Lower Manhattan rebounded after 9/11, but pandemic wiped out gains

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The Amish Market opened in 1999 in the shadow of the World Trade Center, one of the few grocery and delicatessen stores for residents and workers of the southern tip of Manhattan. Two years later, the complex’s 110-story twin towers collapsed in the 9/11 attacks, flooding the store with flaming debris and ash.

Closed after the attacks, the market reopened about five years later in a new location a few blocks away. It joined a triumphant comeback as Lower Manhattan is reborn as one of the country’s largest business districts, a bustling residential neighborhood and, with the addition of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, a tourist destination.

The Amish market also exploded, with its staff doubling to 200 employees and weekly sales reaching over $ 160,000.

But all that growth evaporated within days in a much different crisis that has wiped out many of Lower Manhattan’s gains since 2001.

When the coronavirus swept across New York City in March 2020, the neighborhood abruptly emptied and Amish Market income plummeted in just a week, to $ 24,000 – not enough to pay rent, payroll, and fees. generals. The store limped until its final closure last September.

More than 350 lower Manhattan retailers have closed in the past 18 months. New malls built after the terrorist attacks had few buyers and owners sued retailers for not paying rent. Seven hotels have closed permanently and others have not yet reopened.

Jobs in the private sector fell to 221,000, a smaller workforce than in the months before 2001. In the first seven months of 2021, daily ridership at the busiest metro stations. busiest downtown only reached 6.3 million passengers, down 82% from the same in 2019, according to a New York Times analysis of data on subway ridership.

More than 21% of offices in Lower Manhattan are available for rent, a record that is more than double the vacancy rate before the pandemic, according to Newmark, a real estate services company.

“When the terrorist attacks took place, it was just a matter of how long it would take to rebuild,” said Mike Jording, the former general manager of the Amish Market. “It’s a different enemy – it’s longer and worse. It’s a slow death.

The gloom that pervaded the city center for much of last year – intensified by the rise of the Delta variant, which hampered the city’s takeover – evokes the days when the ruins of the towers were still smoking and some people predicted that Lower Manhattan would never recover.

No one would ever want to work or live in a high-rise building again, critics said. In the months following September 11, 2001, approximately 4,500 residents of the neighborhood moved.

But the exodus quickly turned into a wave of newcomers, drawn by federal financial incentives to live downtown. By 2005, Lower Manhattan’s population had grown to over 43,000, an increase of 25% since 2000.

Most of the new arrivals were young university graduates, many of whom were employees of large financial institutions who remained downtown after the attack. They filled apartments in converted office buildings and frequented a growing collection of bars and restaurants in the square mile district of lower Manhattan.

Over the next two decades, Lower Manhattan was not only restored but reinvented, with at least $ 20 billion in public and private investment helping to transform it into a thriving neighborhood. The recovery has become an emblem of the city’s resilience.

New buildings have risen, including the symbolic centerpiece, One World Trade Center, next to where the towers once stood. At 1,776 feet tall, it is the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere. Three more towers were built at the site, along with a waterfall memorial and a $ 4 billion transportation hub connecting new shopping and dining destinations under an architectural monument known as the Oculus.

“Twenty years is a very long time and downtown should remember everything that happened 20 years ago,” said Peter Poulakakos, who owns several restaurants and other businesses in Lower Manhattan. “At the same time, they should recognize how far they have come over the past 20 years. “

At the end of 2019, more than 253,000 people were employed in the private sector, surpassing the number just before the attack, according to the Alliance for Downtown New York, a business improvement group. More than 900 businesses had settled in Lower Manhattan since 2005, including some of the city’s biggest and most influential companies like Conde Nast, Morgan Stanley and Spotify.

“We love it there,” said Tyler Morse, general manager of MCR Hotels, whose offices are located on the 86th floor of One World Trade Center. “The city center has great physical attributes and excellent public transportation.”

Tourists have flocked to the region at a level not seen before 2001, attracting 14 million visitors a year and fueling a hotel construction boom.

But the pandemic has drained a lot of life from Lower Manhattan.

Manveen Singh said she had no choice but to shut down Tandoor Palace, her 27-year-old Indian restaurant on Fulton Street, after the pandemic swept away the downtown office workers she depended on. After the initial city-wide lockdown, it tried to reopen, but, she said, “There was no living soul in Lower Manhattan.”

