Lower Manhattan rebuilds again, until the next time

The storm approaches lower Manhattan. (Stefan Leijan via flickr)
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In the days immediately after Hurricane Sandy lashed lower Manhattan with high winds and a record storm surge, the neighborhood was like a ghost town.

Law firms and insurance companies, J.P. Morgan staffers and Daily News reporters, all relocated. A week after the storm, Citigroup, which has offices on Greenwich Street, told employees they could return to work but should dress warmly, since there was still no heat. At that point, a third of the neighborhood's 101 million square feet of office space, about eight percent of Manhattan's entire supply, remained off-line. Two weeks after the storm, commercial real-estate brokerage Jones Lang LaSalle reported that 37 major office buildings, or 20 percent of the supply south of Canal Street, was still out. 

In the decade following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, when lower Manhattan's viability as the city's global business center was very much in question, other, unrelated trends pushed the neighborhood into a renaissance. More people live there and a greater diversity of businesses are located there than before Sept. 11. Landlords, businesses and residents have more financial incentive than ever to invest in the neighborhood, even as the damage wrought by the hurricane has many climate experts predicting a future of devastating storms like Sandy.

When the storm made landfall just south of Atlantic City on the evening of Oct. 29, it pushed a record 13.88-foot storm surge over the southern tip of Manhattan, turning the Brooklyn-Battery tunnel into a 90 million-gallon holding tank, filling the World Trade Center site's basement levels with up to 30 feet of water.

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Water climbed to the ceiling of the South Ferry subway station, the end of the No. 1 line in lower Manhattan, and debris covered tracks in stations up and down other lines after the water rushed in and out.

M.T.A. chairman Joe Lhota said that seven subway tunnels between Manhattan and Brooklyn were flooded. The flooding in the tunnels in Lower Manhattan was so serious that the Federal Emergency Management Agency asked specialists from the Army Corps of Engineers to help. The “unwatering team,” as it is known — two hydrologists and two mechanical engineers from the corps with experience in draining flooded areas — flew to the airport in White Plains because it was one of the few in the area that was open.

The eastern part of lower Manhattan, where the FDR highway divides neighborhoods from the waterfront and Pier 17 juts into the East River, was particularly hard hit. The surge and ensuing rainfall flooded parking garages and coffee shops, clothing stores, and at least one doggie daycare (the Salty Paw, on nearby Peck Slip). Thousands of New Yorkers found themselves out of office and home.

When serious questions are asked about residential waterfront communities in New Jersey, Staten Island and the south shores of Long Island, lower Manhattan is rarely mentioned. And while the big landlords interviewed by Capital expressed interest in measures they or the city might take to protect the neighborhood from the next superstorm, in the meantime almost everyone seems to be rebuilding pretty much what was there before.

ON A RECENT AFTERNOON, SEVERAL WEEKS AFTER Hurricane Sandy, a storefront on a quiet stretch of Front Street near the South Street Seaport still looked like a disaster zone.

“This was a restaurant, here,” said Jordan Barowitz, aide to New York landlord Douglas Durst, who owns the Historic Front Street complex that until recently housed Stella Manhattan Bistro, the French, Argentinian and Asian fusion restaurant, as he swept a flashlight across the skeletal remains of the place. The floor where patrons once danced the tango had been torn up, the joists exposed. Wires dangled from the ceiling, and everywhere a damp smell lingered.

“We are all aiming to reopen,” Fernando Dallorso, the owner of that stripped-down Front Street restaurant, later told me.

By “we” Dallorso meant the neighborhood’s other small business owners, with whom he’s been meeting weekly.

Dallorso is holding fast despite enormous obstacles: the Dursts are not expected to return to him his restaurant (as an empty concrete box) for another four months, after which he will have to rebuild his restaurant, which he says will take up to six months.

He has yet to recover his initial investment in the eatery, and he's not sure how he's going to finance his reinvestment, either.

He acknowledges that, from a climate change perspective, all of this is a "gamble," "because this could happen any given day again, unfortunately.”

But he also predicted, “the area will come back with a boom.”

On a recent Monday evening, a cheery blue and white signboard sat at Water and Fulton streets, welcoming visitors down the cobblestone way toward Pier 17, which the sign said was indeed open.

That sign must have seemed necessary because the intervening streetscape still resembled an urban wasteland.

The stores lining the way, from Abercrombie and the Body Shop to the Superdry store, remained closed. Dumpsters intermingled with with generators and yellow police tape.

At Barberini Alimentari, a sign on a window crisscrossed with tape warned visitors that there was no floor inside the padlocked doors.

It was a neighborhood in shambles.

Durst, who owns much of Front Street, said it would be back in four months, and from a long-term perspective, he's not all that troubled by the prospect of rising sea levels, even with his property so vulnerable to them.

“Venice has survived,” he said.

A big piece of our particular world financial capital is controlled by Bill Rudin, scion of the Rudin real estate family and owner of three million square feet downtown, including 110 Wall Street, a 28-story office building a block from the East River whose electrical system, elevators and lobby got ravaged in the storm.

Rudin has since terminated all of his leases there.

"As we’re speaking now, we’re sending back security deposits and any payments that were made before the storm," he told me recently during a phone interview.

Rudin's not quite sure what he's going to do with the building. Maybe he'll convert it to residential. Maybe he'll raise up the lobby and install better flood protections. Or not.

He’s waiting to see what steps the city and state take before his engineers and he decide on the best solution to "sustain the new normal of climate change."

There is, however, one thing he is sure of—he's not giving up on Lower Manhattan.

"My family’s got a lot invested in this city, so we’ve got to make it right," he said.

Nor does he expect he'll have to.

"I'm confident we can figure it out," he said. "It may take some time. It will cost some money. We as a city and a society, if we believe in the power of New York City, we’ll figure it out."