Downtown retail waits for its Condé moment

By Sarabeth Sanders | June 14, 2011 05:14PM

To look out the windows from the 10th floor of Larry Silverstein’s shiny new 7 World Trade Center is to take visual stock of how far Lower Manhattan has come since Sept. 11, 2001. There’s the already-skyscraping 1 World Trade Center to the right, Towers 3 and 4 rising to the left, the soon-to-open memorial plaza below, and the new W Downtown staring back from across the construction site. A few blocks to both the east and west, Lower Manhattan now houses more residents than it has ever before seen, and still more are moving in — in droves. And soon, of course, Condé Nast will arrive, and with it, as is presumed to be the case, so will the neighborhood.

So this morning, when some of the most important architects of this turnaround convened to celebrate “The New Downtown,” alongside the NYU Schack Institute of Real Estate and Silverstein Properties, there was a natural, and deserved, optimism in their voices (see photos above). But there was also an unmistakable air of exasperation, as if to say, what else can we possibly do to get major retailers and restaurateurs to take notice?

It’s not as though Lower Manhattan’s retail has been completely stagnant. Asking retail rents have jumped 23 percent since last fall, according to the Real Estate Board of New York’s most recent figures, and Stone Street has certainly become an established foodie draw. Visitors of the New York Stock Exchange can now spend the afternoon shopping at uber-luxe surrounding stores like Hermes, Canali and Tiffany, and two weeks ago, Battery Park City got its very own Shake Shack.

But Lower Manhattan’s retail scene, most of this morning’s panelists seemed to agree, has yet to have its own Condé moment, lagging behind the neighborhood’s booming populations of residential (see: New York by Gehry, now 25 percent leased, according to panelist MaryAnne Gilmartin, of Forest City Ratner) and office tenants.

Steve Cuozzo, the New York Post’s dogged real estate and restaurant columnist, said that while Stone Street is quite nice, he remains “disappointed by the lack of major dining options down here.” Celebrity restaurateurs like Danny Meyer and Steve Hanson have told him “the numbers aren’t there” yet for the kind of “nice modern American bistro or nice modern Italian restaurant” he’d love to see.

Urban planning whiz Carl Weisbrod, the former Trinity Real Estate president who founded the Alliance for Downtown New York and now holds a professorship at Schack, pinpointed the “trailing of retail” as one of the two major failings of the area’s redevelopment thus far. (The other, he said, was the missed opportunity to “knit Battery Park City with the rest of Manhattan in a better way.” Battery Park City Authority CEO Gayle Horwitz said that’s fixable, so stayed tuned.)

But as Silverstein philosophized: “sometimes when challenge faces you, you rise to the occasion.”

Julie Menin, the outspoken chairperson of Community Board 1, said she might support changing the criteria for recipients of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation’s funds in order to attract more retailers to the area.

Menin, who has been an outspoken advocate of reserving the former Deutsche Bank site at 130 Liberty Street for a mixed-use residential project, said the Frank Gehry-designed World Trade Center Performing Arts Center could be a boon for retail on the surrounding streets.

“If we were to rebuild Lincoln Center, but even better, in Lower Manhattan, imagine what that could do,” she posed.