Wall Street recycles itself Residences: Changing times created vast vacancies in New York's financial district, spaces that are being turned into expensive housing. The result is a vibrant new neighborhood in Manhattan.

Sun Journal

October 17, 1997|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW YORK -- After graduating from college this spring, Adam Hicks, a 22-year-old from Baltimore, landed a job as a trader with Salomon Brothers in New York. He looked for an apartment in several popular Manhattan neighborhoods -- the Upper East Side, Chelsea, Murray Hill -- but surprised himself by moving into a $2,280-per-month, one-bedroom loft on the 21st floor of a building whose previous tenant was the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.

"I never thought I'd live on Wall Street," says Hicks, who shares his 45 Wall St. pad with two roommates. "Until I came to New York, I didn't know you could live on Wall Street."

The conversion of 45 Wall St. from a 29-story insurance office into 435 luxury apartments heralds a new age in Manhattan's downtown financial district, home of the New York Stock Exchange, the unofficial capital of capitalism.

Long an area of cold and windy skyscraper canyons that roared with 400,000 workers during trading hours but fell silent on nights and weekends, Wall Street is on the cusp of a residential and retail boom.

Wall Street is beginning to resemble Main Street.

New restaurants and bookstores, including New York's first Borders, are opening. A Tennessee chain announced plans last month to open a movie theater. Since October 1995, 14 old financial buildings have been converted into a total of 2,000 apartments, which have been quickly snapped up by newly minted consultants and bankers, high on their signing bonuses.

Over the next five years, developers are scheduled to add 7,000 apartments. City planners expect the residential population to double, from 15,000 now to more than 30,000 by the year 2002.

"A true community is being established," says Carl Weisbrod, president of the Alliance for Downtown Manhattan, a nonprofit neighborhood-improvement group. "The people moving in want to walk to their jobs in financial services, instead of taking long train rides in from the suburbs.

"What is happening on Wall Street proves there is still a strong commitment to the notion of a Main Street."

Fewer than 500 people lived in lower Manhattan in 1950, and an increase to more than 10,000 in the past four decades was attributable to one mega-project: Battery Park City, built along the Hudson River in the late 1970s.

The roots of the current residential boom date to 1987. The stock market crash that autumn, and the recession that followed, led to a consolidation of the financial-services companies that had been Wall Street's most reliable residents.

To save money, some firms moved their "back offices" -- secretaries and accountants -- to cheaper space in New Jersey. By 1992, the commercial vacancy rate for the Manhattan financial district was nearly 40 percent. And the city had lost a third of its annual property tax revenue from the area.

"Downtown was the birthplace of the city, and a lot of the financial buildings are historic, architectural gems," says Weisbrod. "But many were decaying and empty."

The dire circumstances forced Wall Street's oldest firms, city officials and preservationists to work together. A business improvement district was formed, with the goal of turning the area into a 24-hour-a-day community.

Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani obliged in 1995 with a tax abatement program for the district. Entrepreneurs who convert their Wall Street office buildings to housing pay virtually no taxes on that property for eight years.

"It was a risk worth taking," Giuliani said this year. "That area is important to the city, and I thought allowing market forces to reshape it was the right way to go."

The tax program's timing could not have been better. The bull stock market, with enormous numbers of Americans putting their money into mutual funds, has focused new attention on Wall Street and allowed the area to attract a variety of businesses interested in being close to institutional investors.

Nonprofit firms eager to boost their fund raising and visibility, including the National Urban League and the American Civil Liberties Union, have set up offices in the district.

Dozens of information-technology start-ups, most of which are focused on providing services for Internet users, have found a home near the Flatiron Building, an area that byte-heads have renamed Silicon Alley.

Tourists can't seem to get enough of Wall Street, and three new hotels are in development to meet the demand. A weekly World of Finance tour of the neighborhood, offered by a tour company for the first time this year, was sold out all summer.

The New York Stock Exchange spent $2 million this year to remodel its tourist center. This summer, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York opened a $750,000 visitors gallery, which includes an interactive exhibit that allows tourists to play with the nation's interest rates as if they were Alan Greenspan.

"I think many of us want to visit the money we're investing in mutual funds and 401(k)s," says Raj Vaswani, 25, a corporate lawyer who took a recent World of Finance tour.

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