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Working through the pain

NEW YORK — In the city that never sleeps, we haven't been sleeping much.

This bout of insomnia started as a reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center (WTC) and claimed thousands of lives. Members of the commercial real estate community have been affected as much as anyone. For them, the recommended eight hours of sleep per night shrank as their workload tripled overnight.

My job is to report on the local commercial real estate market. Lately, the experience has seemed surreal. My days have been filled with back-to-back interviews with New York real estate professionals who are nice enough to squeeze me into their busy schedules when they're not showing office space to clients or surveying the damage of buildings at “ground zero.”

I actually completed interviews for the New York market review (which appears on page 68) weeks prior to the shocking attacks. But after Sept. 11, the world changed and my original draft was rendered null and void. So the process of gathering the most current information began again with a renewed vigor. Everyone was more than willing to talk about this event that changed everything.

Observing and listening

Frankly, I was happy to do something to express the sorrow I was feeling. During my interviews, I often felt as if I was talking to friends rather than business associates. Their voices sometimes broke in anguish as they discussed the aftermath of the tragedy with me.

Before my first interview, I was wondering how to go about talking to a person familiar with someone who perished in one of the WTC towers. I wanted to approach the conversation with the appropriate level of understanding and tact. This wouldn't be just another interview about the office occupancy levels in Midtown Manhattan. Instead, it would center on a sensitive subject dealing with the worst of tragedies — one in which more U.S. citizens died than at any time in our nation's history.

The bricks-and-mortar component to this story definitely has been compelling — 28.7 million sq. ft. of office space has been damaged or destroyed — but it pales in comparison to the grim reality that thousands of individuals will never see their loved ones again.

So I simply asked each interviewee the most basic question, “How are you dealing with all of this?” Michael Berne, senior managing director in the New York office of Northbrook, Ill.-based Grubb & Ellis, responded that he was just trying to do his part to help displaced tenants find new office space.

After the attack, Berne related how he had just toured the area near the former site of the WTC with city officials, showing them some available properties. “It was so quiet. Fortunately I couldn't see the rubble, but there weren't any cars on Seventh Avenue, except emergency vehicles,” he said on the Thursday following the attacks. “While we were walking, we saw busloads of firemen headed down the street.”

Myers Mermel, CEO of New York-based TenantWise, an online commercial real estate brokerage firm located at 67 Wall St., was at home two blocks away before the terrorists struck. When the first plane hit, he went up to the rooftop deck of his building. From that vantage point, he saw the second airplane hit with what he described as a “significant force and noise.” He knew then that this could only be a terrorist attack.

As the buildings began to collapse, he returned to his apartment and watched from inside. “There was a shower of debris thrown out, including office supplies, paper and personal effects,” he said. People were terrified and panicked. In some cases, they dropped their shoes and briefcases. Cars were left on the street.

Mermel stayed in his apartment for two more hours and then walked to his office, which was barely visible through a haze of sun and dust. He escorted his employees out of the office so they could go home.

The downtown financial center, including Wall Street, is back in operation, but the distinct sound of the normal hustle and bustle is now muted. The devastation forced tenants to move to Midtown or outlying areas, and Mermel saw his home and place of business become more deserted. He hopes the re-tenanting of Manhattan will begin soon. He expects the World Trade Center will be rebuilt in some form with a memorial on the site.

Although there have been isolated reports of office landlords gouging displaced tenants affected by the attack, I believe most people in real estate are acting with ethics as a guide.

Most of us have responded in the only way we knew how — by rolling up our sleeves and returning to our work. And yes, we'll soon get to sleep again as we prepare for the long road of rebuilding that's on the horizon.

Cristina Gair is an associate editor for NREI.

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