Downtown’s new population boom

By Elizabeth O’Brien

The Downtown population will skyrocket over the next few years, if development progresses as planned and builders continue to take advantage of government incentives for post-9/11 revitalization.

Lower Manhattan was the city’s fastest growing neighborhood in the city before the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, according to the Dept. of City Planning. While many residents were displaced in the aftermath of the attacks, occupancy has since rebounded, with rates exceeding their pre-9/11 levels in some places.

And many more residents are on the way.

“The positive side of this growth is that people recognize it’s a great place to live— we must be doing something right — the negative side is we want to keep it a good place to live” by making sure that services keep up with the influx, said Madelyn Wils, chairperson of Community Board 1.

The board has tracked the number of residential units currently planned or under construction below Canal St. There are at least 8,173 such units, both new construction and conversions, in development, according to the board’s study. This comes on top of the nearly 5,000 units built after the year 2000 census and already occupied.

The boom in Lower Manhattan residential construction stands in sharp contrast to the weakened commercial real estate market. Currently, there is a 30 percent vacancy rate among buildings 1, 2, 3, and 4 of the World Financial Center, compared with a three percent residential vacancy rate at Battery Park City.

This isn’t the first time that Downtown has watched the residential market expand amid stalled commercial activity.

“Basically, we’re back in the cycle we were in in the mid-90s,” said Shirley Jaffe, vice president for economic development for the Downtown Alliance, which runs a business improvement district.

In the mid-90s, then Mayor Rudy Giuliani organized the 421-g program to help create a 24-hour community in the Financial District. Under this program, which is still in effect, Downtown commercial buildings that are converted to residences qualify for property tax breaks that last 14 years.

Of the 11 buildings in the Seaport and Financial District with residential construction pending, more than half are conversions, according to Judy Duffy, assistant district manager for Community Board 1. This includes 29 floors of the Woolworth building, which developer Steven Witkoff plans to turn into luxury housing, according to the city’s Housing Development Corporation.

Witkoff is one of many developers who have applied for Liberty Bonds, a federal financing incentive designed to spur Lower Manhattan growth after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Congress allocated up to $8 billion of these project-revenue bonds, with $1.6 billion of that amount designated for residential rental projects.

Liberty Bonds have been widely credited with jump-starting market-rate housing construction in Lower Manhattan. Currently, city and state officials have approved at least $430 million in Liberty Bond financing for residential use, with projects totaling more than that amount currently under consideration.

So what does all this activity mean?

For starters, in 2005 the population south of Canal St. could increase by 75 percent since its last official count at the 2000 census. According to the census, there were 32,114 people living within the boundaries of Community Board 1, which is, roughly speaking, south of Canal and Pearl Sts., excluding those living on Governors Island. That represented more than a 40 percent increase, the highest of any area in the city.

The 13,002 units either built or slated for construction in the area since 2000 represent roughly 24,700 people, according to standards used by City Planning.

Wils said she recently showed the C.B. 1 study to officials at the Department of City Planning, the Economic Development Corporation, and the department of Housing Preservation and Development. It took them by surprise, Wils said.

“It didn’t seem to me that anyone had any records that were similar in nature,” Wils said.

Wils and other residents say the city should anticipate the growing pains that the community is sure to face in the coming years. With all the promotion of Downtown as a residential destination, the city has neglected to address the quality of life concerns that will undoubtedly accompany the housing boom, many say.

“Too bad we can’t go to sleep for 10 years and wake up and have it done,” said Duffy of C.B. 1.

She said the three biggest needs to accommodate the growing population are schools, better retail and food shopping and park space improvements.

Duffy and others have expressed concern about the constant construction that residents will face as the trade center site is rebuilt and nearby residential projects take shape. In particular, residents have protested the development planned for the city-owned lot known as 5C, located behind P.S. 234 and bounded by Chambers, West, and Warren Sts. One of the buildings planned for the site is designed at 8 stories, and the other at 40, with 551 residential units between them. Developer Scott Resnick requested Liberty Bond financing for the 5C project, which many feel is out of context with the neighborhood.

There is also a large building planned for site 5B, across Warren St. from P.S. 234. The city engaged a developer to build a 600-ft. commercial tower, although residents fear those plans could be scrapped in favor of another resiential building.

In addition to the scale of the project, residents worry that it and other developments will further strain the resources of P.S. 234. The top-ranked public school is already over capacity, said outgoing principal Anna Switzer. She estimated that in September there could be some 700 students enrolled in the school, which has a capacity of 585.

“We are so desperate to have yet another classroom,” said Switzer, who described efforts to convert a resource room and office space into a classroom for the fall. “We’re really at the edge and we need a solution.”

Wils said that the board has been discussing short and long-term possibilities for alleviating school over-crowding with officials from the Department of Education and other city agencies, but she said she could not comment on the substance of the talks. The community board compiled its detailed study at the request of the School Construction Authority, which the board had approached about adding new schools to the area, Wils said.

“If we want more schools, we have to prove it,” Wils said.

Margie Feinberg, a spokesperson for the Department of Education, said that it was too early to say what plans the department might make to add new schools Downtown. The department’s five-year capital plan, to be released this fall, might indicate more about school construction in the area, Feinberg said.

Overall, local community School District 2, which includes P.S. 234, operates at 83 percent capacity, according to figures released by the Department of Education. At 111 percent capacity, District 24 in Queens is the city’s most crowded.

Along with new schools, Wils said that residents must push for enough police, fire, and sanitation services to serve the ballooning population. In addition, Lower Manhattan residents say they would welcome a few good supermarkets. Wils said that she thought Tribeca could support a specialty food store now, even before more residents flood the area. Duffy said that she would like to see a major supermarket and other retail stores come to her neighborhood.

“I do my shopping in New Jersey and I see half of my neighbors there,” said Duffy, who lives in Tribeca and refuses to shop at the big local grocery chain.

And many residents of the northern end of Battery Park City would like a supermarket of their own.

“It’s too bad there aren’t many more stores around,” said Abby Latour, 33, who moved to northern Battery Park City from London in April with her two young daughters and her husband.

Like many Battery Park City residents, Latour uses FreshDirect, an online grocery service. She said that the area’s many attractions made up for the inconvenience of not having a neighborhood grocery store.

Tim Carey, president and C.E.O. of the Battery Park City Authority, said that if a supermarket were to come to the northern part of Battery Park City, a likely spot would be on sites 18 or 19B, which are both located on North End Avenue between Murray and Warren Sts. The authority is currently in development discussions on both sites and expects construction to begin next year.

Carey believes that Battery Park City can easily accommodate the roughly 6,000 new residents expected to move in by 2005 – which will represent a 66 percent population increase.

“We’ve got a better mix of public and private property than most suburban areas,” Carey said, noting that 55 percent of Battery Park City is devoted to public parks or roads.

Becky Clarke agrees. Clarke, 26, moved to Gateway Plaza in February of 2002 from Long Island, before the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation began its residential grant program. Carey and others have credited this incentive with stabilizing and reviving the Lower Manhattan housing market after the trade center disaster.

Clarke echoed the thoughts of many when she said that Battery Park City has the best of both worlds: “It’s gorgeous down here. It’s relaxing. You’re in the city but you’re not.”

Even as they make room for new neighbors, residents would like to keep it that way.


Downtown Express is published by
Community Media LLC.

Downtown Express | 487 Greenwich St., Suite 6A | New York, NY 10013

Phone: 212.242.6162 | Fax: 212.229.2970


Written permission of the publisher must be obtainedbefore any of the contents of this newspaper, in whole or in part, can be reproduced or redistributed.