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Quietly, Traders Went Bearish on Wall Street : New York: Financial industry's birthplace is a victim of obsolescence and decentralization.

August 01, 1994|Associated Press

NEW YORK — The windows of the proud prewar skyscrapers are black, their lobbies dead as tombs, their "For Sale" and "Will Divide" signs yellow and cracked with age. When another bank or brokerage moves out, it takes the landlord three or four years to find a new tenant.

This is Wall Street today. Quietly, almost while no one was looking, it became more adjective than noun, more of a state of mind than a place.

There are still "Wall Street analysts" and "Wall Street profits," but no Wall Street, at least not as it used to be known.

Wall Street, the industry, has fled its birthplace, as Hollywood did. Now Wall Street is in mid-town Manhattan and New Jersey and Los Angeles, in suburban office parks and home offices.

But Wall Street the neighborhood--the street itself and its immediate environs, an area covering a quarter-square mile in the core of lower Manhattan--is going one way: down.

It has fallen victim to the age and obsolescence of its buildings; decentralization and downsizing in the financial services industry; the lure of other business districts with newer buildings, easier commutes, better food.

In the past year alone, plans for a new stock exchange building in the heart of the financial district collapsed for lack of interest.

And 40 Wall, one of the tallest buildings in the world, sold for $69 million less than it did four years earlier. Never in the history of commercial real estate had anything so big lost so much value so fast.

A third of the district's office space is vacant. A tower at 55 Broad has been empty since its chief tenant, Drexel Burnham Lambert, went ignominiously out of business. "Entire Building for Lease" is stenciled on the glass facade. A doorman stands morosely in the dim lobby, the Maytag repairman of Manhattan real estate.

A Conway's discount store in the base of 43 Broad St. advertises a sale on women's shorts. Above the front door, a bas-relief of an eagle with an anchor in its talons hints at grander days.

Fewer people attend Trinity Church's weekday services, fewer people eat lunch on the steps of Federal Hall. You don't have to wait as long for a restaurant table or a haircut or a cab.

Since the 1987 stock market crash, lower Manhattan has lost a fifth of its work force--100,000 jobs. Most probably aren't coming back.

"In '92, people still thought it was a cyclical downturn," says Elliott Schlar of Columbia University, a planning expert. "It's becoming clear it's more than that."

The computer, the fax and their ilk have reduced the need for a dense, high-rise office district. At the same time, the financial services industry has become more competitive; even as profits increase, firms employ fewer workers and use less space.

The industry has also spread out. Fewer than a third of the firms in the Securities Industry Assn. are even in Manhattan. Big mutual funds such as Fidelity and Vanguard are in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. And many clerical jobs once done on Wall Street can now be performed elsewhere.

"The trend is toward an ever broader definition of Wall Street," says Charles Shapiro of the real estate firm Austrian Roth, "one that might be found on the information highway."

Even if they stay in New York, businesses want big, open, rectangular floors so they can rearrange their offices as needed; they want high ceilings, so they can raise floors to accommodate computers and wiring; they want extra electrical capacity, efficient air-conditioning and fast elevators.

But most Wall Street buildings went up before 1940 and were designed with smaller floors so workers would be close to the best source of light and air--the window. Many have irregularly shaped floors (a legacy of the district's curving old streets), lots of columns, antiquated wiring and slow elevators.

Ten years ago, businesses settled for anything with four walls. But now Manhattan is awash in vacant office space--50 million square feet, roughly as much as was built in the '80s. Those new towers, says Schlar, "sucked the life out of Wall Street."

Merrill Lynch and Shearson Lehman moved to the World Financial Center, on downtown's booming waterfront. Kidder Peabody, Paine Webber and Bear Stearns decamped to mid-town.

Mid-town is downtown's real competition; Pennsylvania Station and Grand Central Terminal offer access to the suburbs. Downtown has lots of subway lines to Brooklyn and Queens, but strap-hanging secretaries and clerks don't sign long-term leases.

Mid-town also has half a dozen of the world's best French restaurants; downtown had Delmonico's, before it went out of business last year after a century-and-a-half at 36 Beaver St.

Rents in downtown's older buildings are so low that half of them make no money; about three dozen are bankrupt or in foreclosure. After operating costs and taxes, there's often not enough to pay the mortgage, let alone make the renovations needed to attract prime office tenants.

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