Urban expert warns against development of 'two New Yorks'

New York City faces many critical issues in the next few years, including continued financial stability, aging roadways, the tight housing market, and how to provide sufficient police and fire protection.

But the most crucial issue to be faced, says Robert F. Wagner Jr., is the development of two New Yorks - one, located mainly below 96th Street in Manhattan, made up of people with jobs and opportunities, and another, made up of blacks, Hispanics, and the elderly, who are often unemployed and poor.

''What I call the 'survival' issue is ultimately the most important'' one to be faced, says Mr. Wagner, who was recently named chairman of the New York University (NYU) Urban Research Center Advisory Board.

Four general issues that have and will continue to dominate the city agenda, according to Wagner, are:

* The fiscal condition of New York.

* The physical condition, including capital structures such as roads and subway cars, and the housing stock.

* The delivery of services, such as police, fire, and garbage collection.

* The gap between the''haves'' and''have nots.''

With a balanced city budget and an ambitious 10-year capital-improvement plan in place, an increasing emphasis should be placed on the latter two issues in the next several years, Wagner says.

In terms of city services, Mayor Edward I. Koch has made good use of the resources he has had, Wagner continues. But he suggests taking a look at the civil service, and encouraging creative ideas like the two-man garbage truck, which has saved money for the city.

The issue of ''two New Yorks'' will also require broad, creative thinking, says Wagner.

''What it means is having to expand what economic development is about,'' says Wagner at his office at the Twentieth Century Fund, a New York City think tank at which he is a consultant. There has been development downtown, and there are very visible signs of economic recovery in the finance and communication sectors.

But there needs to be an increased focus on other areas of the city, he says. Manufacturing, once the employer of many lesser-skilled workers, will never return to the size it was before. Now is the time for the city to move toward jobs related to growth areas. This might include back-office jobs, such as word processing. Wagner sees these sorts of jobs as the modern equivalent of factories.

Wagner says he would also like to see some high-tech development in areas such as biomedical research, which would capitalize on the city's medical schools.

''There needs to be a renewed emphasis on education, particularly for those who are losing out,'' says Wagner. With a dropout rate of more than 40 percent, and a high illiteracy rate, many of New York's young adults are also ''dropping out of opportunity'' in the future. Wagner touts early childhood education, like the federal Headstart programs. He cites studies that show their beneficial effect, particularly for disadvantaged children.

Wagner grew up in New York politics, with a father who served as mayor from 1954 to 1965. He has served in city government for 10 years, including a stint as deputy mayor, chairman of the planning commission, and city councilor. Wagner is currently chairman of the New York City Commission on the Year 2000, a member of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) board of directors, and a visiting fellow at the NYU Urban Research Center. He recently completed a fellowship at Harvard University's Institute of Politics.

Although he isn't currently in city government, Wagner says he hopes to make a genuine connection between university research and city government.

''My 10 years in New York City government have convinced me of the critical importance of universities in solving the long-term problems of New York and other cities,'' Wagner says. For example, an agency like the MTA, which is preoccupied with day-to-day business, could benefit from studies done by university researchers, he says.

''I hope with my background, I can help set the agenda (at the Urban Research Center) and be able to make connections with city agencies,'' Wagner says. ''There are plenty of fine, respected studies done, but they are not used.''

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