The Ever Changing New York City: From 9/11 to COVID-19, the Path Forward

The Post 9/11 and COVID-19 New York City and Our Path Forward 

Last year, in the throes of the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, we sent out an email commemorating September 11th while highlighting our city’s resiliency. We wrote, “September 11th is a day we should never forget. It’s a day that represents New York City’s resilience, toughness, and core values…[New Yorkers] overcome obstacles, rebound in the face of adversity, believe in ourselves and our neighbors, and know there is no place we would rather be than in New York City.” In some ways, it is hard for us to believe that it has been twenty years since the attack on 9/11. The emotions are still raw. It is hard for us to comprehend something like that happening, let alone experiencing it 20 years ago. We still cross 6th Avenue looking South and expect to see the Twin Towers. But in those twenty years, so much of what we do, from our daily routine to our commercial real estate business, has been impacted by the events on September 11th. 

It’s hard not to see the similarities between 9/11 and COVID-19’s impact on New York City. They both shut down the city and caused loss of life, though for different lengths of time and at differing magnitudes; the two will forever be linked as unforeseen challenges we faced and overcame. New Yorkers adapt, and there is so much we can learn from how we changed our behaviors post-9/11 that shows us the path forward in a post-COVID-19 world (whenever that comes). We wanted to discuss how we changed post 9/11 to address the threat of terrorism, similar to how we are currently adapting to the threat of pandemics. 

The 15-minute city 

The 15-minute city is a residential urban concept — popularized by Parisian mayor Anne Hidalgo. All city residents can meet most of their needs within a short walk or bicycle ride from their homes. In other words, every community is complete and walkable. A decade after September 11th, and with significant efforts made to revitalize the Downtown area for commercial and residential residents, The New York Times reported that “The residential population has doubled. Two skyscrapers — 1 and 4 World Trade Center — are rising at ground zero, due to open in 2013. The next year, the exuberant PATH transit hub is scheduled to come online. The national memorial is open; two streets have been built. A far more diverse array of businesses call downtown home today, including a large cluster of media companies, law firms, and nonprofit organizations. And just last week, both the northbound and southbound platforms of the Cortlandt Street subway station were open.” Five years later, The Durango Herald reported, “The revitalization of the city’s downtown, powered by $30 billion in government and private investment, includes not just the reconstruction of the World Trade Center site, but also two new malls filled with upscale retailers, thousands of new hotel rooms and dozens of eateries ranging from a new Eataly to a French food hall, Le District.” 

The success of rebuilding Downtown New York City rested on the concept of creating a 15-minute city Downtown before the phrase was popularized. If you want to bring businesses back downtown, you must create a place for their talent and the workforce, which means creating spaces for them to eat, drink, hang out, work out, shop, get dry cleaning, and doggy daycare, among other things. And as important as ease of living is, so is the ease of leaving – they need easy and seamless ways to exit the neighborhood if and when they want to. The population of downtown NYC and the number of housing units available more than doubled within the first 15 years (77% of the population is under 45). New York repurposed the same concept by building the Hudson Yards neighborhood and recreated New York waterfronts such as the South Street Seaport, Dumbo, and Brooklyn Heights. Most recently, many democratic mayoral candidates adapted 15-minute city strategies to their revitalization plans for a post-COVID-19 New York. 

As COVID-19 impacted New York City, the importance of cutting down our commute time became more apparent to all. The more time we spend commuting, the less time we spend at work, at home, or elsewhere. Nearly two years ago, we wrote about why many tech businesses chose to move their headquarters to Hudson Yards. We claimed, thanks to data, it is because of its proximity to Penn Station. A long commute correlates to increased stress, psychosomatic disorders, and sleep deprivation. Socially speaking, commuting takes up time that could be spent with your family, focusing on your health and wellness, getting a few more minutes of sleep, or watching Netflix. In that post, we wrote, “The closer you are to public transportation, especially a massive train station like Penn Station, the easier a commute for all your employees. Employees can grow with companies. The shorter the commute, the less stressed employees will be. Ergo, the closer your office is to a transportation hub, the more productive your company will be.”

