Chaos to condos: lower Manhattan's rebirth

Nearly four years after 9/11, there are more homes, grassy parks - and new challenges, too.

From atop a trapeze platform on lower Manhattan's West Street, the gap in the skyline where the World Trade Center once stood stands out far more sharply than from below. But so, too, do the signs of a remarkable residential resurgence under way in the blocks surrounding ground zero.

Look north, and elegant new condominiums are rising along the river. To the west, some of the last remaining historic brick warehouses are being turned into lofts and living space. Turn to the south, and you see rows of new green trees along the Hudson River Park, which also offers everything from trapeze lessons to baseball batting cages to miniature golf - to say nothing of the sight of the sun glinting off the mighty Hudson, with the Statue of Liberty in the distance.

Just four years ago, the fear was palpable that the area would be abandoned. But in the ensuring period, while many media and the political elite have focused on the reconstruction of the 16 acres where the World Trade Center once stood, these neighborhoods have been flourishing, attracting tens of thousands of young people and their families.

It is a testament, some of them say, to the residents who lived through 9/11 and were determined to stay and rebuild their community. They also recognize the city and state, which offered grants and subsidies to encourage people to move into the area.

"We've been one of the fastest-growing residential neighborhoods in the city," says Paul Goldstein, district manager of Community Board One. "Over the years it's been mushrooming, but there was an incredible spurt post 9/11."

The numbers

In 2000, lower Manhattan had about 35,000 residents. Now the population is pegged at 50,000. That's in part because of the 18,000 new housing units built since then, but also because of the nature of the community itself.

"We love it down here," says Dave Humphreville, who runs a trade association at the Stock Exchange. He moved into the neighborhood in 1998. On Tuesday afternoon, he was following behind his toddler son George, who was tricycling down the pedestrian park on West Street.

After 9/11, he and his wife never considered leaving. They were convinced it was a one-time event that, as frightening as it was, did have an upside: "People are more aware of each other. There's more of a community spirit here."

But the growth has also brought challenges. First, there are disruptions caused by all the construction - in the neighborhoods as well as at ground zero. Then there's the problem of providing enough support services for these new families - from schools to libraries to community centers. While some of the federal Community Development Block Grant funds dedicated to the area after 9/11 are going to community amenities - like a new elementary school planned for the east side of lower Manhattan - others, like a proposed library for Battery Park City, are dependent on big developers. And so they've gotten caught up in some of the politics surrounding the redevelopment.

For instance, last month, the investment firm Goldman Sachs decided against building new headquarters near the site because a proposed traffic tunnel would emerge near their front door, raising safety and security concerns. It was a blow not only to the business sector, but also the neighborhood. Goldman had pledged $3.5 million to build that local library.

The community is also more active than most in aggressively trying to protect its overall health and security, another legacy of the attack. There are still lingering concerns about contaminants left from that day of destruction. The Environmental Protection Agency has just released a preliminary proposed testing regimen to identify contaminants. But at a community meeting Tuesday night, residents made it clear they believe it's inadequate.

They're also fighting to prevent 80,000 gallons of diesel fuel from being stored, against city codes, on Hudson Street, which is densely populated.

"That's not OK. There can't be any terrorist in the world worth their salt who doesn't already know about that building," says Hal Bromm, a longtime Tribeca resident who worked to get parts of the neighborhood designated as a historic district.

Whither big business?

The community is also coping with lingering worries about whether enough big businesses, like Goldman Sachs, will come back to support this residential resurgence and keep lower Manhattan on the map as one of the world's largest financial centers. Last week, Gov. George Pataki insisted he is determined to ensure they will.

Despite the recent setbacks facing redevelopment, like the necessity of redesigning the Freedom Tower to increase security, and the political wrangling brought on by things like Donald Trump's call for a new design altogether, Governor Pataki maintains that the rebuilding will move forward, calling it a "sacred task."

And many businesses that are already here, like Trapeze School New York, are also confident that other businesses will come.

"Immediately after the World Trade Center event, the sadness was palpable down here," says Jonathon Conant, president and cofounder of the school. "Now there's a joy here. People are just really reinvigorated, and so is the whole neighborhood."

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