Ms Singh is concerned the district will rebound anytime soon. “If businesses don’t come back full blast,” she said, “downtown isn’t come back full blast.”

Businesses continue to get rid of their downtown offices and seek tenants to take over their leases. JPMorgan Chase is trying to unload 700,000 square feet of office space on Water Street. And Advance Magazine Publishers, the media company that owns Condé Nast, withheld nearly $ 10 million in rent in a dispute with its owner at One World Trade Center.

Advance began paying rent arrears this summer in a resolution with the landlord, the Durst Organization, which agreed to help Advance find another tenant to take up over 200,000 square feet of office space that it does not need. wants more, the companies said.

While Durst owns around 10 percent of One World Trade Center, he also manages and leases the building on behalf of the New York Port Authority and New Jersey, the primary owner. The agency collected $ 243 million in rent last year on its buildings on the World Trade Center site, including One World Trade Center, which is $ 58 million less than it expected.

“One World Trade Center is our home and we are proud to contribute to its legacy,” said Roger Lynch, General Manager of Condé Nast.

Eight years ago Barker, an advertising company, moved to 30 Broad Street, an Art Deco skyscraper that was one of the tallest buildings in the world when it opened in 1932. But none of its employees only set foot in the company’s two-story penthouse at 18 months old.

Still, company founder John Barker said he continued to pay office rent – more than $ 1 million since March 2020 – as a sign of his commitment to the neighborhood. He wants to reuse the offices but does not know when it will be possible.

“This is where New York City started and the mall that created a nation,” said Barker, who in 2017 relocated just steps from the office. “We strongly believe in the future of Lower Manhattan.

Despite the huge challenges facing Lower Manhattan, including the increase in remote working, Carl Weisbrod, former chairman of the New York City Planning Commission, says the region is well positioned to bounce back.

Mr Weisbrod, founding president of the Alliance for Downtown New York, noted that efforts that began before 2001 to attract people to the neighborhood should help boost the local economy as businesses postpone plans to return to the city. office and tourists stay away.

“We have to be careful in jumping to conclusions about how much this latest crisis,” Mr. Weisbrod said, “will change human life and the life of the city. What we have seen throughout history is the allure of cities, the allure of density, and the allure of human talent to exchange ideas in a central location.

In the streets of Lower Manhattan, workers expressed a mixture of resignation and optimism.

On a recent hot Wednesday afternoon, Irma Gibb was sitting on a concrete bench by the South Pool of the 9/11 Memorial, missing work from her home in St. Albans, Queens, which had served as her office since March 2020 Ms. Gibb, who works in human resources for the city’s homeless services department, had just started working on a work-study basis at 4 World Trade Center. She said there were only three people in the office, which had over 250.

“It hasn’t bounced back,” she said of the neighborhood, citing shortened hours for restaurants and “all the businesses that have closed.” She particularly regrets the Century 21 discount department store where she did her shopping before the chain filed for bankruptcy in September 2020.

Inside the mall under the Oculus, foot traffic was low as indie rock played over the speakers. Brik + Clik, which opened in December, drew shoppers with meticulously arranged shelves of artisanal goods – from vegan cheese puffs to a detoxifying charcoal face wash.

Store co-founder Hemant Chavan said activity at the Oculus increased this spring with the city reopening, the Tribeca Festival in June, more PATH and metro riders and the return of some tourists.

“We had constant foot traffic,” said Mr. Chavan.

Mr. Poulakakos closed the five New York branches of Financier, a pastry shop, including two in the city center. He and his partner also closed Pier A Harbor House, a restaurant near Battery Park.

But Mr. Poulakakos is already preparing to replace a financier on Stone Street in Lower Manhattan with a cafe. Stone Street, paved with cobblestones and a destination for alfresco dining long before the pandemic made it fashionable, is showing signs of regaining its former vigor, he said.

“The idea of ​​everything going back to normal with a snap of the fingers is not going to happen,” he said.

On a recent visit to Lower Manhattan, Mr. Jording, the former Amish Market Manager, noticed that more and more people were shopping, dining and walking. But nothing like it before the pandemic.

“Before, the streets were crowded, bumper to bumper,” he said. “If we were to open, there wouldn’t be enough business.

Sean Piccoli contributed report.


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