By Julie Shapiro
FINANCIAL DISTRICT — Wall Street’s future is bright, a panel of experts said Wednesday evening — but they weren’t talking about the financial markets.
Instead, the panelists at "Whither Wall Street" focused on the street itself — its buildings, its public spaces and its population — all of which have changed dramatically since 9/11.
"This is the new Madison Avenue," Kent Swig, a Financial District developer, told a rapt crowd of about 100 people at the Museum of American Finance.
Like the rest of the Financial District, Wall Street saw a post-9/11 residential boom, adding nearly 3,000 residential units in less than 10 years. Luxury retail followed, with Hermes, Tiffany and BMW all adding outposts on the street.
Swig said New Yorkers have long undervalued lower Manhattan, which has one of the highest per capita income and education levels in the country.
Despite the recession, the Financial District’s fundamentals — access to transportation, retail and public spaces — will help Wall Street’s office and residential developments bounce back, Swig predicted.
"The downturn is only going to make it more surprising to people," he said.
Not all of the post-9/11 changes have been positive, however.
In the days after the attacks, military-style barricades popped up all around Wall Street, restricting cars and pedestrians especially on the west end near the New York Stock Exchange.
"Lower Manhattan was being consumed by security," architect Rob Rogers said at Wednesday’s panel. "The corner of Wall and Broad streets was almost impassable."
The city hired Rogers’s firm, Rogers Marvel Architects, several years ago to overhaul the streetscape.
The bronze bollards and cobblestone turntables Rogers designed were so artistic and contextual that the MoMA put them on display. Today, many tourists who pose or relax on the bollards don’t even realize that they serve a security function, Rogers said.
Now, the city and the Downtown Alliance are turning their attention to Wall Street’s less-well-known eastern end, which slopes down toward the East River.
Along the river, the city is well into the $150 million reconstruction of the East River Waterfront, complete with a new esplanade, seating and plantings, which could begin to open in 2012.
And the Downtown Alliance recently proposed creating a large pedestrian plaza on the two eastern blocks of Wall Street leading down to the water. The blocks of Wall between Water and South streets could host large-scale events, like markets, concerts and art exhibits, said Liz Berger, president of the Downtown Alliance.
Ultimately, Wall Street will be successful if planners remember that it has also become a Main Street, Berger said.
"In lower Manhattan," she said, "they’re the same street."