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Downtown Alliance, August 12, 2008
Seven Years Later
By Liz Berger
Seven years ago this September 11, I stood outside the PS 234 schoolyard – between Manhattan Youth’s Bob Townley and JC Chmiel of Klatch Coffee Bar – and watched the world as we knew it end in flames. What happened defied explanation, yet it happened.
I have lived south of Fulton Street for more than 25 years. Best known for 13 million square feet of Class A office space, Downtown’s largest hotel, the most successful indoor shopping mall in the United States and world-class restaurants, the World Trade Center was also the center of my family’s universe: our indoor play space, our bridge to the Hudson River, our outdoor theater. It was where we flew kites, went roller skating, learned to ride two-wheelers and bought cupcakes. Dancers performed there, and musicians, and Ernie and Bert. My children, 5 and 2 on September 11, 2001, spent part of every day of their lives at the World Trade Center, the iconic nexus of commerce, residential life and tourism Downtown.
And then, in less than two hours, it was gone, and with it, the physical embodiment of our community, our North Star.
But not the spirit. That day, the worst in New York’s history, brought out the best in New Yorkers, as parents, teachers and passersby ran to protect our children, secure our schools, direct traffic and help the first responders on their way to the World Trade Center. And so it went, all that day, that night, the next day and in the weeks and months that followed. Defying expectation, the markets reopened, stores restocked, residents and workers returned, utilities repaired a century’s worth of destroyed conduit and cable, government and private owners reclaimed, repaired and rebuilt and Downtown recovered, slowly at first, in fits and starts and then with a vengeance.
September 11 is a day for reflection, on the lives lost and, seven years later, on the community regained. There is no doubt that much remains to be done. 130 Liberty Street and Fiterman Hall stand shrouded in netting, stuck in the past, resisting the future. There is a hole in the ground on the corner of Fulton Street and Broadway where the Fulton Transit Center was supposed to reopen last December. West Street, Church Street, Liberty Street and Vesey Street are a mess, inhospitable to both pedestrian and vehicular traffic. But that’s only one part of the story.
Here’s the rest: Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Downtown has emerged from the attacks on the World Trade Center as a global model of a 21st century business district, one square mile that redefines what it means to be a commercial, residential and tourist destination by being all three at once. 312,000 people work here, 58,000 people live here – more than double the 2001 residential population – and there are 6 million annual visitors, twice as many as in 2003. More than 200 firms have relocated to Lower Manhattan, 2,474 new hotel rooms have been built, 1,673 are in the pipe line and there are new restaurants and stores at every price point. Seven years later, our 24/7 aspirations have become our experience.
While Downtown’s success may defy expectation, it does not defy explanation. In a phrase made famous by our junior senator, it has taken a village, every member of the Downtown community, from elected representatives and their staff to business leaders and their employees, from developers to tenants, local activists to small merchants, Sanitation workers, police officers and firefighters, civic associations, the Downtown Alliance, Little League parents, the PTA’s and our growing school age population and their younger siblings.
Seven years ago, our community was diminished beyond recognition. Today, Downtown is the place where world-class companies want to do business and record numbers of people want to live and explore. What comes next must similarly defy expectation. The future of the World Trade Center site is uncertain. The Port Authority’s new Executive Director, Chris Ward, has taken an important first step in identifying and acknowledging the problems. Rather than play a blame game, he has opened the doors and invited the principal stakeholders to plan the future together.
Ward is scheduled to present new construction schedules and budgets to the Port Authority board and Governors Paterson and Corzine later this month. While some changes are inevitable – and perhaps for the good -- the Port Authority must resist the pressure to reduce the project’s scope or “reprioritize” essential elements. Rather, the Port must defy expectation and affirm the original vision for the re-imagined site: a bustling and vibrant commercial destination like the World Trade Center was, with office towers, retail, a transportation hub, a performing arts center, through streets, open space and the much anticipated memorial and museum.
Seven years later, that’s my expectation.
- Liz Berger is President of the Downtown Alliance