Volume 20 Issue 2 | May 25 - 31, 2007

Downtown Express photo by Lorenzo Ciniglio

This narrow walkway on Ward St. would be widened into a landscaped plaza under the plan.

Developer plans to knock down West St. ‘copper top’ to build 63 stories

By Skye H. McFarlane

The developer has called it a “shot in the arm for the neighborhood.” More than one Financial District resident has called it a “dangerous precedent.” The chair of Community Board 1 has called it a “huge decision.”

On June 6, Downtowners will get a chance to decide for themselves how to describe the 63-story, mixed-use development proposed for 50 West St. The developer, Time Equities, will make a full presentation on the project before C.B. 1’s Financial District, Battery Park City and Quality of Life Committees.

In addition to informing the public, the Wednesday meeting will be one of only two opportunities that the board will have to formulate an official position on the development. The other will be next month’s full board meeting. Because 50 West St. has applied for several zoning tweaks, as well as the purchase of air rights from the city, the project must undergo the city’s complex Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). By city law, the community board has until July 2 to submit its opinion on the project.

“We’ll meet as long as we need to meet Wednesday to answer everyone’s questions on this,” said Julie Menin, the chair of C.B. 1. “We are going to speak with a very loud voice on this.”

However, Menin isn’t sure just yet what that voice will say. No matter what the community board says, there will be a significant development at 50 West St. Under the area’s commercial zoning, Time Equities can build a 30 to 40 story building on the site’s current footprint. The company has already submitted preliminary applications for the demolition of the 1912 “copper top” 13-story building that currently occupies the space, just north of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. The development will contain hotel rooms, luxury condominium units and ground floor retail, all to be designed by well-known architect Helmut Jahn.

If the developer’s ULURP application is approved, the building could gain an additional 180,000 square feet of space, putting it at 63 stories under the current plans. The ULURP would also clear the way for a public plaza on the site, with landscaping and outdoor seating for a proposed café and restaurant. The plaza would be created by enlarging the narrow Ward St. walkway near the garage that leads from West to Washington Sts.

Menin, City Councilmember Alan Gerson and representatives from the community board and the local schools have been meeting with Time Equities to discuss potential “community benefits” that the developer might be willing to offer. Community benefit negotiations are common in cases of large-scale developments, especially those that require zoning variances or regulatory approvals. Previous negotiations with Downtown developers have yielded three schools, two community centers and funding for youth programs.

Gerson, Menin and Phillip Gesue, Time Equities director of acquisition and development, all declined to comment specifically on what community amenities have been discussed. However, both Gerson and Menin stressed that the developers will have to make accommodations for the additional children they would be bringing into the area’s overcrowded schools, as well as address the dearth of affordable housing Downtown. Others with knowledge of the negotiations were more specific, saying that Time Equities has offered to purchase laptops and other technology for P.S./ I.S. 89 in Battery Park City, and to beautify a small local park on Trinity Place.

Some community members have complained about the “closed door” negotiations for community amenities. Gerson responded that the talks were only preliminary, to let the developers know what concerns they would have to address in their presentation. Menin and Gesue both stressed that it was not possible to have full-blown public presentation until the 50 West ULURP application was officially submitted to the board. That happened on May 2 and since then, Menin said, a number of board members have taken the time to review the proposal.

Though it is not contained in the ULURP plans, Menin said that she expected Time Equities to include the possibility of a pedestrian bridge in its presentation to the board. Residents of south Battery Park City have long wished for a bridge to connect them to the Rector St. subways without the hassle and danger of navigating the at-grade traffic near the Battery Tunnel. Financial constraints and logistical questions over where and how to construct the bridge have long stalled the project. Gesue said that Time Equities is “absolutely” supportive of having a pedestrian bridge in the neighborhood. He added that the 50 West project could help the community by getting involved in any number of urban planning efforts.

In general, though, Gesue believes that the 50 West project is its own community benefit. With Jahn’s name and talent attached, he said, the building will be an “architectural landmark.” Gesue declined to release any renderings before the presentation. The building is also aiming for a gold rating from the U.S. Green Buildings Council. The current plans call for a clear glass building surrounding an exposed concrete skeleton. The building would be narrower at the bottom, to allow room for the public plaza, and wider on the upper floors — what architects call a cantilever.

The public plaza, Gesue said, will give Battery Park City residents a clean, attractive walkway to the Financial District. With a better access path, the merchants in the Greenwich South area will benefit from an increase in foot traffic. In general, he believes that the development will bring tourists, shops and street life to an area that is better known for commuter traffic and parking garages. Gesue admitted, however, that those neighborhood qualities will make the new 50 West St. property a challenge to market.

“This is why we need all the help we can get,” Gesue said. “We’re taking what is not a great area and we are making it better. This will be a real shot in the arm for the neighborhood, but that’s a challenge and a risk for us. That’s why we need the community’s help and not resistance.”

Some community members are already resistant, fearing that the rumored laptops, park improvements and pedestrian bridge will not compensate for the stress that the building’s increased population will put on the neighborhood’s schools and parks. While new laptops will become obsolete in five years, C.B. 1 member Catherine McVay Hughes said, the community will be stuck with 20 extra stories forever. Hughes also worried that the developer’s plan to build green would be presented as a “community amenity” at the meeting.

“A green building is great,” Hughes said. “But any smart developer these days who wants to attract luxury condo owners would want to make their building green. So it’s not a community amenity.”

Other community members are vowing to oppose the project, no matter what community amenities Time Equities offers. The height of the building would be out-of-context with the neighborhood, they say, (most nearby buildings are in the 20- to 30-story range) and the purchase of air rights from over the Battery Tunnel would set a bad precedent in an area that will likely see more large development in the coming years.

“I think it’s time to save the community contextually,” said C.B. 1 member and Battery Park City resident Tom Goodkind. “I don’t think community boards were meant to negotiate money out of realtors.”

Menin also believes that the process of community boards negotiating with developers needs to be reformed. She said that instead of having communities beg and plead every time a new development comes along, the city should institute a formal process whereby large projects must be analyzed to find out exactly what impact they will have on community infrastructure. Developers would then have a legal mandate to mitigate that impact.

While Gerson also supports a more regulated process at the city level, he said Wednesday that he was “guardedly optimistic” that the community and Time Equities could reach an amenable agreement under the current system. Though she is waiting to see the final presentation and hear the community’s reaction, Menin was a bit more guarded than optimistic.

“It’s a huge decision,” she said. “It may be that the impact is simply too great. At a certain point, we would have to say, ‘No, this is not acceptable.’”

The opinions of the community board, the Borough President’s office and the City Planning department all carry weight in the ULURP process, but because the 50 West application involves a change to the city map, the final approval or disapproval will be made by the City Council. The June 6 public meeting will take place at 6 p.m. in the Assembly Hearing Room on the 19th floor of 250 Broadway.

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