This is the year One World Trade Center is finally set to open in Lower Manhattan, after a decade in the works. (That is, if there aren’t further delays.) A little more than half the commercial space in the 1,776-foot New York City skyscraper has been leased. But even as another Sept. 11 passes with the building still nearly half empty of leased tenants, it will be completely filled with memories on the day it opens.
Australian firm Servcorp is leasing the 85th floor of the 104-story tower, the WTC announced a week ago, bringing the $4 billion tower to 57.5% occupancy. Conde Nast is the building’s anchor tenant, and the landlords are the Durst Organization and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
The new World Trade Center is a big (and long-running) commercial real estate story, it’s true, but the intangibles are as big, if not bigger, than the details of a CRE deal. There’s the 9/11 Memorial Museum that opened this year on the grounds, for one thing. But there are also the memories and emotions of a city, a country and the entire world to be reconciled.
National Mortgage News was spared the worst of the tragedy, but the mortgage industry as a whole was not so lucky, as scores of mortgage bond traders perished.
NMN was based in Midtown Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2011, though we and parent company SourceMedia have since moved downtown, to within about a half mile from the WTC site. The publication’s staff was speedily evacuated from its Penn Plaza building that morning, but returned the next day to work on a deadline in shell-shocked Manhattan.
11 Penn Plaza was less than half a block from the local firehouse on West 31st Street. The firehouse, home to Engine 1, Ladder 24 of the Fire Department of New York, was also the home base of FDNY hero chaplain Fr. Mychal Judge (the street was later renamed for him). On the morning of Sept. 12, the company’s fire truck, used to respond to the alarm, was parked in front of the firehouse. All the windows had been blown out, and the vehicle was completely covered in dust from the destroyed buildings. Passersby wrote messages of appreciation and sympathy in that dust for the hero firemen, who lost several members of their company in addition to Fr. Judge.
Some of NMN‘s phone service had been destroyed (I can remember faxing something to our DC office because the fax line was still working) but it was able to report on its website that everyone had escaped the devastation. We also reported on the good news that everyone had survived at the Federal Home Loan Bank of New York. The home loan bank had been in one of the Twin Towers but moved to 7 World Trade Center after the 1993 bombing of the towers. 7 World Trade Center caught fire and collapsed the afternoon of Sept. 11, but everyone was safely evacuated. Credit where due to Al Dellibovi, then the president of the district bank, who saw that their Twin Tower office space was a potential deathtrap.
A related sad but also heroic story involved a former chairman of the FHLB-NY, Neil Levin. On Sept. 11 he was the executive director of the Port Authority. He entered one of the towers after the attack to direct the emergency and perished with more than 2,000 others killed in the attack.
We also had the unhappy but necessary task of reporting the deaths of scores of mortgage bond traders at firms like Sandler O’Neill and Donaldson, Lufkin and Jenrette, and other industry firms including Cantor Fitzgerald, TradeWeb and others. We also learned that 11 employees of various units of our then-parent company, Thomson, had been killed.
We were able to report that Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, in a nice bit of defiance, had kept their trading desks open for business after the attacks. Not much business got transacted that day and for many to come (the bombing caused a short but not insignificant recession), but give the GSEs credit for showing some moxie.
The aftermath of the attacks in New York was a mixture of let’s-get-back-to-work and dealing with an overwhelming amount of emotion. The financial and emotional support that poured in from around the country was a huge plus. On the downside, the city was haunted by the missing persons flyers taped to every available wall space in Manhattan. No one who saw them will ever forget them fluttering in the wind for weeks after no happy ending was possible.
It was estimated that 20% of Lower Manhattan’s commercial office space was destroyed in the attack, forcing many firms to relocate. It seemed to take a long time before anything happened at the disaster site. For years it was an open hole called The Pit, a disrespectful open-air cemetery for the many whose remains had not been found and a hawking station for annoying street vendors. New York seemed to be numb to the idea of repairing the hole in its civic life.
In my own case, I had a similar realization when I was invited to a press briefing in late 2012 by vendor Mortgage Builder at the Millenium Hilton hotel, directly adjacent to the WTC site. As I saw the new tower from close range, I realized I had never been able to look at it before in all the years it had been under construction. (I was astounded by the building’s physical grace and beauty.)
On the first anniversary of Sept. 11, firemen set up a bell on West 31st Street to toll for their fallen brethren. They willingly shared the bell with passersby. I asked if I could toll the bell 11 times, for my fallen co-workers, and I did.
This year will be 13 years since that wrenching day. Let’s remember all those who perished, even as the finished One World Trade Center, almost ready to open, reminds us that life goes on even after the worst tragedies.
Mark Fogarty, Editor at Large at National Mortgage News, brings more than 30 years of sector experience to his analyses of the mortgage market.