Arcade ire: CB1 blasts plan to infill arcades at 200 Water St.

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The owners of 200 Water St. have applied for permission to fill in its pedestrian arcades along Front Street.

BY COLIN MIXSON

Talk about a low-water mark.

Local civic honchos shot down a developer’s proposal to fill in a public arcade on Water Street with ground-floor retail and market-rate housing at the last Community Board 1 meeting, despite the fact that the panel voted last year to endorse a controversial text amendment to allow landlords to reclaim the pedestrian amenities — a decision that was, in hindsight, perhaps not the board’s finest hour, according to one member.

“The vote to infill the arcades was one of the two worst mistakes I ever made with my vote in the 18 or 19 years I’ve been on the community board,” said Bruce Ehrmann. “It was very complicated and I’m not an idiot, but I’m now realizing the ramifications.”

Rockrose Development is looking to augment its massive 576-unit, mixed-use residential building at 200 Water St. between Fulton and John streets with additional ground-floor retail and three, second-floor apartments, which would all but eliminate a public arcade that the developer — like numerous other area landlords — ceded to the city in exchange for additional building height back in the 1960s.

The arcade spaces were at first vibrant public areas flush with art, fountains, and other beautifying features, with the plazas surrounding 200 Water Street in particular earning many plaudits, with Progressive Architecture magazine putting the space on its cover in 1972.

“I remember that plaza when I first came to New York, with its art, fountains, and joy,” said Ehrmann. “People would come from far and wide to see it.”

But as time marched on and the buildings changed hands, the so-called “publicly owned private spaces” quickly lost their charms as the artistic embellishments that defined them were dismantled, according to CB1 Chairman Anthony Notaro.

“It’s a very neutral, antiseptic, simple design,” Notaro said.

In a plan billed to revitalize the area, Councilwoman Margaret Chin and a local business improvement district, the Downtown Alliance, championed a so-called “text amendment” to the zoning laws allowing building owners to reclaim the arcades, arguing that additional retail space would do more to enliven the streetscape.

In addition to shoring up the buildings with anti-flood measures, the giveback requires developers to enliven what’s left of the public spaces after they develop them. But Rockrose’s proposal — which includes planters, drinking fountains, seating, and trash cans — demonstrates little community value in exchange for roughly 4,000-square feet of prime real estate, according to the board’s vice chairman.

“They’re not giving back anything,” said Paul Hovitz.

With local ground-floor retail space renting $200 per square foot a year, the 200 Water St. infill could net Rockrose an annual $800,000 windfall.

Adding insult to injury, the developer’s proposal also includes a café with outdoor seating that would eat into what public space remains within the shrinking arcade, and leaving pedestrians with little walking space, even as a large retail construction project at nearby Pier 17 nears its completion.

“This is really considerably bad planning when you consider the increased traffic that’s going to be going down Water Street once Pier 17 opens,” said Hovitz.

Perhaps the worst part of Rockrose’s proposal is that, regardless the community’s objections, it’s perfectly legal within the confines of the text amendment — and its unclear whether the City Planning Commission, which must sign off on the developer’s plans, will rule based on the letter of the law, or its spirit, according to Notaro.

“What the applicant is asking for, per the text amendment, is appropriate,” he said. “That’s the problem.”

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