Proposal from Mayor and Governor Looks to Lower Manhattan as Model, But Risks Replicating Failures as Well as Successes
In December, Governor Kathy Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams partnered to release a new plan to transform New York City into a metropolis calibrated to the needs a post-pandemic world. This proposal paints a sobering statistical portrait of Lower Manhattan, while also pointing toward an array of possible countermeasures. It additionally cites the experience of Downtown in the years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 as a precedent and paradigm for successful urban revival.
The “Making New York Work for Everyone” report underscores the importance of Lower Manhattan by noting that the community “is both a destination and a gateway, serving as a transit hub, a thriving residential community, a business district, and home to dozens of cultural institutions. This area has 14 subway lines, 17 ferry routes, 510,000 commuters, 290,000 workers, 62,000 residents, and 55,000 students. It is a driver of the city’s economy, bringing $6.5 billion in estimated tax revenue in 2019 and is home to one in 10 of NYC’s jobs.”
But the study cites Lower Manhattan (along with Midtown) as among the business districts that have been slowest to rebound from the COVID downturn among any urban centers in the five boroughs. The report further breaks down consumer outlays (comparing the average for January through September of 2019 with the same period in 2022) to note that retail expenditures in Lower Manhattan remain one percent below pre-pandemic levels, while restaurant and bar spending are down by 36 percent, and entertainment disbursements are off by 17 percent. The relatively mild retail slump of one percent might seem like a comparative bright spot, until juxtaposed with the City-wide average recovery for that category of seven percent above the pre-pandemic baseline. This local retrenchment is likely related to another metric cited by the report, which notes that 18 percent of Lower Manhattan retail space (in the Broadway, Wall Street, and Fulton Street corridors) is now vacant.
To remedy these shortfalls, the report makes a series of recommendations, noting that “in Lower Manhattan, we must build on the investments from the first two decades of this century and seek to further transform this walkable neighborhood into a truly pedestrian-friendly destination for office workers, residents, and tourists alike.”
In response to record-setting levels of office vacancies, the report argues that, “converting outdated office buildings to homes is one tool to soak up excess supply of commercial office space while also helping to tackle the housing affordability and supply crisis that we face as a nation.” Recalling that the policymakers explicitly sought to incentivize such conversions in Lower Manhattan, starting in the 1990s, “as part of an effort to address persistent vacancy and establish a new residential community in the Financial District, the City instituted a regulation that buildings in the district built 20 years earlier, before 1977, would be eligible to convert to housing under more permissive regulations than would normally have been allowed. These conversions played a major role in Lower Manhattan’s recovery from the tragic events of September 11th—and its evolution into a mixed-use, around-the-clock neighborhood.”
In some respects, this precedent may be viewed as controversial. While the 421-g program (the legal name for the program that spurred residential conversions exclusively in Lower Manhattan) did succeed in triggering an upsurge in apartment development, it also unleashed a wave of gentrification, with the knock-on effect of increased local housing costs that forced many longtime middle-class residents out of the community. Very few of the thousands of apartments created as a result of the taxpayer subsidy provided by the 421-g program were set aside as affordable, and none of them were linked to any commitment on the City’s part to build out civic infrastructure, such as schools, parks, and healthcare facilities, to accompany the rise in residential population. The report contains no assurance that these omissions will not be repeated, either in Lower Manhattan or elsewhere.
Lower Manhattan resident Patrick Kennell, who chairs the Land Use, Zoning & Economic Development Committee of Community Board 1 (but is speaking here in his capacity as a founder of the Financial District Neighborhood Association), said, “if we’ve learned anything the last 20-plus years in rebuilding Lower Manhattan, it’s that we have to plan much better for infrastructure impacts and build it out ahead of time when looking to incentivize big increases in residential housing. When it comes to new housing, we know, like that line from ‘Field of Dreams,’ ‘if you build it, they will come.’ But what are we going to do when they get here?”
“I think it’s interesting that the ‘Making New York Work for Everyone’ report hits on so many buzzwords of key infrastructure projects that neighborhood leaders have been talking about and promoting for many years,” he continued, “including the Financial District Neighborhood Association’s ‘Make Way for Lower Manhattan’ initiative,’ FiDi-Seaport resiliency planning, and the Downtown Alliance’s ‘A More Welcoming Wall & Broad’ idea. But the Governor and the Mayor need to make sure they have these initiatives funded and in place before they talk about ‘converting outdated office buildings to homes.’ Otherwise, they’re just offering empty buzzwords in the name of building more apartments and repeating mistakes of the past.”
The analysis also cites Lower Manhattan as a model for recovery in other contexts, noting, “in the aftermath of 9/11, one of New York’s first rebuilding investments was to create pocket parks across Lower Manhattan. That’s because the city recognized that parks and public space drive neighborhood vitality by drawing people outside and generating a sense of connection, safety, and joy. As employees ventured outside to new plazas to sit and drink coffee, friends picnicked on new lawns, children laughed as they ran through new playgrounds, and workers held meetings and wrote memos under the shade of new trees, life came back to Lower Manhattan. Great public space became the foundation of a comprehensive reimagining that within 10 years had drawn more than 10,000 new housing units, created 800,000 square feet of new retail space, and generated more than 12 million square feet of new office space, with vacancy rates dropping faster than in the rest of the region.”
Fixes prescribed specifically for Lower Manhattan include a plan to “upgrade the Stock Exchange District to create identity and a sense of place, enhance the pedestrian environment and improve mobility, rationalize deliveries, and separate trucks from pedestrians.” This idea builds on an earlier proposal by the Downtown Alliance to beautify the area within the security perimeter that surrounds the intersection of Wall and Broad Streets. It is also part of a broader mandate, envisioned by the Mayor and Governor, for Lower Manhattan to “strengthen identity and a sense of place by creating iconic spaces and gateways into and through the Financial District neighborhood. Take advantage of the irregular and tightly knit street network by creating a series of pedestrianized and shared streets. Enhance the pedestrian environment by upgrading long-standing interim materials and finishes with permanent features such as new lighting, seating, planters, and other amenities that enhance the public experience. Minimize the visual appearance of… pedestrian conflicts related to security infrastructure by integrating with amenities that benefit the public to exude a less hostile and more welcoming image throughout the neighborhood.”
The Governor and Mayor’s proposal also aims to establish public spaces underneath and around the Brooklyn Bridge, and revitalize the streetscape along portions of Park Row, Frankfurt, Pearl, and Rose Streets. The study concludes its diagnosis and prognosis for Lower Manhattan by noting that, “the stretch of shoreline between the Battery and the Brooklyn Bridge is expected to see frequent flooding due to sea-level rise starting in the 2040s, and daily tidal flooding by the 2080s. This poses a threat to the city’s economic vitality, with impacts to transit, businesses, and residents.”
“The FiDi-Seaport Master Plan lays out a conceptual design to protect this area, creating a resilient 21st century waterfront that serves future generations of New Yorkers,” the report continues. “The City will work closely over the next three years with a technical team of engineers and architects, along with local and citywide advocates and elected officials, to refine the design and begin the permitting process. It’s expected that this project might take 15 to 20 years to build out in its entirety, and early estimates project costs of $5-7 billion.
This acknowledgment is accompanied by an assurance that “ongoing resiliency projects along the waterfront [will] remain integrated with a robust public realm vision for the neighborhood.”