who immigrated to the United States from Taiwan in the 1980s, is seizing on the immigrant spirit to bring innovative, grand development projects to New York, despite the restrictions keeping many American companies out of that riskier market, according to Meyer.
Based in Flushing, Queens, F&T has changed the face of that booming neighborhood, and has plans to continue to do so for years to come. From its 12-floor Queens Crossing headquarters to Flushing Commons, a transformative $800-million-plus mixed-use development plan, the company is single-handedly changing the face of Flushing, as the Chinese continue to do in their premier cities.
But at the same time, the company is building a massive World Trade Center in Nanjing, China, as its leaders are wisely choosing not to put all their eggs in the New York basket. It is a fact of life in the new millennium that diversification into Asian markets is an essential aspect of most major company's business models.
The fact that the world is now flat underlines the importance of continuing to innovate and improve America's great metropolises like New York, according to Meyer. That progress is necessary, if we hope to continue to attract talent and business and maintain our status as the world's leading city and nation, Meyer believes. In order for that to happen, he argues that government needs to allow businesses, investors and citizens to have more freedom to create.
The Chinese are cleaning our clocks, and it's not just cheaper labor and construction costs, but it's also because they have a less restrictive government, Meyer said.
I'm not advocating their system of government, but what I'm saying is I believe that, as a country and city, we're going to have to be much more competitive with the Chinas of the world. And what that means is ... you have to give developers and investors the ability to calculate the return on their investment. As it is now, it's too risky, and these bold projects aren't undertaken.
Role of Immigration
He also believes that immigration is key to retaining the creative and innovative edge that has long defined New York City, and that Flushing can be seen as a great success story in modern immigration.
Small businesses in Flushing have been better insulated than any those of any other city neighborhood from the impacts of the economic downturn, according to a study released earlier this year by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. A previous DiNapoli study showed that the city's ten neighborhoods with the highest concentrations of foreign-born residents--a list that includes Flushing--underwent higher economic growth than the rest of the city between 2000 and 2007.
Facts like these demonstrate the vitality of the immigrant workforce, and Meyer said the city and country need to take advantage of the millions of talented workers around the world, who would relish the opportunity to bring their skills to America.
New York has always been a city of immigrants. Flushing is the 20th century immigration center, the modern day New Amsterdam, he said. I'm a great believer in immigration being the key to the revitalization of America. It's like hitting the 'refresh' button.
From the Port Authority to F&T Group
A confident man with a slight build and friendly, strong demeanor, Meyer, 56, graduated from Oberlin College with a degree in English Literature. Then, in 1981, he got an MBA from Harvard Business School.
He went into real estate when he was assigned to manage a Lower Manhattan property for the Port Authority more than two decades ago, and has flourished ever since, rising to his current post as president of a development and real estate company with interests around the world.
Meyer regularly visits other nations in order to drum up capital and interest in projects in the states and says that his travels have left him a little jaded. He says Shanghai is pretty much like New York now, except on a faster growth trajectory, and that the divide between the two great economies of the world is narrowing fast.
But Meyer has great hope yet for the future of New York, and he believes it is on the right track and that it will flourish as it always has, as a town of immigrants, new ideas and progress.
After all, a wise man once told him never to bet against New York, and he says he never will.