Four years ago, Debbie Strickler and her husband, Tim Shaw, were looking for more space for their son. They were committed to staying in the city, but couldn't afford a larger apartment in the West Village. Instead, they found an 1,100-square-foot apartment on Nassau Street in the financial district. It was in mint condition, with 13-foot ceilings and 9-foot windows, and in a building that retained the charm of its century-old construction.
"Lower Manhattan was a good opportunity even before 9/11," Ms. Strickler said. "I didn't think we could lose money. If we hated it, we would just leave. But from the minute we moved in, it was clear this was the best idea. It was our first really good investment."
Similarly, despite warnings from their families, Lydia and John Sussek bought their apartment on Liberty Street in the wake of the terrorist attacks and have seen its value rise. "We felt like post-9/11 pioneers taking a chance, and we were shocked that our place has more than doubled since we moved in," Mrs. Sussek said.
Developers are trying to attract families like the Stricklers and the Susseks to new buildings and commercial-to-residential conversions in Lower Manhattan. Financial district apartments can still be found for $900 a square foot, versus $1,300 a square foot uptown and in the West Village. A search of Corcoran and Prudential Douglas Elliman Web sites indicates that two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartments in Lower Manhattan commonly sell for $1 million to $2 million less than in other family-friendly neighborhoods.
"9/11 funding gave us a slate to redo the neighborhood infrastructure, and Liberty Bonds helped create housing at a very attractive rate," the senior director at the Wall Street office of Cushman & Wakefield, Richard Kennedy, said. "So now we have a fairly large inventory of apartments with many amenities." Mr. Kennedy, who lives on Hanover Square, said that a booming Battery Park City, luxury developments like the Cipriani Club Residences, and proposed designs by celebrity architects Frank Gehry and Santiago Calatrava are helping to revitalize the area.
Demand for larger spaces is high as more families raise children in the city. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the number of children under age 5 in Manhattan grew more than 26% between 2000 and 2004. But many still wonder whether parents will move to an emerging neighborhood, especially one that has a salient reminder of a national tragedy, instead of congregating in established family-friendly spots like the Upper East and Upper West Sides.
Many parents and community advocates believe the answer is yes and predict a neighborhood evolution like the one in TriBeCa over the past 10 years. "The TriBeCa public schools are overflowing, and we're going to see the same thing happen in the financial district," a downtown expert at the Parents League of New York, Zelda Warner, said. The president of the Alliance for Downtown New York, Eric Deutsch, agreed. "In a lot of pioneering neighborhoods, residents come before the facilities. But here, the facilities are being built quickly, and people have the ability to walk to work," he said, adding that 30% of Lower Manhattan residents commute on foot.
Lower Manhattan is now the fastest-growing residential neighborhood in the five boroughs. According to Mr. Deutsch, the area south of Chambers Street from river to river now has a residential population of about 35,000, up from 10,000 in 1990, and he anticipates 40,000 will be living in the area by 2007. More than 20,000 residential units exist, more than 3,800 are under construction, and another 4,000 have been proposed for the near future.The number of students attending downtown primary and secondary schools has grown to about 9,000, a 14% increase from two years ago. "The effects of 9/11 were only temporary," Mr. Deutsch said.
Downtown families cite full-service buildings, local schools, parks, proximity to the waterfront, and transportation as Lower Manhattan's main attractions. Mrs. Sussek said that about 35 of the 80 apartments in her co-op are owned by families with young children. "We have our own community in our building. The kids all play together here or in playrooms in the newer buildings," she said, referring to recent developments, many of which also feature gyms, parking, and screening rooms. As a result, older buildings like the Stricklers' are undergoing renovations to compete.
Lower Manhattan boasts a number of amenities, including access to all major subway lines. Local green spaces include Washington Market Park,Robert F. Wagner Jr. Park, and Rockefeller Park. Residents eagerly await the completion of the Battery, the largest public open space downtown, which, once finished, will house 70 square feet of perennial gardens, an aquatic-themed carousel, food kiosks, and a bike loop. "Compared to the rest of Manhattan, it's like living in Nantucket down here," the founder and president of the Battery Conservancy, Warrie Price, said.
Yet conveniences like grocery stores and retail have been slower to appear. And if TriBeCa's progress is any indication, it may be some time before the financial district becomes a 24/7 community. Another mother, Karen Hershey, moved to TriBeCa 13 years ago for the same reasons the Stricklers and Susseks are now attracted to the financial district. Over time, families have overtaken artists, but Ms. Hershey still laments the lack of key anchors. "The supermarkets are terrible. There's no place to get a really good tomato, and I always used to complain that there's no place to get pantyhose."
Some families appear willing to forgo services for the area's superior deals, and many say their needs are being met. Lydia Sussek swears by the fish monger and butcher at Jubilee Marketplace on John Street and insists that financial district supermarkets are better than TriBeCa's. Stone Street is now home to a pedestrian plaza of family-friendly restaurants with outdoor seating. Whole Foods has leased a space on Warren Street, and Hermes and Sephora will become area fixtures later this year.
The stroller set also finds the lack of pretension at local preschools a plus. In contrast to the rigorous application and interview process common uptown, many preschools in TriBeCa and the financial district are first-come, firstserved or lottery-based. Mrs. Sussek, whose 3-year-old son attends the Park Preschool, said, "I have not met one family there who I didn't want to be around. It's not just investment bankers and lawyers, but artists, too. There's a different, more relaxed mentality of the downtown parent." Many of her neighbors favor the Downtown Little School, Trinity Parish Preschool, and the Washington Market School.
Recently, residents have made less distinction between TriBeCa and the financial district; for them, the neighborhoods have become more closely intertwined, with families shopping at the same toy stores and sharing facilities like music classes and toddler gyms, all within walking distance. Children from both areas congregate at Manhattan Youth, an after-school and summer program hosted by P.S. 234, P.S./I.S. 89, and P.S. 150, where activities include theater, karate, and swimming lessons in a private Battery Park City pool.
Until new public schools are built to accommodate the area's growing number of children, the financial district is currently zoned for TriBeCa's P.S. 234, one of the city's most highly acclaimed public elementary schools. Last year, the Stricklers moved their 6-year-old son to P.S. 234 from Grace Church School in the Village. "I was paying $25,000 a year and didn't have to. The public school system here is a little gem," Ms. Strickler said.
Yet parents worry that with an average class size of 27, P.S. 234 is becoming overcrowded. Claremont Preparatory School, which is owned by MetSchools, opened on Broad Street in September and hopes to attract new residents. It is the first new private school for students in kindergarten through 12th grade to appear downtown in more than 50 years.
The Stricklers and Susseks say they've found the best neighborhood for their children. "I enjoyed living in the West Village, but our life is so much richer down here," Ms. Strickler said. "It has really become this vibrant place, and now that there's so much development, I feel like I'm going to mourn our quiet place."