By Josh Rogers
David Rockefeller, who perhaps did more to shape the face of modern Lower Manhattan than anyone else, was honored Tuesday night in one of the buildings he helped build -- One Chase Manhattan Plaza.
The occasion was the 50th anniversary of an organization he founded the Downtown-Lower Manhattan Association. It was Rockefeller and the association that pushed for the construction of the World Trade Center. In 1993, the association produced a plan for Lower Manhattan, which was largely adopted in 1994 by Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
The plan included tax incentives to either convert outdated office buildings to apartments or modernize them. The plan helped turn Downtown into the fastest growing section of the city a fact that continues today despite the Sept. 11 attacks. The D.-L.M.A. plan also included creating a business improvement district and the organization sponsored the Downtown Alliance, which has run the BID since 1995.
Over the decades, the group has sponsored a wide variety of projects including the creation of Murry Bergtraum High School and improvements to Battery Park.
Mayor Mike Bloomberg praised the association’s work, noting that Wall St. now includes “shoppers with babies -- nobody would have ever thought that.”
Rockefeller, 92, said afterwards that he was not surprised to see the residential growth. “It started before I retired [in 1980], but it’s been more successful than I expected,” he told Downtown Express.
Rockefeller, the grandson of Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller, was executive vice president of planning and development at Chase Manhattan Bank in the mid-1950s when he pushed for the bank to build its office complex at what is now Chase Plaza. In his memoirs, David Rockefeller wrote that city power broker Robert Moses “pointed out that Wall Street businesses had already moved uptown or were about to leave the city altogether. If any more left, Chase’s decision to remain would be a colossal blunder.”
Rockefeller credits Moses with giving him the idea to start the association to advocate for Downtown. He did so in 1958, and by 1960 he was organizing for a world trade center to be built on the East River between Fulton St. and Old Slip. The idea was to have the organization now known as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to get the complex built. The Port’s Jersey contingent wanted to move the complex to the West Side and the blocks between Vesey and Liberty Sts. were selected. With the help of Rockefeller’s brother, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, the project was approved.
The proposed W.T.C. blocks were home to Radio Row, a thriving contingent of small electronic shops with butter and egg vendors nearby. Shop owners sued to stop the project and it wasn’t until 1966 that construction on the Twin Towers began.
One of those who fought to save Radio Row was a rising Greenwich Village politician named Ed Koch. In a telephone interview Tuesday, Koch said it was a shame the area was lost, but he came to see the value of the Trade Center.
“It destroyed a hugely successful entrepreneurial area with lots of small businesses,” Koch said. “I used to get my cheese there….I changed my mind after it was built. It did a lot for the city -- I just didn’t want it to be built on that spot.”
Koch went on to become mayor in 1977 and said Rockefeller’s power and influence in the banking world was enormously helpful as the city climbed out of its fiscal crisis. Asked if Rockefeller ever reminded the mayor about opposing the World Trade Center, Koch said he was “too genteel” to ever do that.
The accolades for Rockefeller Tuesday night came from a high-powered group of business and government leaders who attended as well as messages from President Bush and Gov. David Paterson.
JPMorgan Chase renamed the office plaza after David Rockefeller. Robert Douglass, current chairperson of both D.L.M.A. and the Downtown Alliance, warned people to specify Downtown if they tell cab drivers to take them to Rockefeller Plaza.
Rockefeller said he was “overwhelmed by the generosity….I worked here for several decades and had a hand in building this building.”
Of Lower Manhattan he said “I still think it’s one of the great areas in the world.”
He also praised “Mike our mayor….I think he’s turned out to be one of the great mayors of our city.”
Rockefeller had been a secretary at City Hall under Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia. He said Bloomberg has a very different style than LaGuardia but both were very effective.
Bloomberg said Rockefeller was still youthful and then brought up his 99-year-old mother: “She’s single and likes younger men.”
The view of the Downtown skyline from Chase Plaza, which was just renamed David Rockefeller Plaza. The building to the upper right is One Chase Manhattan Plaza, which is expected to be made a designated city landmark shortly.