Two decades ago, before the Twin Towers fell on 9/11, Lower Manhattan was primarily a one-dimensional business community where financial services reigned supreme. Its sidewalks "rolled up" at 5 o'clock when workers called it a day.
Twenty years later, the area surrounding the World Trade Center site has bloomed into a thriving neighborhood that is vastly different in many respects.
We spoke with Carl Weisbrod, current board member of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and founding president of the Alliance for Downtown New York. Currently a senior advisor at HR&A Advisors, he has led efforts to revitalize Lower Manhattan, both pre-and-post-9/11. We asked him about how Lower Manhattan, particularly FiDi has changed in the 20 years since the attacks.
Here's what he had to say:
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1. It became a place people live and not just work
For decades, FiDi basically closed up once its workers went home, meaning there weren't really any residences in the area and no businesses to support residential life there. In the mid-1990s, the Downtown Alliance launched and aimed to transform Lower Manhattan's dormant and sleepy character to a multi-dimensional neighborhood, according to Weisbrod.
"One major thing we realized is that in order to make Lower Manhattan a thriving, interesting neighborhood, it required bringing more residents there," he said.
The stock market crash of 1987 created vacancies in previously commercial buildings so the group worked with the city to give incentives to developers to convert them into residential uses — what is called the Lower Manhattan Conversion Program.
"It started with a great deal of skepticism," he added. "You can't just introduce a residential neighborhood — they require all sorts of amenities and supporting business to make residential use viable, like open space, grocery stores, dry cleaners and schools. All of those efforts were underway...the attacks were a major setback, but the basic playbook had been started before 9/11. All those efforts were accelerated after 9/11."
And thanks to the tax incentives given to developers, residential buildings increased from 188 in 2001 to 341 in 2021 and residential units grew from 14,588 to 33,714 during that time, according to data reported by amNewYork.
"People were on the trains out of town at 4:45pm," Jessica Lappin, president of the Alliance for Downtown New York, told amNew York. "[Now], whether it’s people walking their dogs, going for runs or going for a late-night coffee, that has changed the fabric and makeup of the neighborhood."
2. Young professionals and families moved in doubling the population
When the population of Lower Manhattan reached 43,000 in 2005 (a 25 percent increase since 2000), most of the new residents were college graduates with jobs at financial institutions that stayed downtown after the attack, according to The New York Times.
"They filled apartments in buildings converted from offices and patronized a growing collection of bars and restaurants in the square-mile district at the bottom of Manhattan," it wrote.
More than three-quarters of the population was younger than 45 years old in 2016. The number of children had tripled since 2000, according to a 2016 report by New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli.
Over time, rather than retain its sole identity as the financial center of NYC, Lower Manhattan slowly let in a diverse range of new businesses, including tech and media companies like Condé Nast and Time Inc., Weisbrod said.
"What had been pretty much a financial services center is one of the most diverse commercial districts certainly in the city," he said.
Because of this added diversity in both industries and housing, the population of Lower Manhattan in the area doubled from 33,000 in 2001 to about 64,000 in 2020.
3. Open public spaces and parks were added
The area saw more waterfront space open up to the public from the East River waterfront to the Battery Maritime Building, which has also become a hub for dining and recreation. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation helped subsidize Hudson River Park, too. "We had for the first time the ability to pedestrianize all of Lower Manhattan," Weisbrod said.
Stone Street became an outdoor dining destination, too, which makes Weisbrod "smile the most," because it has served as a model for open-air restaurants that we now see across NYC these days.
"Between the 1970s and '90s, it was a back alley and a place for low-level drug sales," he said, adding that the Downtown Alliance had been working with the city to turn it into a shared street. "It has served as the forerunner, not only in Lower Manhattan about what can be done with open space, restaurants and entertainment and a new use for public streets, but a model for Open Streets and Open Restaurants. It's a major accomplishment."
4. There are more shops, restaurants and hotels
While the area lost nearly 58,600 private-sector jobs between 2000 and 2002 (a period that also includes the bursting of the dot-com bubble), it regained at least 16,600 jobs. Roughly 10,900 people were employed at businesses like dry cleaners and pet care facilities by 2016, according to the comptroller's report.
The leisure and hospitality sector had also doubled since 2002, reaching 13,900 jobs in 2015. Most of the jobs are in restaurants and hotels that support the local community and tourists. Lower Manhattan has about two dozen hotels.
The restaurant scene has thrived, too. The legendary Delmonico’s, Bobby Van’s, Harry’s, Da Claudio, Morton’s and Capital Grille have been staples here while newer spots like Nobu, Eataly, L’Appart, Crown Shy and The Fulton have established themselves. Local favorites like Taim, Mighty Quinn Barbecue, David Chang’s Fuku and Blue Ribbon have joined the dining landscape, too.
And of course, the $4 billion transportation hub, Oculus, contains both 125 retail spaces and 33 dining and cafe spots.
5. There are more tourists as it becomes a destination in its own right
Of course, with more to do and see in Lower Manhattan, including the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, tourism has surged from 7.2 million per year to 14 million, the comptroller said. As of 2015, more than 23 million tourists had visited the 9/11 Memorial and four million had visited the Memorial Museum. The One World Trade Center Observatory attracted 2.3 million visitors in its first year of operation.
And there will be more — the Ronald O. Perelman Performing Arts Center is expected to open in 2023. It'll be a 129,000-square-foot multi-use space that will be able to seat up to 1,200 guests."PAC will be a unique venue for theater, dance, music, film and chamber opera," says its website. "It will offer artists new kinds of theatrical design possibilities and new opportunities to create innovative multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary work."
Weisbrod says the neighborhood that Lower Manhattan has become and will become is thanks to the New Yorkers who dedicated their time and energy to make it happen despite the tragedy that was 9/11.
"It's deeply satisfying to see the blueprint we started to work with more than 25 yrs ago blossom and expand," he said. "New Yorkers are amazing. Every time there's an existential crisis, people think it's the end of New York City, but I think it's one of the great lessons of 9/11 and seeing it during the pandemic, is that the strength of New York ... depends on the human talent and that's what New York has always offered from its earliest days by welcoming people from all over the world and appreciating human talent. Business follows talent — the talent is here, not just in numbers, but in depth and demography. That's the real power of New York."