It used to be that the Financial District shut down right at 5 p.m., right when its commuters vacated their offices and traveled to homes outside the neighborhood. The desolate feeling of the streets after-hours was only exacerbated by the events of September 11, and then again by Hurricane Sandy, both leaving behind a trail of shuttered businesses.
The past year has seen a major effort, however, on the part of Community Board 1 and the Downtown Alliance, to take back the neighborhood. Since One World Trade is nearing completion and the 9/11 memorial opened last September, tourists have flooded the area, according to Community Board 1 Chair Catherine McVay Hughes. This year alone, over 40 retail businesses, restaurants and bars have opened in the neighborhood, over half of which are small mom and pop businesses. Add to that two of the Financial District’s most popular restaurants – Morton’s Steakhouse and Mulberry and Vine, re-opening recently after a long season in the dark post-Sandy – and you have a very different neighborhood already.
“Downtown is definitely back,” said Faith Hope Consolo, Chairwoman of Douglas Elliman Real Estate. “I attribute it to tourist demand. As I speak, we are working on a dozen leases. The Financial District is on fire.”
Four years ago, Sho Shaun Hergatt, headed by well-known celebrity chef Shaun Hergatt, opened on 40 Broad Street. Despite getting the coveted Michelin star, the restaurant, which was right near the deserted New York Stock Exchange area, closed this past year. In comparison, this year, dozens of restaurants and bars in the area have opened, from Dough Re Mi, a whimsical gourmet grilled cheese and bagel shop on Water Street, to Guac Star- a tequila bar and tapas restaurant on Pearl Street.
The Downtown Alliance specifically has been working vigorously to re-invigorate the neighborhood. The organization gave out $1.6 million in grants to small businesses to get them back on their feet after the hurricane. There are still problem areas, says Nicole Kolinsky, a representative from the Downtown Alliance, like the Water Street corridor, which, being so close to the waterfront, pretty much closed down after Hurricane Sandy. But on any given weekend night, there will be an hour wait at The Dead Rabbit- the new three-floor Irish saloon-style bar on Water Street. Downtown Alliance supported the brand-new Water Street POPS (privately-owned public spaces), where events like yoga, Zumba, arts classes and pet adoption drives took place all summer long.
Of course, the revitalization is not perfect. Ro Sheffe, the Financial District Chair for Community Board 1, says that the area is still a mess of constant construction sites. After the dust settles, he is concerned that small businesses will get lost in the revitalization efforts.
“My concern is we will lose a whole generation of mom and pop businesses and have them replaced by bank branches and cell phone stores,” said Sheffe. “There’s so much business overturn right now, that it’s like a revolving door.”
The biggest challenge recently for the Financial District area has been the rebuilding of the South Street Seaport. After Hurricane Sandy, much of the seaport was damaged and most of the businesses had to shut their doors. But with the recently-completed Pier 15, and the plans for the complete re-building of Pier 17 set to be completed by 2015, the Seaport may come back to life soon.
“It’s been an interesting year with Sandy, and trying to get businesses back on their feet,” said Kollinsky. “This is a very dynamic and quickly-changing business district. Lower Manhattan is a model for an up-and-coming 21st century business district with a growing residential population.”
Kollinsky is not kidding about the residential boom, as well as the retail growth. As more families have moved downtown, in just 10 years from 2000 to 2010, the population of children under the age of 20 has doubled, and is expected to quadruple by 2015. Population growth in Lower Manhattan, according to Community Board 1, has increased the most in the Financial District recently.
The Financial District, quirkily nicknamed “FiDi” by realtors, is hot. Consolo pointed out that once Conde Nast moves into the brand-new One World Trade Center, businesses will be clamoring for lease space, which will drive rent prices. She said that, come fall, residents can expect an upscale shopping corridor featuring the likes of Prada and Ferregamo.
So why the sudden interest in the Financial District to both businesses and New York City residents? Catherine McVay Hughes said that she not only attributes it to the 9/11 Memorial and One World Trade, but also to the conversion of commercial spaces to residential spaces.
“It has been converted to a lively 24/7 neighborhood,” said McVay Hughes. “People aren’t just going home right after work anymore.”
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