Out of the Ashes

The air up there: Marilyn Cangiano and her son on their terrace at South End Avenue.Photo: Mark Jenkinson

Two years ago, after raising two kids on 74th street and West End Avenue, Rona Smith and her husband rented a two-bedroom at the northern tip of Battery Park City. Now they are not sure whether to move again. “We have so much of that gray dust all the time,” says Smith. “This was the least dusty apartment ever. All of our windows face the river.

Suddenly, every day you can see dust on top of the TV, the headboard. But it’s a hard decision for us. We know why we moved downtown. We know we don’t want to move back uptown. I don’t think there’s another neighborhood that appeals to us more.”

The outlook for Battery Park City had never looked better than on September 10. Rockrose had just finished leasing the last of 324 units in 22 River Terrace, its second well-appointed rental near Chambers Street. On the north end, the first of three so-called “green” buildings was taking shape. The tony Ritz-Carlton Hotel and Residences was about to open across from the Museum of Jewish Heritage’s pagoda. Of its 113 apartments, which range from $680,000 one-bedrooms to $6,350,000 penthouses, 77 sold even before the Viking stoves were installed. Residents likened its arrival, complete with limo-friendly ramps and a fourteenth-floor bar-restaurant overlooking the water, to Central Park South getting the Plaza.

The next day, 6,000 of the neighborhood’s 9,000 residents fled for their lives. And the urban-renewal success story seemed doomed. “Initially, you grieve for the loss of lives, then you grieve for the people who were related to those people, but now I have a tremendous amount of grief about my neighborhood,” says Marti Ann Cohen-Wolf, a member of the Battery Park City Community Board and a twenty-year resident of Gateway Plaza, the apartment complex closest to ground zero, which had plane parts lodged in one of its buildings. “There are fourteen apartments on my floor,” she says. “Only six of them are occupied.” At the moment, 70 percent of the neighborhood’s 6,400 units are occupied, which leaves almost 2,000 available apartments.

Almost six months into the recovery process, the return to normalcy has been quicker than even the most optimistic neighborhood booster ever expected. The Battery Park City Authority has already resurfaced the basketball courts in Rockefeller Park. The baseball and soccer fields are next. Teardrop Park, the one-and-a-half-acre green space in front of 22 River Terrace, which has been colonized by Verizon trucks for the past five months, will be landscaped in April. The Irish Hunger Memorial will be completed in July. A free shuttle bus that runs from the north end to the south end will keep carrying passengers for as long as necessary.

As a result, not only has there not been panic selling, says Stribling’s Catherine Douthett, a ten-year resident of the neighborhood who has been selling there for five years, but “in a weird way, what happened put Battery Park City on the map.”

“Even people in Europe have heard of Battery Park City now,” concurs Marilyn Cangiano, who was traveling in Italy with her husband and 1-year-old son on September 11. In August, the Cangianos had made the tough decision to buy a house on Staten Island after seven and a half years in the neighborhood and sell their two-bedroom penthouse on South End Avenue. After the tragedy, the buyer on their apartment pulled out, and it was slow going in the fall. “But I’ve seen a difference in the last two weeks,” she notes. “People are legitimately looking.”

“My brokers have gotten several requests to go down there,” says Ruth McCoy from Brown Harris Stevens. “I ask why, and they say, ‘People want views of the river, they like the feeling down there.’ They’re looking at half-a-million-dollar, three-quarters-of-a-million-dollar properties. You get some people who think they’re going to get a deal. It may be a little cheaper, but it’s not drastically cheaper. When brokers try to find things, they are all in contract.”The rental market is another story. Open houses are now filled with twentysomethings looking for bargains and families reconsidering whether they need to move to Pelham just yet. “In our building, the average age has gone down from 35 to 21,” says Patricia Falvo, who lives in 22 River Terrace with her husband and new baby. “They’re taking three-bedrooms, putting up a wall to make a fourth. In the laundry room the other day, this sorority girl rolled her eyes at me because I filled four washing machines with baby clothes and there were none for her. I feel like an old coot.”

