Volume 18 • Issue 40 | February 17 - 23, 2006

Port Authority renderings of a possible retail mall near Church and Cortlandt Sts.

Not ready to close the debate on opening Cortlandt St.

By Ronda Kaysen

One man’s shopping heaven is another man’s suburban hell.

A block of Cortlandt St. between Church and Greenwich Sts. has found itself at the center of a dispute between the Department of City Planning and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey about whether to reopen the block, which has been closed since the Twin Towers were built, or transform the space into an enclosed mall.

When the two agencies made a repeat appearance at a Community Board 1 meeting last week to plead their cases, the community seemed as divided as the two agencies on the future of the street.

“Typically the community board usually has a unified position on something about the Trade Center, but with this it isn’t clear-cut where the members are at,” C.B. 1 World Trade Center Redevelopment Committee chairperson Catherine McVay Hughes told Downtown Express. “It’s hard to make a decision.”

City Planning would like to see the street reopened, arguing that closing Cortlandt will create a “superblock” along Church St. and cut the memorial and the rest of the Trade Center off from passersby and east-west access. With a PowerPoint presentation of pedestrians ambling along a paved promenade and shop signs flapping in the wind, the city pleaded its case. “We need our streets, we need connectivity, we need an open Cortlandt St. for light and air and to create normal blocks,” said City Planning Chairperson Amanda Burden at the Feb. 6 World Trade Center Committee meeting. “It is important to open a street that has been closed for decades.”

The Port Authority had its own PowerPoint presentation, one with images of a glorious glass atrium welcoming visitors to a three-level mall straddling Towers 3 and 4. An open street, the authority insists, would be little more than an isolated wind tunnel, darkened by two 1,000-ft. towers. Third floor retail – about 100,000 sq. ft. — would be un-desireable to tenants if the street was not enclosed because it could be harder to induce shoppers to go to higher floors if they are not already walking in a large indoor space.

“We have the opportunity to create a wonderful environment here,” James Connors, director of the W.T.C. redevelopment for the Port Authority, told board members. “It really is an urban mall, in the tradition of the Time Warner Center.”

It is the very issue of a mall that has residents deeply divided. “In the ‘80s it was a dismal, miserable mall,” said board member and Battery Park City resident Jeff Galloway of the original Trade Center mall, adding that the mall was only successful when Borders Books moved in—with street level access. “I’m not sure that there is any mall that has ever been successful in Manhattan. The mall succeeds in sapping the life out of Lower Manhattan.”

Fred Kent, president of Project for Public Spaces, an advocacy group, was even more blunt. “Malls are dead,” he told board members.

Advocates for building the mall had a very different memory of the original Trade Center, one that included weekends spent ambling through the mall, a welcome haven from the frigid, windswept Trade Center plaza above.

“The former Trade Center shopping environment was one of the most successful in the country,” said Connors.

There will be significant enclosed retail at the new Trade Center site with or without closing off Cortlandt. The new Calatrava PATH station under construction will have three levels of below-grade retail, totalling 200,000 sq. ft. But the bulk of the retail will be along Church and Greenwich Sts.

Residents who supported bringing a mall to the block worried about a narrow street made uninhabitable by a near constant wind tunnel. “I don’t think a 47-foot wide street between two 1,000-foot tall buildings will be a place where people will congregate. It wil be a place where people will rush through,” said C.B. 1 member and Tribeca resident Peter Braus.

Some even wondered if City Planning’s argument that the block would improve the street grid was valid. “A block that extends for one block doesn’t really create connectivity,” said board member Marc Donnenfeld.

As with most points, this one also had a contrarian. “If Cortlandt St. were closed between Brodaway and Church we’d be affected by it,” said Maiden Lane resident Claire Weisz. Maiden Lane becomes Cortlandt St. when it crosses Broadway. “Streets are public space. Everytime you close a street, you lose some public space. Just because a street may not be perfect doesn’t mean you have to lose it.”

The two sides must eventually reach a consensus, depending on whom you ask. As part of the master plan agreement for the Trade Center site, the two sides must reach “a point of mutual agreement” on the block, according to Connors. Talk to City Planning and you get a different assessment of the master plan. “It is now written into the agreement that Cortlandt has to be open,” said Burden. To change it would require “a rewriting of the agreement.”

Cortlandt St. is not the only variable in the equation, however. Towers 3 and 4 are supposed to be built by developer Larry Silverstein, but the Port Authority has made it clear that they would like to build the two towers, not just the retail component. Silverstein told Downtown Express last month that he had no preference for an enclosed mall or an open street. He just wanted to see the three-story podiums where the retail space will be built so he could build his towers.

“There are so many unknowns for Cortlandt St.,” said W.T.C. Redevelopment Committee chairperson Hughes. “We don’t even know who is developing the site yet. There is no need to make a decision on this.”



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