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Q & A with Alliance for Downtown NY President Jessica Lappin

With huge new projects on the way in its office, residential, retail and hotel markets, the face of Lower Manhattan's changing before our eyes. We got into not only the boom, but also the challenges, with Alliance for Downtown New York president Jessica Lappin, who'll keynote at our Future of Lower Manhattan event on Dec. 10 at 180 Maiden Lane.  


Bisnow: You played a key role in bringing the Cornell Tech campus to Roosevelt Island when you were on the City Council. What lessons could be taken from that experience and applied to Lower Manhattan?

Jessica Lappin: The larger lesson of Cornell Tech is that New York City needs to invest in infrastructure and encourage big thinking about the industries of the future. That is key to attracting, training and retaining the talent that will power Lower Manhattan and our city into the next century. And since Lower Manhattan will likely welcome many of these Cornell grads when they are done with school we need to be thinking about how employment centers like Lower Manhattan fit into the city’s larger educational and training pipeline.

Bisnow: Is there still a place for smaller-footprint office tenants Downtown alongside Conde Nast, Fox/News Corp and others that are coming to the area?

Jessica: One of the most exciting things about the evolution of Lower Manhattan is that there’s the right kind of space for companies at every stage of their life cycle. From startups to major media companies to financial services companies, the pace of new development and repurposing of old stock really provides a rich mix of Class-A, B and C space. Plus, WeWork has roughly a million square feet downtown now, which along with other co-working spaces, makes for smaller-sized spaces for a whole host of companies. It’s a healthy balance right now.


Bisnow: And what can you say about how Lower Manhattan’s transit mix is affecting the area’s growth? Will things like the new Fulton Transit Center make a big impact?

Jessica: The retail at Fulton Center is all leased and will be coming on line over the next number of months. It’ll have everything from compelling dining options to newsstands to commuter-friendly retail. Broadly speaking, the transit options in Lower Manhattan are unparalleled. Between the wealth of subway lines, ferry service and the PATH, it’s clear the area is one of the most connected places to work.  

Bisnow: Lower Manhattan’s been referred to as the most under-retailed neighborhood on the planet. Do you think it’ll ever rival Midtown as a shopping hub? What would have to happen first?

Jessica: I think there’s no doubt that Lower Manhattan is well on its way to becoming a regional shopping destination. It’s all happening. Between Brookfield opening earlier this year to Westfield World Trade opening next, and then the Seaport coming to fruition in the not-too-distant future, you’ll have a corridor of major shopping centers flowing west to east right through the heart of Lower Manhattan. It’ll make for a set of unique retail experiences all in an easily walkable trip. Add to that the legendary Century 21 and the new retailers filling up Broadway like the GAP, Zara and Anthropologie and I think you have a retail destination that can more than hold its own.


Bisnow: The Financial District has lost a pretty big share of its office space to residential conversions over the last five to seven years. What’s good about that, and what challenges does it pose for the area?

Jessica: The residential conversions have just added to the special mix of uses that is helping the area soar. We’re becoming a pre-eminent live/work community with around 60,000 residents and roughly 300,000 workers. There’s some special residential properties as a result of the beautiful historic building stock down here. When balanced with the huge amount of brand-new office space coming on line at the World Trade Center and elsewhere, it’s a great mix.

Bisnow: Is there concern that the massive amount of new office space at the WTC may bump up vacancy rates beyond what’s healthy—or is the new space being unveiled with that in mind?

Jessica: We’re excited that the WTC buildings are coming on line with huge anchor tenants. GroupM at 3WTC and it looks like News Corp will occupy a lion’s share of WTC 2. 1WTC is well over 60% leased, WTC 4 is well-tenanted and 7 is full. We’re bullish on the market down here and not overly concerned about the supply coming from the Trade Center. Plus, when taking the long view, this is all great news for a city that will only continue to need modern Class-A office space.

Bisnow: Will we still be calling it the Financial District in 10 years?

Jessica: I think financial services will always be a big part of the DNA of Lower Manhattan. We are still the financial capital of the world and the corner of Wall Street and Broad Street will forever be one of the most famous and visited intersections in the world. Whether that’s a descriptive that will apply to the whole area 10 years from now is unclear. What is clear is that with every passing week Lower Manhattan is just as much the media capital of New York as it is anything else.

Bisnow: In the year and a half that you’ve held the post as president, what are a couple of things the Downtown Alliance has done that you’re proud of?

Jessica: First of all, I’m proud of the work our public safety and sanitation staff do every day. Our operations units deliver real value for the area and perform at a very high level. Then there’s our expanding free public WiFi, which recently grew to more than 3.7M SF of coverage throughout the district. We think that’s a valuable innovative service we provide that helps make the area tech and business friendly. Lastly, I’m proud that our latest major initiative, LMHQ, is really pioneering a new kind of asset for Lower Manhattan businesses. It’s a collaboration space that with a mix of programming, meeting rooms, coffee bar and in-house technology options is really providing Lower Manhattan’s creative firms with the clubhouse and meeting place they told us was important to add value to their business development strategies.