Over the last decade, Church Street was little more than a place to pass through, a means for tourists to reach the World Trade Center site or the Circle Line terminal in Battery Park.
At lunchtime, office workers crowded the street’s delis and hole-in-the wall Indian restaurants before hurrying back to One Liberty Plaza and other nearby towers, or headed to the PATH station near Vesey Street each evening. And for shoppers, the thoroughfare was long embodied by a single retailer: Century 21.
Unlike the boutiques lining Fifth and Madison Avenue, the department store wasn’t defined by its Church Street address (officially, it’s at 22 Cortlandt Street, but much of its prominent frontage is on Church, which becomes Trinity Place and later Greenwich Street further south).
What counted was the shop’s location across from the twin towers, and later the cranes and concrete trucks stationed at Ground Zero.
Now that the 9/11 Memorial is poised to open, the thoroughfare is shaping into a retail and tourism destination in its own right. The renaissance began with the rehabilitation of office buildings in the neighborhood, and the construction of glass and steel luxury towers near Ground Zero.
Several years ago, Ariel Schuster, a senior vice president at RKF, helped fill up storefronts at the base of 110 Church Street, a 500-unit rental conversion developed by World-Wide Group. The building, which was being combined with neighboring 50 Murray on 9/11, was hit by airplane parts during the attack.
Starbucks moved in, as did Equinox Fitness and AT&T. An empty retail space at 120 Church Street, next door to Starbucks, is being marketed by Laurence Roberts of Arch Realty.
The shops, along with nearby Whole Foods and Amish Market, “will provide much needed services for this fast growing residential neighborhood,” said Schuster’s league, Brett Weinblatt.
Now, RKF is finishing up a leasing campaign at 100 Church, an SL Green building between Barclay and Park Place.
“Retail was vacant for a long time,” Schuster said. So, too, were the offices upstairs; in 2006 over 500,000 s/f sat empty at the 53-year-old tower. Merrill Lynch, once a major tenant, moved out right after the twin towers fell, and the Bank of New York sold back some of its space to the landlord at the time, Tamir Sapir of Zar Realty.
Finally, companies like Health First and CCA Construction Consulting signed on, and new shops didn’t take long to follow. Earlier this summer, RKF helped arrange leases for Aroma Espresso Bar, Pret A Manger, and the Anne Frank Center, a somewhat more unusual offering in a corridor dominated by coffee shops and lunch spots.
The nonprofit, which provides workshops and exhibits about the Holocaust, was represented by Suzanne Sunshine, of Sunshine and Associates.
“We are currently marketing three additional retail spaces at the building including a 14,339 s/f mezzanine space with an entrance on Park Place and a 1,764 s/f ground-floor space on Park Place, which are both currently available, as well as a 3,000 s/f ground-floor retail space at 75 Barclay Street available in April 2012,” said Schuster.
Further down the block, Brooks Brothers operates a shop at 95 Trinity Place, next door to Century 21 and Sephora.
But Church isn’t destined to become the next Wall Street, with outposts of Tiffany’s and Hermes. “I don’t think it’s going to be luxury,” said Schuster. “I think it’ll be aspirational.”
A mix of visitors, ranging from middle class vacationers to high-powered business travelers, is expected to descend on the new World Trade Center site.
According to the Downtown Alliance, which helped promote the Financial District in the wake of the terrorist attack, tourism is expected to climb in upcoming years.
“Lower Manhattan will surpass previous visitation levels with the opening of the National September 11 Memorial on September 12, 2011, which expects at least three to four million visitors in the first year of operation,” the Alliance reported in an overview of Lower Manhattan since the towers fell. “In 2010, tourism hit an all time high, with 48.8 million total visitors.”
Over half were in the neighborhood for business. The rest had travelled there for leisure or a combination of the two.
On a Tuesday afternoon, three weeks before the memorial was slated to open, a group of tourists sat on a bench outside the Millennium Hilton. Theirs was one of several hotels overlooking the World Trade Center site, including the recently opened W Downtown on Washington Street, with its popular dining spot, the BLT Bar and Grill.
Some studied guide books and pamphlets about the memorial handed out by a canvasser. Others watched concrete trucks roll down Church Street.
Inevitably, cameras were whipped out. But capturing the construction activity was tough from where they sat, given the throngs of visitors streaming non-stop down Church Street, aiming iphones and digital cameras of their own at the site.
If the crowd matched the profile of the average Lower Manhattan hotel guest — business travelers earning $240,000 a year, according to the Downtown Alliance, and leisure travelers $165,000 — Century 21 and other neighborhood retailers were in luck that day.
Indeed, the department store chain is expanding, adding 76,000 s/f next door. Its discounted designer clothing is popular with New Yorkers and out-of-towners alike. “Upper East Side women go down there,” Schuster said.
Other retailers, including H&M, are only eyeing the western portion of lower Manhattan. Though eager to capitalize on the projected surge in traffic, many are waiting to see what happens at the new towers before securing space in surrounding blocks.
Tony Lifrieri of Silverstein Properties, for one, is optimistic. “The rebuilding is going great,” he said. Barbara Champoux, a lawyer at Crowell & Moring, has high hopes for the site’s retail component as well, despite all the uncertainty that has surrounded the project over the last 10 years. “I think it very much can become a shopping destination,” she said.
Storefronts at the four new towers are highly coveted, and the adjacent PATH station, which is expecting 250,000 pedestrians to pass through each day, boasts 200,000 s/f of prime retail space.
According to the Port Authority, the site as a whole will offer 500,000 s/f of shops and restaurants, including some with prominent street-level frontage, and will target a consumer base that earns triple the New York City average.
“The retail of the former World Trade Center was extremely successful,” said Schuster. “[Retailers] all want to make sure they don’t miss out.”
Each retail corridor in the Financial District, he added, functions much like an island. “People don’t necessarily cross-shop,” Schuster explained.
Broadway, one of the hottest retail corridors in the area at the moment, according to Schuster, serves as a boundary of sorts between the ultra-luxurious blocks to the east, and the emerging shopping destination to the west. For shops that don’t make it into the World Trade Center site, or are still hesitant to commit to Church Street, it may prove an appealing alternative.
In the Financial District as a whole, retail rents have risen by nearly 67% over the last decade, the Downtown Alliance reported, with the average storefront leasing for $100 per s/f.
Smaller attractions just outside Ground Zero, including public art displays, are helping spread tourists through Lower Manhattan, and have transformed the neighborhood into a welcoming place for apartment hunters and shoppers from elsewhere in the city.
While Millennium Hilton guests observed construction at Ground Zero that sunny Tuesday last month, another group of tourists had made their way further north, snapping photos of an art exhibit introduced by the Downtown Alliance’s Re:Construction program.
The mural, which depicts pedestrian crosswalk signs from around the world, hangs on a construction fence outside 99 Church Street, an 80-story hotel and residential tower being built by Silverstein Properties. When completed, the tower will help accommodate the area’s boom in visitors.
But tourism aside, lower Manhattan’s retail scene is being shaped by the tenants signing on to the new Trade Center. “The fact that Conde Naste is moving to One World Trade is the biggest thing,” said Schuster, of RKF. “It gives more credibility; it shows more creative people are down there.”