Leading the way for Downtown’s rebirth

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An urban pioneer who’s lived a block from the WTC for three decades, Catherine McVay Hughes didn’t just help to rebuild her neighborhood once, she worked to rebuild it twice


  • Photo courtesy of Catherine McVay Hughes

The catastrophic terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 obliterated 2,000-plus lives, wiped out 65,000 jobs, displaced 20,000 residents, destroyed 14 million square feet of office space and crippled America’s fourth-largest business district.

A great rebuilding, rebranding and reinvention followed the calamity. And Catherine McVay Hughes — then a member of Community Board 1 and chair of its World Trade Center Redevelopment Committee from 2005 to 2012 — was one of its leading architects.

Then another cataclysm struck Lower Manhattan on October 29, 2012, Superstorm Sandy, a meteorological monstrosity propelling once-in-a-lifetime storm surges that burst two riverbanks and flooded buildings, tunnels and infrastructure.

Soon, a second recovery campaign began. Once again, Hughes — who had become chair of CB1 in July 2012 and joined the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. board that same year — played a supportive but central role in the reconstruction of Downtown.

Bottom line: Due in part to her advocacy, the area got back on its feet, mega-businesses and boutique shops gravitated to its commercial hub, it became greener, livable, more sustainable, and now, no residential neighborhood in the city is growing faster than CB1.

“On September 10, 2001, there were 20,000 residents living in the area, and half of them moved out after 9/11,” Hughes said. “Today, CB1 has a population of roughly 70,000.”

Nothing happens alone, she stressed. Partnerships, coalitions, elected officials, responsible developers, on-the-ball government agencies, all made the effort possible. “Everything is a team effort,” she said. “You can’t just wave a magic wand.” Yet community activism is paramount.

“The takeaway message is that it’s important to actively engage in the public process, and that through public participation, you can actually make a difference, and see very real, very positive changes,” Hughes added.

A 1982 graduate of Princeton University with a degree in engineering, Hughes, who got her MBA from the Wharton School in 1987, became an urban pioneer in 1988 when she settled a block away from the WTC in a business district with virtually no amenities, services or shops.

She joined the community board in 1997, and four years later, the area was reduced to ashes and concrete dust. The recovery wasn’t swift, but over time, it proved phoenix-like. Her tireless advocacy was one of the reasons the phrase “Ground Zero” slowly dropped out of the lexicon.

Examples abound: Officials wanted to turn Zuccotti Park into a staging ground for construction. “We said ‘No! Let’s get our open space back,’” Hughes recalls. Sure enough, the zone of construction was shrunk.

They wanted to turn off the waterfalls at the 9/11 Memorial in the winter. “We said, ‘No! They should be on 12 months a year,’” she said. And so they are.

Hughes helped to pass the James Zadroga Act, providing health-care monitoring to first responders and survivors; advocated to expand the Victim’s Compensation Fund boundary north to Canal Street; battled to mitigate construction noise and bolster safety standards; and played a key role for 15 years in WTC environmental health issues.

When Sandy struck, its water walls penetrating buildings, she found a new mission: “Helping rebuild my neighborhood a second time,” she said.

She’s been doing that ever since, first, at the helm of CB 1 from 2012 to 2016, then, as a member until 2017. Now, Hughes serves on a resiliency task force and a storm-surge working group, and she’s on the board of the South Street Seaport Museum, the Battery Park City Authority and the advisory board of the Earth Institute.

Her activism paid off. After fighting for comprehensive resiliency planning for Downtown, she helped lock up funding for the planning and implementation of an engineering study for the tip of Manhattan.

“Her background as an engineer and an environmental activist helped make two recoveries possible, from the World Trade Center attacks and from Sandy,” said Assembly Member Deborah Glick. “And her work regarding resilience continues to this day.”


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