Outdoor and Open-Air Spaces

One key piece of Downtown revitalization (a 15-minute city) as a residential and commercial location was (and is) the focus on outdoor spaces. That includes open-air seating plazas to roof decks for residents to take in spectacular sweeping views of the city to landlords focusing on outdoor space to draw desirable commercial tenants below Chambers Street. Construction on the first residential building in Battery Park City began in 1980, seven years after the World Trade Center opened. Building continued throughout the 80s and 90s, ushering in more and more people to live and play closer to where they worked. Following 9/11, Amanda Burden, who previously worked on Battery Park City, became the City Planning Department Director in the Bloomberg administration. Burden led the effort to increase the building and revitalization of lower Manhattan, which included Brookfield Place (initially built in the 80s and repurposed in 2013), The Oculus (completed in 2016), the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, the newly renovated South Street Seaport, and the further expansion of Hudson River Park and John V. Lindsay East River Park. As a result, residents of downtown Manhattan began taking pride in their neighborhood because the city invested in their community. 

Similarly, we see New York City making investments in communities across the five boroughs as we go through the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes expanding our bike lanes, opening streets to pedestrians and restaurants, increasing our parks footprint, and striving to create 15-minute-cities throughout New York City. Because of COVID-19, New Yorkers today are more aware of the need for living space outside their apartments, where they can congregate with friends or chill alone reading a book without the fear of contracting a pathogen. Most people living in New York City are here not for their tiny apartments but for all the city offers. More outdoor and open spaces will lead to a more vibrant and healthier city. 

Approachable and Updated Office Space 

We get this question a lot: where are the best deals on office space in New York City? Like NYC apartments, many decision-makers here face the delicate balance of finding suitable space at the right price. The Financial District is a mix of old buildings that are being gut renovated and transformed into spaces that today’s tenants will take and new construction buildings. The pinnacle of these buildings is the World Trade Centers. Of course, like any neighborhood, there’s mixed pricing — a top-floor space in One World Trade won’t go for the same price as an older, charming New York City building (unless it’s a sublease) — but we’re always telling clients that Downtown Manhattan reflects the best value and most bang for your buck when it comes to marrying the suitable space with the right price. 

Even with a revitalized Downtown, it’s been a challenge for Downtown landlords to lure the techies and the creatives away from Midtown South, but they’ve had success in recent years. One World Trade is home to famous tenants like Conde Nast and Moody’s. 3 World Trade is home to Uber and Spotify. Buildings such as 26 Broadway and 30 Broad St. in the Financial District attract tenants with features like private outdoor space and rooftop spaces with bars and restaurants and offer tenants favorable pricing and concessions. 

Beyond their bottom line, one of the most significant factors for clients deciding between NYC neighborhoods is transportation. For example, the Financial District has links to every subway in the city, from the Fulton St, World Trade, and Wall Street stops to easy access to the PATH train and ferry. Similarly, we see that the neighborhoods with the most significant investment in public transportation will not only rebound but will grow in our Post-COVID world. 

Safety and Compliance 

Buildings throughout New York City had to quickly re-evaluate their fire and emergency safety following the events of September 11th. Many businesses occupied floors of high rises, and therefore, they needed to work with landlords and the FDNY to educate employees on proper safety protocols. Other companies were either in or adjacent to critical landmarks seen by many as potential targets, such as Grand Central Station and Times Square. What followed were a series of new building compliance rules that landlords needed to adapt to, and businesses were expected to get their employees to comply quickly. Additionally, landlords and businesses need to coordinate with the city, state, and sometimes federal officials to secure the perimeters of their buildings. New communication technologies that were invented in the years that followed made that coordination easier. Likewise, COVID-19 presented new safety protocols that landlords and businesses needed to adapt to, such as social distancing and a workforce primarily working from home. 

A City that is Always Changing 

We often hear people complain that New York City is changing as if that is a bad thing. The truth is New York City is constantly changing. Change is the most consistent thing about New York City. The city changes to meet its people’s needs. What we need tomorrow will be very different from what we required ten or twenty years ago. Change isn’t a bad thing. Don’t we want more parks, a faster and more seamless public transportation system, safe and healthy neighborhoods? In the wake of September 11th, our city changed, and we responded to the change by changing it some more, by improving our city. We build back stronger and better. We learned from things that weren’t working and ensured the new stuff we built would work better for our future. The same applies to COVID-19. We will build to protect ourselves in the future. We will continue to change and evolve to meet the demands of the future. New York City isn’t going anywhere. It will keep changing for the better.