Downtowners air views at neighborhood workshop

By Elizabeth O’Brien

The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation has about $1.3 billion left to spend, and last week Downtowners compiled a giant wish list for the money that included more jobs and fewer hassles from rebuilding construction.

Those were among the suggestions raised on Thursday at the sixth and final brainstorming session sponsored by the L.M.D.C. for Lower Manhattan residents and workers. Last Thursday’s meeting was held for an invitation-only group of about 75 community members from Tribeca, Soho and Little Italy.

Most people seemed engaged in the process and eagerly volunteered suggestions even as some voiced doubts about the timing of the workshop, nearly two years after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Organizers told participants that they should focus not on the future of the trade center site, but instead on how best to allocate the remaining $1.3 billion in federal funding.

“It’s very useful,” said Jim Smith, chairperson of Community Board 2. “I just wish it had come sooner.”

Previous L.M.D.C. meetings were open to all, regardless of geography or affiliation, and many at Thursday’s workshop said they were glad that the event was geared towards those who are Downtown on a daily basis.

“At least these are some stakeholders, and that is really important,” said Ariel Goodman, a former trade center tenant and Lower Manhattan resident.

Participants who see the empty storefronts where they live and work called for more efforts to create jobs and stimulate the economy. Some 65,000 jobs were lost as a result of the trade center disaster, Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff said at the beginning of the workshop.

“Two years is far too long to have this area declining and something has to happen — it doesn’t have to be perfect,” said Anastasia Gagas, of Complete Mail Center on Vesey and Church Sts. and a co-founder with Goodman of From the Ground Up, a coalition of more than 600 small businesses located mainly south of Canal St.

Participants also expressed concern about the impact of construction on the neighborhood as the rebuilding process accelerates.

Diane Lapson, a tenant leader at Independence Plaza North, urged a study of the continuing environmental effects of the construction. She said that the army of diesel trucks expected when the work picks up would add more pollution to an area still suffering from the terror attacks.

“A lot of people are sick Downtown because of what happened” on 9/11, Lapson said.

After 9/11, the Environmental Protection Agency detected elevated levels of asbestos in parts of the I.P.N. complex; some tenants there have complained of respiratory and other ailments since the trade center disaster.

Lapson said she was worried that the pressure to meet the governor’s deadlines might mean that residents’ concerns get shunted aside as the rebuilding process takes on more momentum.

“That is basically the fear in Downtown Manhattan, that once this gets started, our voices will be drowned out,” she said.

Some said they doubted that the opinions expressed last Thursday would really influence how the L.M.D.C. spends its money. The $1.3 billion remaining is part of the more than $2 billion the joint city-state agency received when it was created in response to the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“Who’s really listening?” asked Ted Berger, executive director of the New York Foundation for the Arts on Spring St.

Berger said that if policy makers would consider participants’ opinions, the workshop represented a good start.

Perhaps anticipating such concerns, Doctoroff assured participants that their voices would be heard.

“What’s happened here will absolutely make a difference,” Doctoroff said at the beginning of the meeting.

While discussion became heated in some small groups, Thursday’s event passed without the protests that had characterized earlier L.M.D.C. community workshops. At a meeting in Chinatown two weeks ago, community members both inside and outside the venue interrupted speakers and asked why it took nearly two years to hold such a forum in the neighborhood.

Some at the Tribeca, Soho, and Little Italy meeting did voice frustration, however, about what they called the exclusionary nature of the event. A few said that it should not have been restricted to those who had received invitations.

One participant said that more effort should have been made to include broader racial representation.

“It should be a much more diverse participation — this group is really homogenous,” said Saru Jayaraman, executive director of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, which plans to open a restaurant in Tribeca with workers from the former Windows on the World.

A spokesperson for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation said the corporation made an effort to recruit a diverse group of participants through community boards and other civic groups.