NEW YORK-Even in a city with an abundance of celebrities and real estate developers – and a few people who are both – Robert De Niro plays a standout role. The actor, famous for movies such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull but low-profile off screen, is increasingly going public as a developer and civic leader in the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan.In October, Mayor Michael Bloomberg named him chairman of a commission formed to boost Hispanic media and entertainment in the city. A few days later, De Niro sat in the audience as Gov. George Pataki announced that the Academy Award-winning actor would build a luxury hotel in the Tribeca neighborhood north of the World Trade Center site.”People are not just seeing him primarily as an actor and producer but as a civic leader,” says Julia Pershan of the Tribeca Organization, a business group formed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The hotel will be financed with $38 million in tax-free bonds designed to spur economic recovery in Lower Manhattan. And it will expand De Niro’s real estate holdings in Tribeca, short for Triangle
Below Canal street.”I think it’s going to be (a sought- after) place to stay” says Richard Born, on of De Niro’s partners who developed other boutique hotels in the city. “I wouldn’t discount the celebrity factor in our business.”
Actor ‘committed’ to area
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that destroyed the Trade Center, De Niro, 60, became the face and voice of a wounded neighborhood. He appeared at news conferences to urge New Yorkers to shop and eat downtown. He recorded radio ads for the Alliance for Downtown New York, a business group. He put on a Pilgrim costume and joined comic Billy Crystal, dressed as a turkey, in an ad to urge tourist to return to New York City. He narrated a harrowing CBS television documentary, 9/11 that aired six months after the attack.And in an impressive organizational feat, he launched the Tribeca Film Festival, which first took place in May 2002. While De Niro said he had long wanted to start a film festival, the post-9/11 goal was to bring people downtown. And, as De Niro’s business partner, Jane Rosenthal, said at the time, the film festival would give Tribeca ” new memory” alongside the one of the collapse of the twin towers.”This neighborhood is my home, I’m committed to it, and that’s what this festival is all about,” De Niro said at the festival’s opening.This year’s festival drew 300,000 people and $50 million in spending to the neighborhood, city officials said.
De Niro, who is being treated for prostate cancer, and Rosenthal declined to comment. De Niro, who was born in the Little Italy neighborhood and grew up in the city, helped transform Tribeca from an area of 19th-century warehouses and industrial buildings into a neighborhood of high-end restaurants and expensive apartments. In 1988, he opened Tribeca Film Center in a converted coffee warehouse.Since then, De Niro has opened three restaurants, Tribeca Grill on Greenwich Street, TriBakery around the corner on Franklin Street and Nobu on Hudson Street. He owns three buildings on Hudson Street, now under renovation, adjacent to the penthouse loft where he lives. (New York magazine reports rumors that De Niro has bought a townhouse in an uptown neighborhood to be near one of his children.)
This month, De Niro bought a movie theater and restaurant on Tribeca’s northern edge. The actor, who was paid $20 million for his recent film Analyze That, intends to use them for the film festival and calls them a perfect statigic fit. In 1997, De Niro won an award named for the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis-another New York City celebrity who influenced urban design – for his contribution to the success of Tribeca.De Niro is, as on film critic called him, the neighborhood’s “resident luminary.” He was eclipsed briefly by John F. Kennedy Jr., who lived in a Tribeca loft before he died in 1999.
Has attracted investment
“Before 9/11 there was probably some resentment in that (DeNiro) was getting all the press,” says Judy Duffy, assistant district manager for the local community board. Other people had been early investors in Tribeca, too, “but all anybody wanted to talk about was DeNiro.”Residents praise his low-key ways in a neighborhood that has attracted more than its share of famous faces. “He walks down the street without making a big deal, and he goes to the restaurants that aren’t just his. He was saying in subtle was that he liked being here,” says Karen Waltuck, whose restaurant Chanterelle was also a pioneer in the neighborhood. But then after 9/11, perhaps he decided that it was worthwhile to be higher profile.De Niro had already forged a close relationship with state development official before the Trade Center attack.”His stature and the Tribeca Grill restaurant really attracted a lot of additional investment that helped turn a gritty industrial area into a neighborhood,” says Charles Gargano, head of the state’s economic development agency. But projects outside Tribeca have been less successful. In 1996, De Niro and well-known restaurateur Drew Nieporent tried unsuccessfully to revive a jazz club in Harlem, Minton’s Playhouse. In 1999, De Niro’s most ambitious deal, a $150 million agreement with the city to build a movie studio I the Brooklyn Navy Yard, ended in acrimony with City Hall.Bruce Sinder, a commercial real estate broker in Tribeca, says: “Some of the development is for his own personal and financial investment. But beyond that, he really cares about the neighborhood.”