Under the sweeping shade of the World Trade Center, something miraculous is happening—a neighborhood is coming to life. Once the enclave of intense financiers worried more about the bottom line than where they would hang their hats, Manhattan’s Financial District has become home to thousands of new residents. While the focus in recent years has been toward rental properties, condos and co-op development is beginning to take place. With this renaissance, the birthplace of New York City may soon enjoy a deserved second look as not only a place to work, but a place to live and play as well.
The Birthplace of New York City
New York’s earliest settlers put down stakes on the land that would eventually become the Financial District. Settled in 1623 by the Dutch West India Co., the area soon grew. According to Edward Robb Ellis’ “The Epic of New York City,” the Dutch never moved further north than present-day Wall Street for the entire duration of their stay in New Amsterdam, as it was called.
Wall Street itself earned its name from a 2,340-foot wall built in 1852 under orders of Peter Stuyvesant, who governed New Amsterdam. Erected to protect the Dutch from attack by the United Colonies of New England, the structure never had to serve its purpose. The attack never came, but the the impressive structure lined with nine-foot tall, sharp-ended sticks, stood long enough to give the area its most recognizable street name.
When the British gained control of New Amsterdam, they changed its name to New York City. The area continued to gain importance as a trading center and in 1785, New York City became the capital of the United States. Four years later, George Washington’s inauguration took place at Federal Hall, located near Wall and Broad Streets. Even without the pomp and circumstance of the presidential goings-on, the neighborhood had its prestige residents—Alexander Hamilton watched the inauguration from his home at 33 Wall Street.
On May 17, 1792, the area’s future as the home of finance was secured when 24 merchants and auctioneers gathered under a buttonwood tree at 68 Wall Street to create what would become the New York Stock Exchange.
As the years passed and the business of stocks and bonds skyrocketed, the area grew in prestige and fame. Skyscrapers began to make their mark on the Manhattan skyline at the turn of the 20th century. When it was completed in 1913, the Woolworth Building at 233 Broadway was the tallest building in the world. Eventually, it would become dwarfed by the 110-story World Trade Center, completed in 1973.
The Financial District also serves as the seat of city government. City Hall Park has been home to 57 mayoral administrations and served as the center of city government for close to 190 years. It also presided over the birth of New York’s most famous mode of mass transportation. In March 1900, ground was broken in front of city hall for the first subway line.
Long History, New Future
Given the Financial District’s colorful past, it is no surprise that it has managed to pull off a modern-day real estate miracle. With the stock market crash of 1987, many of the area’s most affluent corporations and financial enterprises either folded or moved uptown. Empty office buildings became a common sight and a serious situation seemed to be brewing. In 1995, however, the city began offering tax incentives to encourage the renovation of Downtown office buildings into residential apartments. Zoning laws were relaxed, allowing for entertainment facilities and smaller residential units. The rush to build could be heard from miles away. According to the Alliance for Downtown New York, a group that promotes growth in the downtown area, more than 3,000 new residential units have been completed or are under construction with 7,000 projected for completion by 2002.
Although only a handful of co-ops and condos exist right now in the area, Douglas Wagner, president of the real estate brokerage firm Benjamin James Associates, expects that more will take shape in the future. Nearby neighborhoods such as TriBeCa are already prime locations for condo lofts with developments moving closer to the Financial District border. “Rentals will often lead the residential charge,” he says. “Tenants who have leased for the last three or four years are paving the way for individuals to come in and invest in the area.”
Young and Wired
Part of the reason for the burst in rental properties over co-ops or condos stems from the lifestyle of the brokers and other financial folks who live in the community. “A lot of tenants in the residential areas down there are in the early stages of their careers, one or two years out of business school, and can’t afford to settle in and purchase yet,” says Wagner.
According to The New York Times, nearly 90 percent of new lower Manhattan residents are under 45 years old, 60 percent are single and 61 percent have household incomes of more than $120,000 a year. These residents are not only financial wizards, they are young professionals emigrating from other areas of the city as well. Many are involved with information technology, an industry the area has courted aggressively in recent years.
In the mid-1990s, developer William Rudin began renovation on a 400,000-square foot office building at 55 Broad Street. Fitting it out with the highest of high-tech necessities, his firm called the structure the New York Information Technology Center and actively sought high-growth information technology companies to fill the space. The area surrounding the building has become a magnet for IT companies looking for pre-built, Internet-ready space amenable to small, growing companies.
With a diversification of industry, the neighborhood is gaining a new face. People come to the area not only to work, but to live. More importantly, they’re starting to come for entertainment and relaxation as well.
A Community on the Rise
When renters first arrived on the scene in the mid-1990s, a dearth of restaurants, grocery stores, dry cleaners and other amenities made life frustrating at times. In the last year or so, circumstances have started to change. New eateries are opening and established restaurants are staying open longer, catering to residents rather than just the business crowd that disperses by six o’clock each night. “The first big year (for residences) was 1997,” Wagner says. “At that time, a lot of promises were made that day-to-day infrastructure would be introduced. In 1999, the Amish Market opened.” In 2000, another company committed to opening a grocery. “Dry cleaners, shoe repairs, things like that, are hard to find, but it’s getting better.”
Residents aren’t letting shopping get in the way of appreciating the quality of their neighborhood. The Financial District is considered one of the safest in Manhattan and boasts a 45-person, around-the-clock security team.
And there is no dearth of places to visit and spend a day or an afternoon. The World Trade Center Observation Tower provides breathtaking views of the city. Chinatown and Little Italy offer nearby dining alternatives with the galleries of SoHo close at hand, as well. Museums abound, with the South Street Seaport Museum, the Museum of Jewish Heritage and the National Museum of the American Indian. The historic Trinity Church, originally built in 1697 and rebuilt twice since then, is one of the country’s oldest churches.
As the stock traders say, “Buy low, sell high.” The Financial District has seen a resurgance in recent years that seems to herald the birth of a new neighborhood. “It’s a stable residential area,” Wagner says. He points out the competitive pricing trends in nearby TriBeCa and SoHo. “On the border (between TriBeCa and the Financial District), the trend is toward loft condominiums.” Space is selling for prices in excess of $60 to $70 a square foot. Apartments are renting for $46 to 51 per square foot, “comparable to luxury apartments in Greenwich Village,” Wagner says.
With both prices and resident interest holding steady, it’s a good bet the co-op and condo market will be a bullish one in the very near future.
Ms. Lent is a freelance writer living in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.