Much-publicized financial incentives are also having the desired effect. “There’s been stimulus,” says Timothy Carey, president of the Battery Park City Authority, referring to the $15.6 million available for pre-September 11 residents and those who move to the area before July. The grants will break down to approximately $1,850 apiece for tenants. On top of that, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation recently announced that residents, both old and new, below Chambers Street and west of Broadway would be eligible for up to $12,000 if they make a two-year commitment to the neighborhood.

And yet a great many vacancies remain, as banners hanging down the sides of buildings throughout the complex announce. Landlords have lowered rents by as much as 20 to 25 percent. “I know a girl who was paying $1,600 a month for a very small place in Hoboken,” says Michael Brescia, who owns a two-bedroom on Rector Place. “And now for $1,650 she has a place twice as big on a two-year lease, with one month free each year. Another couple I know, both lawyers, have two kids, and they’re staying. They renegotiated their leases and for a little increase in rent got the apartment next door and knocked down the wall.”

Brescia, a pulmonary critical-care doctor with a practice in New Jersey, has lived in the area for five years and is intent on staying put, even though what drew him here in the first place was the fifteen-minute commute. Until West Street reopens, he has to rise 40 minutes earlier to drive up the FDR to Houston Street, then across to Varick Street and the Holland Tunnel. “People think I’m crazy,” he admits. “But it’s important for the city and the country to make sure this area comes back. It may be beautiful. We may all find ourselves living next to the Jefferson Memorial. It may be magnificent.”

Jeff Shapiro’s move into the tony Ritz-Carlton was in the works long before September 11. Unlike many of his friends who moved to the neighborhood when they became parents, he has lived in Battery Park for seven years and on its outskirts for twenty. He met his wife here – she lived in Liberty Terrace when he lived on Nassau Street. Their first date was at Florent, in the meatpacking district, “because there was no place around here to eat,” he notes. Since September 11, he has seen many of his friends head for Westchester, Long Island, even the Upper West Side. But his kids go fishing on the piers; his wife runs on the esplanade every morning. “It’s nice,” he says, pointing to the floor-to-ceiling windows in his new living room. A fleet of ferry boats is passing by. “Even Jersey City’s starting to get a skyline.”

From his bedroom he can see the Statue of Liberty. The view from his youngest son’s room, however, has the bulldozers of ground zero front and center. “It’s sort of weird seeing the pedestrian bridge,” he says of the still-standing white structure that used to have an escalator down to Liberty Street. “The bridge to nowhere.”

A new pedestrian bridge across West Street is in the works. The original plan had it stretching above the only patch of active play space in the south end. Residents complained, and the Authority shifted its trajectory. This kind of fierce community spirit reminds Cohen-Wolf of the pioneering days when Battery Park City first opened. “It was so exciting, we were building a neighborhood. Nothing else was here. No grocery stores. The dry cleaner put in a small refrigerator case with milk and orange juice so when you ran out you could get it. But you went elsewhere for everything. In some ways, when we first moved back, it felt like that was happening all over again,” she says, sighing. “And it felt like we were fighting all these battles all over again.”

“People here are proactive,” says Paige McCollum, manager of the Video Room, one of the first businesses to reopen after the tragedy. Residents immediately covered the store’s long counter with stacks of petitions for another fire station and better transportation. “It doesn’t seem like anyone in this community is rolling over.” They are, however, moving on, as McCollum can sense from the kinds of videos her clients rent. The Siege, once popular, doesn’t go out as much. Her list of suggested mindless comedies is not consulted as often.

“We’re still getting movies back from before September 11,” she says. “People come in and say, ‘I have this video, it’s a little late.’ We bring up the charges and it’s like $500! But we’re just charging people for one night,” she adds, “like it never happened.”

Out of the Ashes