How lower Manhattan turned into a 24/7 community after 9/11 attacks

People walk near the sight of Ground Zero and the Freedom Tower on the day that the United States officially ended its participation in the war in Afghanistan on August 30, 2021 in New York City.

Spencer Platt | Getty Images

Jay Neveloff recalls sitting in his office on 55th Street and Third Avenue in New York City, the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, as he prepared for a meeting with real estate tycoon Sam Zell to negotiate a deal on a building in Chicago.

The commercial real estate attorney, now chairman of Kramer Levin’s real estate practice, remembers looking out the window shortly before 9 a.m. and seeing a plume of smoke coming out the side of one of the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center. A hijacked plane had rammed into the North Tower at 8:46 a.m. Seventeen minutes later, a second would smash into the South Tower.

The next several hours, the 70-year-old Neveloff recalls, were the most surreal experience of his life, as he scrambled to meet up with his wife and son. He joined the thousands of others running around Manhattan and the surrounding boroughs in search of loved ones. For the next few days, he said, it felt like not just New York City but the entire world had shut down. Nearly 3,000 people were killed that Tuesday.

The implications were sweeping, particularly for Neveloff’s industry.

Nearly 15 million square feet of office space was destroyed in the 9/11 attacks, according to commercial real estate brokerage CBRE. The ensuing chaos disrupted the more than 400,000 public and private employees who commuted into the area daily.

“It was barren,” Neveloff said. “They tried to convert a number of office buildings to residential, but even getting into the central district was barricaded for a while. They were giving away rent. They were just giving away the apartments.”

Many vowed they would never enter a skyscraper, let alone return to lower Manhattan. Some office tenants fled. Businesses closed up shop. But in the past two decades, those fears have diminished. The neighborhood has grown into a 24-7 community from what used to be a 9-to-5 financial hub. Downtown New York City is home to a bigger retail scene, a diverse mix of office tenants including Big Tech, and a residential population roughly double what it was in 2001.

While the Covid-19 pandemic has derailed some of downtown’s momentum, real estate executives say the neighborhood is resilient. They reflect on how the town rebounded post-9/11 to guide their work today. And the lessons can be applied to developments elsewhere, including midtown New York City, which is reeling today from the Covid health crisis.

“When 9/11 happened, I swore to myself I’d never go back downtown again. It was sort of the end,” said Saul Scherl, president of the New York tri-state region at the real estate developer Howard Hughes Corp. “Who would have imagined that I’d be going down there to redevelop and run the Seaport.”

Rescue workers sift through debris at the ground Zero of what remains of the World…

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