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Lower Manhattan: Rising from the ashes

The under-construction One World Trade Center stands over the World Trade Center construction site in Lower Manhattan
The under-construction One World Trade Center stands over the World Trade Center construction site in Lower Manhattan

By Ilaina Jonas and Edith Honan

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A decade after the September 11 attacks enveloped Lower Manhattan in a thick gray dust of pulverized buildings and human remains, the surrounding area has become a trendy neighborhood with a booming population.

Although an iconic part of the New York City skyline and a symbol of New York's exuberant commercialism, the World Trade Center's twin towers were never much loved by locals, some of whom saw them as unattractive and out of scale with the surrounding area. Now from the horror and rubble, a new community is growing.

"It feels like one of the happiest and most rejuvenated places in the city," said Greg Boyd, a 37-year old lawyer preparing to move into a $4,000-a-month, 500 square-foot studio in Frank Gehry's new tower, five minutes from the site of the complex destroyed in the 2001 attacks.

"I've seen (the neighborhood) change from a very sleepy commercial area to a family-friendly, young couple- and single-friendly place," Boyd said.

The neighborhood, once dominated by bankers who fled after the closing bell of the New York Stock Exchange, also is attracting high-profile media companies. Conde Nast, publisher of Vogue, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, will move into One World Trade Center when it opens in late 2014 or early 2015.

Four new skyscrapers, a memorial and park are due to be completed on the 16-acre (6.5 hectare) site of the attacks by 2015 or 2016, said developer Larry Silverstein.

One World Trade Center, the tallest of the buildings, is being developed by the Durst Organization and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the land. Silverstein, who held the ground lease on the original site, is developing the other buildings and has completed the adjacent 7 World Trade Center, which opened in 2006.

With space and financial constraints curbing new construction elsewhere in Manhattan, Lower Manhattan has become the epicenter of state-of-the-art construction involving some of the world's top architects, including Gehry.

A rebuilt and upgraded World Trade Center transportation hub and the new underground Fulton Street Transit Center will connect Lower Manhattan to nearly all areas of the island, as well as to commuters from Long Island and New Jersey.

Perhaps the biggest change is a revamped World Trade Center design that corrects that original towers' biggest flaw: a fortress-like design in the heart of downtown.

"It is a statement about what the possibilities are for New York City in the 21st century," said Mary Ann Tighe, chief executive of the Tri-State Region for CB Richard Ellis Group Inc.

Tiffany, Hermes, La Maison du Chocolat and other high-end retailers have already opened in the area. By the time the new World Trade Center opens, there will be more than half a million square feet of additional stores and restaurants.

So far, $11.3 billion of federal money, mostly in the form of direct aid and tax breaks, has been used to rebuild the center, according to New York's Independent Budget Office.

'IT WAS A WALL'

With its narrow, winding streets, Lower Manhattan, the oldest part of the city, is rich in political and cultural history ranging from the American Revolution to abstract Expressionism. Painters Jackson Pollock and Robert Rauschenberg had studios there.

Best known as the center of U.S. finance, the area's financial district started to change in the 1960s when Wall Street businesses began their march uptown to Midtown's newer skyscrapers.

The original World Trade Center, opened in 1973, was built to revitalize the office market in the financial district -- historically a bustling money center by day when the New York Stock Exchange was open, but a veritable ghost town at night. But it never really succeeded, due partly to a design often derided as a cement fortress.

"It was in New York but not of New York," said Ken Jackson, Columbia University professor and editor of the Encyclopedia of New York City. "The thing about New York that makes it so special is the street life -- being able to duck into a delicatessen or a grocery store. You couldn't do that in the World Trade Center. It was a wall."

Over time, the twin towers became an indelible part of the Manhattan skyline, serving as playground for the fictional Spider-Man and King Kong and the real-life exploits of French high-wire artist Philippe Petit, whose 1974 tightrope walk was celebrated in the film "Man on Wire."

After the towers were destroyed in Al Qaeda's hijacked plane attack, residents and businesses fled the neighborhood.

"There was this massive departure on 9/11," Silverstein said. "The fumes were horrible. The environment was terrible. There were government troops all over the place. It was a war zone. It was terrible."

The new design -- facing a city of more than 8 million critics -- was intended to weave the complex of buildings back into the fabric of downtown.

Westfield Group, which operated the underground mall in the original World Trade Center, is in a joint venture with the Port Authority to spend $1.25 billion to build more than 364,000 square feet of retail space at the World Trade Center complex and transportation hub.

At the adjacent 8 million-square-foot World Financial Center, Brookfield Office Properties Inc plans to spend $250 million to expand the retail areas to 200,000 square feet of stores and restaurants focused on downtown residents and visitors as well as office workers.

21ST CENTURY SKYSCRAPER

Residential apartment buildings are also making their mark on the downtown skyline.

As many financial institutions moved to Midtown, towers that once housed Morgan Stanley and Lehman Bros were converted into luxury apartments for a residential population that has more than doubled to 56,000 from 22,904 in 2000.

Boyd's new 51st-floor apartment is in "New York by Gehry," a 76-story, luxury residential tower. The New York Times called it the city's finest skyscraper in half a century, saying it "seems to lift Lower Manhattan out of its decade-long gloom."

Forest City Enterprises spent $875 million for the building, which includes a public school on the first four floors, and received $190 million in low-cost Liberty Bonds. Half its 903 units have been rented since it opened in March.

"We were definitely aware of the emotional aspect of Lower Manhattan," said Susi Yu, Forest City senior vice president for commercial and residential. "We thought this neighborhood is really changing."

Apartments, all rentals, include a three-bedroom unit with a wraparound terrace and sweeping city views that goes for $21,000 a month. Penthouse apartments are expected to rent for about $50,000 a month or more.

There are 312 residential buildings with more than 28,121 units in Lower Manhattan, according to data from the Alliance for Downtown New York. Since the start of 2001, there have been 25 new residential buildings in various stages of construction.

But office-to-residential conversions comprise most of the residential development, with at least 93 buildings containing at least 10,368 apartments converted since the start of 2001. Three more buildings with at least 724 units are under conversion.

UDR, the Denver-based apartment owner, spent more than $585 million for two properties that once housed investment banks.

"Downtown probably in our view has the best potential upside in any particular neighborhood in all of Manhattan," UDR Chief Executive Thomas Toomey said. Ten years after the area was turned into a toxic graveyard, New Yorkers seem ready to share that sentiment.

(Additional reporting by Joan Gralla; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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