- Real Estate
- Under Cover
- Special Editorial
- In Pictures
BY YANNIC RACK
A controversial plan to hand two football fields worth of public space along Water St. over to landlords is rapidly moving ahead, now that the City Planning Commission this week approved the measure for shops to fill the pedestrian arcades along the Financial District corridor.
A zoning text amendment — proposed by the Department of City Planning and the Downtown Alliance, and approved unanimously by the commission on Apr. 25 — would allow the owners of 20 buildings along Water St. between Whitehall and Fulton Sts. to build out their covered walkways with retail in return for fixing up the area’s public plazas. The plan will go before the Council’s zoning subcommittee on Wednesday.
Supporters claim the measure would make better use of the space, make the area more inviting for pedestrians and small businesses, and provide space for community facilities. But local opponents say the scheme, which would erase more than 110,000 square feet of public space, is an uneven deal and a blatant giveaway to building owners.
“This debate is all about the owners getting more square footage for their buildings,” said Alice Blank, who is a member of Community Board 1, but was speaking purely as an architect and local resident. “Everything else about this issue — the under-utilization of the arcades, the promises of future senior centers and mom-and-pop stores — is pretext. What is real here is the plain value of free New York City real estate, with no compensation for the public.”
Landlords would be required to spruce up the nearby public plazas in exchange for the free, ground-floor retail space — which, at the local average rent of $200 per square foot, would amount to an annual windfall of more than $250 million for the building owners. But opponents point out that the upkeep of the plazas, created by the builders along with the arcades in a swap with the city to allow greater height for the towers, is already the responsibility of the building owners.
“Nobody in their right mind is going to tell you we need another potted plant in exchange for 110,000 square feet of space,” Blank said of the trade-off.
The proposal was pitched as a way to enliven the sleepy stretch of office buildings in a fast-growing area that still lacks many of the retail amenities common in other residential neighborhoods.
“It’s an area that is really ripe for investment. We don’t want this to stay a vacant, barren stretch of office buildings,” Downtown Alliance president Jessica Lappin told Community Board 1’s Planning Committee at its Mar. 14 meeting. “This is a part of Lower Manhattan that has been left behind.”
CB1 initially rejected the plan after a heated debate, but later narrowly passed a resolution last month supporting the measure with some stipulations — including a requirement that each potential retailer come before the board for approval before they build out.
Before it approved the plan, the Planning Commission did incorporate some of the changes that CB1 had asked for — notably a 45-day community board review period for individual fill-ins, according to CB1 planning consultant Michael Levine.
The Planning Commission’s full-throated support for the Downtown Alliance initiative wasn’t entirely unexpected, since the commission’s chairman, Carl Weisbrod, is the former president of the Alliance.
If approved by the zoning subcommittee on May 4, the scheme would still need to be weighed by the full Council, and Blank and her fellow opponents hope their representatives in city government will see right through the dubious deal.
“The City Planning vote sort of teed up the immensely important, high stakes vote for the City Council,” she said. “There’s an ever-increasing demand to determine the value of the property, so we hope the Council will do that and make good on representing the interests of the public.”
The Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises will hold a public hearing on the proposal on Wednesday, May 4, at 9:30 a.m. at the City Hall Committee Room.