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Neighborhood Tour: The Nooks And Crannies Of Tribeca

Adelaide Polsinelli and Kevin Draper outside Priority Bicycles in Tribeca

Today’s Tribeca is an eclectic mix of high-end service and retail, restaurant and residential nestled under every imaginable New York architectural style.

One could say it was not always like this, but history is not simply evolving in one of NYC's trendiest neighborhoods, it is repeating itself, according to Eastern Consolidated principal Adelaide Polsinelli and historian and New York Historical Tours co-founder Kevin Draper, who recently took Bisnow on a tour of the Lower Manhattan neighborhood.

In the first 200 years of Big Apple history, almost all development happened south of City Hall. The early 1700s saw Trinity Church acquire the land that now makes up Tribeca from Queen Anne of Great Britain just a few years before her death. Over the next 100 years, the neighborhood was developed specifically as a high-end residential community.

The Vanderbilt family then bought up the land. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1800s, the area blossomed with train lines and warehouses, transforming into a veritable hot spot of industrial business and manufacturing. In these same years, the Holland Tunnel — named after its engineer, Clifford Holland — would become the first underwater automobile tunnel in the world safe from carbon monoxide buildup.

The exteriors of several former commercial manufacturing-and-office buildings are to this day decorated with vault lights, a network of sunlight-amplifying prisms that magnify natural light before it enters the basement for lighting and heating when gas and candle lighting proved too hazardous.

Tribeca restaurant storefront

In addition to high ceilings and vertical windows, Tribeca multifamily properties today carry some of the sturdiest and thickest walls in the city, a remnant of their pasts as refrigerated storehouses for eggs, dairy and coffee. The Ice House apartment building, for one, bears its name from its youth in the early 1900s, when pipes would pump cold water in from the Hudson River to keep its ice cold.

“For many neighborhoods that are becoming more high-end, people tend to become angry about gentrification,” Draper said. “But for Tribeca, this is how it was originally built. It’s a return to form.”

This return, Polsinelli said, started with a loft law in the late 1970s, when landlords rented their vacant loft buildings to artists as spaces to live and work. As the neighborhood started to become more desirable, these spaces became more valuable. The tenants fought hard to stay in place. In an effort to keep them safe, the city mandated that landlords had to bring these buildings up to residential code, thereby regulating the units as rent-stabilized apartments.

The result is a neighborhood whose present makeup is rather similar to the Meatpacking District, with shutters and ramps liberally dotting entrances to residential properties housing dozens of families. Families searching for suburban quiet can even find it in a small cluster of townhouses not far from the World Trade Center on Harrison Street. Their setup forms a noiseless, nearly suburban-esque communal backyard where residents can hold the rare legally permitted NYC barbecue.

"Ghostbusters" seal outside fire station at the corner of Varick and North Moore

“It was a simple question of whether anybody would want to live in these defunct-yet-still-beautiful warehouse properties with 20-foot-high ceilings,” Polsinelli said. “The answer was a resounding yes, and policies quickly followed to make that possible.”

Though storefront retail and foot traffic in the neighborhood remains surprisingly sparse for its population, the neighborhood is peppered with service- and family-oriented retail, such as gyms and health clubs, dental and optometry practices and schools. Rent ranges between $100/SF and $160/SF. But as Polsinelli points out, the spacious rooms, towering columns and well-lit, high ceilings mean potential tenants are getting a hefty bang for their buck.

Take, for instance, Polsinelli’s new retail exclusive at 62 White St. Half residential and half commercial, the newly renovated building opens with a wall display of real foliage greenery. Visitors who walk in receive a blast of fresh, oxygenated air, a purposeful move from the developer who was determined to preserve the building’s history while simultaneously creating an ecological haven. Three stories of retail will be stacked within 36-foot-tall ceilings, staying true to the property’s original high ceilings.

A few blocks away, Polsinelli is marketing another retail condo at 68 Thomas St., which was built in 1866 and used by businesses in the dry goods trade in the 19th and 20th centuries before being converted for commercial and residential use.

The few shops that do exist are largely destination retail attractions, such as The Playing Mantis, which imports handcarved wooden kids’ toys from Europe.

62 White St. lobby foliage

Yet the wacky lack of uniform storefronts and properties has proven a boon for dozens of intriguing film and restaurant projects searching to carve out their own singular identities. On the corner of Varick and North Moore streets sits an old fire station, FDNY Ladder 8, which was the Ghostbusters headquarters in the original 1984 film.

“Back in the 1980s, this was a pretty gritty neighborhood, and the producers wanted that grittiness,” Draper said. “Dan Aykroyd physically came here to check out the building and was completely captivated by the property and its surroundings.”

On 195 Broadway and 375 Greenwich, respectively, sit Nobu and Tribeca Grill, two innovative New American cuisine-and-wine concepts owned by Robert De Niro. And speaking of the man himself, the Tribeca Film Festival, of course, finds its home base in Tribeca, a joint effort founded in 2002 by De Niro, Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff to regenerate tourism and traffic in the neighborhood following 9/11.

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