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Looking Ahead: Where Will Lower Manhattan Be 10 Years From Now?

By Julie Shapiro | September 7, 2011 6:35am

LOWER MANHATTAN — As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, everyone is talking about how far lower Manhattan has come.

But what outsiders forget — and what locals say they can't help but remember — is that the Downtown of today is not a finished product. It's rather a neighborhood that is still very much in flux.

So, with an eye toward the future instead of the past, what will Downtown look like, not on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, but on the 20th?

By 2021, the World Trade Center site will no longer be a fenced-off hole in the middle of lower Manhattan. The office complex will draw thousands of workers each day, many of whom will arrive via Santiago Calatrava's massive white-winged transportation hub, the third largest station in the city.

The 9/11 Memorial, with its eight acres of trees and waterfalls, will be one of the largest green spaces in lower Manhattan, a place to eat lunch or relax after work, not just a solemn site of remembrance.

And with about 500,000 square feet of retail, the World Trade Center complex will likely draw not just commuters and tourists, but also Downtown residents.

"Before 9/11, [the World Trade Center] was the point at which all the communities in lower Manhattan joined: Battery Park City, TriBeCa, the Financial District, the Civic Center, the Fulton Street corridor," said Bruce Ehrmann, who has lived in TriBeCa for 23 years and is executive vice president at Stribling & Associates.  

"[In 10 years] I expect a significant component of the World Trade Center site to function the way it did before 9/11. That area knitted the neighborhood together."

Like many Downtown residents, Ehrmann's biggest hope for the World Trade Center 10 years from now is that the oft-delayed performing-arts center is finally built.

The center, designed by Frank Gehry and anchored by the Joyce Theater, has yet to begin fundraising, and construction cannot start for another few years. But the project appeared more likely after receiving an infusion of $100 million from the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. last year.

Moving out from the World Trade Center site, many large developments are currently under way that will change Downtown's landscape over the next decade, from the $250 million overhaul of the World Financial Center, including a gourmet food market, to the soon-to-be-announced proposal for the South Street Seaport, which could include a new mixed-use complex on Pier 17.

And assuming the financial crisis eases over the next few years, some of the enormous residential projects that have been frozen since 2008 may finally rise: Time Equities' 50 West St. (63 stories), the Alexico Group's 56 Leonard St. (57 stories) and Silverstein Properties' 99 Church St. (80 stories).

"We're still going to see an explosion of residential growth in lower Manhattan," said Julie Menin, chairwoman of Community Board 1.

"It shows no sign of abating whatsoever."

The population south of Chambers Street has more than doubled to 56,000 people since 9/11, and while it is unlikely to double again in the next 10 years, Menin and others see the potential for a significant amount of growth.

By 2014 alone, the Downtown Alliance business improvement district expects an additional 2,546 residential units to come online in lower Manhattan.

And many of those already living Downtown may also contribute to the area's future growth — 40 percent of childless households plan to have children in the next three years, the Downtown Alliance found in a recent survey.

While the neighborhood's baby boom will likely continue, Bob Townley, executive director of Manhattan Youth, has just one word in mind when he looks 10 years into the future: Teenagers.

"I think the neighborhood is going to grow, but it's going to grow older," said Townley, who has lived and worked Downtown for more than two decades. "It will be a teen neighborhood."

Many community activists have been fighting for more elementary schools Downtown, but Townley sees an even greater need for middle and high schools. To give the teenagers a place to hang out after school, Townley hopes to build a gym and theater over the dog run on Warren Street.

One of the biggest changes that lower Manhattan residents are hoping for by 2021 is that the seemingly endless construction will finally be finished.

Many of the long-term water main projects that have torn up Downtown's central thoroughfares, including Chambers Street, Fulton Street and Hudson Street, will finish over the next few years.

However, as those projects end, more will start, including complete overhauls of Canal Street, Worth Street, Water Street and Broadway, according to the Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center.

Still, the LMCCC predicts that after construction Downtown hits a peak in 2012, it will begin to taper off, dipping below the 2009 level during 2014.

"The end of construction will be very welcome," said Liz Berger, president of the Downtown Alliance, who has lived south of Fulton Street for nearly 30 years.

"It's been necessary, and it's going to leave lower Manhattan an entirely new model of what urban life ought to be. But it's been a challenge — there's no denying that."

Looking ahead, one of the things Berger is most excited about is Downtown's rebuilt waterfront. By 2021, the new East River Waterfront will be complete, with landscaped seating areas and a bike path all the way from Battery Park up to the Lower East Side. And on Governors Island, swaths of land now covered in crumbling buildings will be turned into public park space.

New commercial developments are on the way Downtown's waterfront as well, from a restaurant and catering hall opening at Pier A as soon as next year to a boutique hotel and restaurant at the Battery Maritime Building, which has been delayed by the recession.

Each of lower Manhattan's sub-neighborhoods will feel the ripple effect of all of these changes over the next 10 years.

As the World Trade Center site develops, Erik Torkells, who writes the blog Tribeca Citizen, predicts that TriBeCa will continue expanding southward, with new shops and restaurants following the increased foot traffic.

"Traditionally, we all thought of TriBeCa as being Franklin Street and West Broadway, and while architecturally that will always be the heart of TriBeCa, the energy is more and more moving below Chambers Street," Torkells said.

"It's where all the restaurants will want to open, where all the shops will want to be."

While Torkells and others lamented TriBeCa's long-lost artsy edge, Torkells believes that some of the neighborhood's youthful spirit could be reborn in the Financial District, thanks to the lower rents.

As early examples, Torkells points to the new Luke's Lobster location on South William Street and the soon-to-open upscale cocktail lounge on Stone Street by the owners of the East Village's Death & Co.

City Councilwoman Margaret Chin, who represents lower Manhattan and has lived in the Financial District for more than 20 years, said some of her biggest concerns for the neighborhood going forward are affordable housing and retail spaces.

Building affordable housing must be a priority on the few development sites left Downtown, Chin said. One possibility that she and others have suggested is a mixed-use tower with below-market units at World Trade Center Tower 5.

But even if a few — or a few hundred — affordable units are built Downtown over the next 10 years, current residents have no misunderstanding about where the neighborhood is headed.

"My kids won't be able to afford apartments here, and at some point I'm not going to be able to afford an apartment here," said Townley, who lives in Battery Park City.

"You used to see two, three generations living in an apartment [and passing it down]. I don't think you're going to see that anymore."