Photo Credit: © NYC & COMPANY/ Julienne Schaer

New Yorkphoenix

September 12, 2016

NEW YORK — This week's marking of the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks holds a special resonance for New York.

During the earlier key milestones, the five- and 10-year anniversaries, lower Manhattan was in flux: One World Trade Center was still going up, the National September 11 Memorial & Museum had not yet opened and lower Manhattan was still very visibly healing.

This year, the anniversary of the attacks is happening in a part of the city that, quite improbably, is perhaps its most vibrant and fastest-growing neighborhood.

"In the days and months after 9/11 so many people thought downtown was over and that lower Manhattan could never recover from something like that," said Fred Dixon, CEO of NYC & Company, New York's destination marketing organization. "So it's a beautiful story of revitalization, and I think of confidence, in New York City."

The renaissance of lower Manhattan is even more unlikely, given subsequent challenges. The neighborhood had to overcome not only the 9/11 attacks but the financial meltdown in 2008, which disproportionately impacted the area's restaurants and hotels when banks closed and business travel dried up.

Then, in 2012, Superstorm Sandy hit the area harder than any other in Manhattan, closing the Statue of Liberty for nine months, destroying many of the businesses in the South Street Seaport area and shuttering some hotels and restaurants for weeks.

Now, 15 years after 9/11 and four years post Sandy, lower Manhattan is resurgent. By the end of 2016, the area will have two-and-a-half times the number of hotel rooms it had before 9/11: an additional 5,230 rooms in 27 hotels.

It is also the site of some of the most anticipated new luxury hotels in the city this year: The Four Seasons Downtown will start accepting reservations on Sept. 26, and Thompson Hotels' Beekman is already in its soft opening.

Marriott is betting big on the area's appeal to young travelers with plans to open both an AC, its lifestyle brand, here in 2017, and a Moxy, its millennial-targeted brand, in 2018.

These hotels have followed the tourists. Lower Manhattan drew a record 14.2 million unique visitors in 2015, up from just 4 million in 2002.


A residential renaissance

As with most urban tourism success stories, that number has increased in tandem with residential growth. For decades, lower Manhattan was mostly known for being the Financial District, a place where, in most cases, people worked during the day and left afterward.

But since 9/11, the residential population of lower Manhattan has almost tripled, to 62,000, compared with 22,900 residents in September 2001. Both luring and catering to them are 17,530 housing units that have been built over the last 15 years.

"There are more people living downtown than ever before," Dixon said. "It makes it great for visitors, too. People want to be where it's vibrant. Fifteen years after this tragic event we are celebrating the reinvention of a neighborhood. It's not just a business community, it's now truly a neighborhood."

Andrew Breslau, senior vice president for the Downtown Alliance, a lower Manhattan business-advocacy group, said there is a very diagnosable reason why all of this has happened: $30 billion in public and private investment in lower Manhattan alone since 2001.

"Outside of Shanghai and Dubai, that hasn't happened anywhere," Breslau said.

The investment has led to the opening of iconic attractions such as the Sept. 11 Memorial and One World Trade Center's 103rd floor observatory. It has also produced two major shopping centers, Brookfield Place and the Westfield World Trade Center, which opened last month. More than 1,200 stores and restaurants have opened in the area since 2001.

East of the World Trade Center site, the Seaport is engaged in its own renaissance. The old Pier 17 shopping mall, long maligned by locals, was closed and demolished in 2013. It is currently being rebuilt as a modern retail and entertainment center featuring an open-air rooftop event space with views of lower Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge.

The adjacent, historic Tin Building is expected to open as a fresh-food market in 2018 with a Jean-Georges Vongerichten seafood restaurant, while the renovated Fulton Fish Market will become home to the city's first iPic movie theater, which combines film and fine dining. The nearby streets have small boutiques selling wares made by local artists and designers.

In Battery Park, which as the launching area for sailings to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island has always been a popular destination, the $16 million SeaGlass Carousel opened last year, a tribute to the New York Aquarium, which had been located in Battery Park from 1896 until 1941. The ride has proven popular with both locals and visitors.

What's more, Breslau said, in some locations, "what's old is new again." Thanks to the popularity of the Broadway show "Hamilton," Alexander Hamilton's grave in the Trinity Church Cemetery has become a hot-spot destination.

New corporate tenants are also playing a role in the area's transformation. When the media giant Conde Nast, which publishes titles such as Vogue, Vanity Fair and Conde Nast Traveler, moved from Times Square to One World Trade Center, it introduced a creative class to the area, Breslau said.

"You can't underestimate the contribution of Conde Nast," he said. "They made this their neighborhood."

What followed were what Breslau calls "a new generation of [technology, advertising, media and information] companies."

"It's not just the Financial District by any means," Robert Rechtermann, the general manager of the Conrad, said. "It's a much more dynamic area."

Boom time for hospitality

The hotel development pipeline provides a good metric of the lower Manhattan revival. In 2001, the area had five hotels and 1,493 hotel rooms. By the end of this year, the neighborhood will have 32 hotels and 6,719 rooms.

Four Seasons inspired by lower Manhattan's rebirth

This month, the Robert A.M. Stern-designed, 189-room Four Seasons Hotel New York Downtown opens in the shadow of One World Trade Center. The brand's second New York hotel, it joins its midtown location. Travel Weekly news editor Johanna Jainchill spoke with Peter Humig, the hotel's general manager, about the much-anticipated opening. Read More



When the Ritz-Carlton Battery Park opened in 2002, delayed several months because of the 9/11 attacks, there were no other luxury properties in the area, an isolation that lingered until upscale brands Andaz and W opened in 2010 and Hilton's Conrad opened in 2012. Opening this month are both the Four Seasons Downtown and the Beekman.

Greg Mendoza, the Ritz-Carlton Battery Park general manager, said he welcomed the competition.

Being the only luxe product on the block for so long, he said, "For years ... we needed to charge $600 to be competitive with the rates around us. The Beekman and the Four Seasons will help the market and help us."

But as the hotel growth indicates, the story of lower Manhattan's renaissance has not happened gradually since 2001. There was a steady pace, but the real acceleration happened during the last five years, as One World Trade Center began to take shape and the Sept. 11 Memorial became a reality.

As a result, tourism numbers are up 48% since 2013. Except for a slight dip after Sandy, "the underlying tourism trend has been steeply positive," Breslau said. "It was steadily growing, but once people could taste, touch and smell the World Trade Center campus healing and being a real place again, then it accelerated."  

Michael Frazier, communications director for the Sept. 11 Memorial, recalled that when the complex opened in 2011, with the World Trade Center rising around it, it became the catalyst for a new way of thinking about the area.

"When the memorial and museum opened, it took away those images you are familiar with — that we should remember — but it showed us how we can look at our past and move forward," Frazier said. "The memorial was beautiful. It drew people to the site to see it in a different view and understand that it was at the center of re-stitching this neighborhood back together."

Mendoza said that much of the hotel development was timed to when people thought One World Trade Center would open. But that took longer than developers had anticipated, meaning some properties opened before the area was ready for them.

One World Trade Center, which opened in November 2014, with the September 11 Memorial in front of it.
One World Trade Center, which opened in November 2014, with the September 11 Memorial in front of it. Photo Credit: Johanna Jainchill

"The supply came sooner than the demand," Mendoza said. "Now, with all the restaurants and shopping malls and the World Trade Center facilities opening up, the demand is increasing, and it will match the supply."

Rechtermann said that even five years ago, when he moved to the Conrad from his post at a midtown hotel, "the joke was that we didn't even know where to go for lunch."

"There were so few options down here," he said. "There was very little street traffic. ... There has just been tremendous change in the last five years I've been down here."

Now, he said, with the Brookfield Place and Westfield shopping centers open, the foot traffic in the area is "just tremendous."

"Now, it's a thriving neighborhood with residents and business and restaurants and shopping," he said.

The Conrad's occupancy rate is just under 90%, and demand is increasing with more weekend business than ever.

As a result, he said, there has been "a general increase in interest from hotel companies and travelers. There are only so many hotels you can put in midtown. Down here, there is a sense of space. I think people like that. You're not in Times Square, and you can have some space in a great hotel and still walk around and have great restaurants and shopping and views of the river and all those things."

For Mendoza and everyone else at the Ritz-Carlton, the resurgence has been a long time coming.

"It's booming, and it's good for us," he said. "To be the only place in the area was difficult for our guests. They didn't have places to go. They wanted to go to restaurants, and they were far away. Now we have a lot of restaurants in the area in walking distance. ... We are so happy. We've been waiting for this for a long time."

A marketing windfall

All the added hotel product and upgraded amenities make selling downtown much easier. But for some travelers there is still a learning curve.

The Beekman is part of Signature Travel Network's hotel sales and marketing program known as First, designed to drive sales and generate awareness before the opening of select properties.

"So many people need to be educated about lower Manhattan," said Ignacio Maza, Signature Travel Network's executive vice president.

Eataly NYC Downtown, in 4 World Trade Center, opened last month.
Eataly NYC Downtown, in 4 World Trade Center, opened last month. Photo Credit: Johanna Jainchill

Maza said that at Signature's sales meeting with more than 1,300 of the consortium's travel consultants, he did destination seminar presentations about the area, "to educate the consultants to take another look at lower Manhattan and all that there is to see and do in lower Manhattan."

Maza said that in promoting the hotel, Signature particularly recommends the property and the area to repeat New York clients.

"Lower Manhattan is such an interesting part of the city," Maza said. "It's where New York began and where you still have the influence of the Dutch and the British settlers. Many travelers thinking of New York immediately think about Rockefeller Center, Broadway, midtown, Central Park, etc., which is fine. But lower Manhattan deserves attention and several days to explore and experience all the things there are to see and do."

One of the things that draws both visitors and locals to the area is the surge in destination restaurants. Wolfgang Puck's first New York outpost, Cut, is opening at the Four Seasons. Both celebrity chef Tom Colicchio and famed restaurateur Keith McNally are opening restaurants in the Beekman this month, and Mario Batali's Eataly just opened its first outpost in the World Trade Center's Westfield shopping mall.

When one of the Food Network's Iron Chefs, Jose Garces, introduced his first New York restaurant, Amada, serving up tapas and paella, it was at Brookfield Place, with Garces calling lower Manhattan "one of New York's most exciting and rapidly evolving dining destinations."

Among these restaurateurs and hoteliers, the shared sentiment is one of being on the ground floor.

"The rest of the world thinks New York revolves around Times Square," said the Conrad's Rechtermann. "There is so much more to the city and so much of it is happening down here.

"It's just a matter of time before the rest of the world figures that out and understands what's going on down here. We're just excited about the potential for the future."