Volume 20, Number 43 | THE NEWSPAPER OF LOWER MANHATTAN - MARCH 7 -- 13, 2008

Downtown Express photos by Elisabeth Robert

Tailor William Saad last month before his Dey St. office closed. His old office on Broadway near Fulton St. was demolished to make way for the Fulton St. Transit Center, leaving a vacant site on Broadway, below. The cnter’s elaborate building had recently been cut out out of the plan, but the M.T.A. now hopes to spend $295 million in its capital budget to build an undetermined structure at the site.

Some sort of building will rise at Fulton, M.T.A. says

By Julie Shapiro

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority gave the first hint this week of what could go in the enormous dirt pit on Broadway between Fulton and John Sts.

From the pit, the glass-domed Fulton Street Transit Center was supposed to rise — that is, until the M.T.A. announced last month that it nixed the plans for the costly aboveground portion of the station. The worst case, the M.T.A. said then, was that the site would see nothing more than a plaza.

But this week, for the first time, the M.T.A. promised to erect a building above the transit hub.

“It’ll be something more than a plaza, but less than the oculus,” M.T.A. spokesperson Aaron Donovan said, referring to the dome. Donovan also said the building would contain retail, though he did not know what type or how much.

The announcement did not soothe Downtown politicians and community leaders, who have lobbied hard for the oculus and aren’t about to give up.

“We have to hold their feet to a fire and make sure what was promised is delivered,” Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver told Downtown Express this week. “We want to get something that’s practical but also something that’s consistent with what was promised to the community.”

The M.T.A.’s capital plan, released last week, suggests allocating an additional $295 million for the Fulton St. hub, bringing the total for the project to $1.198 billion, more than $400 million over the original estimate for the center before it was scaled back. So far, the M.T.A. has awarded Fulton contracts worth close to $1 billion, Donovan said.

The overall $29.5 billion M.T.A. capital plan, for 2008-2013, already suffers a shortfall of $14 billion, but Silver believes there are ways to find more funding for the transit hub. The M.T.A. needs to put more money in, he said, and additional funding could come from the federal government and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. If the proposed congestion pricing plan is passed by the end of the month it would provide $4.5 billion to the capital plan.

Right now, the M.T.A. may have a large budget gap, but it has a still larger credibility gap, Silver said. The fact that the M.T.A. “is about $10 billion short in terms of funding has people wondering whether anything will be built,” Silver said. “The transit center is a clear symbol for that.”

The project’s completion date, last scheduled for June 2009, is listed as “To Be Decided” in the capital plan. Donovan said he would have more information in 30 to 45 days.

The belowground work, to ease connections between 12 subway lines, is moving forward as planned and was never in jeopardy.

At last week’s Association for a Better New York breakfast, Gov. Eliot Spitzer briefly mentioned the Fulton Transit Center as one of many M.T.A. projects that must be built. He did not say whether he meant that the station would have a building or retail.

“We support the M.T.A.’s review of the project design and contracts and we feel confident the transit center will meet the needs of the community,” Erin Duggan, spokesperson for the governor, wrote in a subsequent e-mail.

Catherine McVay Hughes, chairperson of Community Board 1’s World Trade Center Redevelopment Committee, was not happy to hear that the M.T.A. has eliminated the oculus.

“We’re very frustrated with this switch-and-bait plan,” she said in a phone interview. “What was promised appears like it’s not going to be delivered.”

The M.T.A. will make a presentation at the April W.T.C. Committee meeting, but Hughes doesn’t want to wait that long for specifics on the M.T.A.’s plans. “Unknowns are not good for the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan,” she said. “The sooner we get clarification the better.”

At several recent meetings, Hughes and others have drawn attention to another project that received 9/11-related transportation funds, the rebuilding of the South Ferry station, which is nearly complete. South Ferry was never a priority of C.B. 1 because the intent was to speed the commute for Staten Island residents commuting to Midtown. The Fulton Transit Center, in contrast, was among C.B. 1’s top priorities.

“It’s unfortunate they didn’t start immediately on Fulton St. and [now] that was almost complete instead [of South Ferry],” Hughes said.

Though plans for the future station keep shifting, what happened in the past does not change: The M.T.A. used eminent domain to displace 140 businesses on Broadway to clear out space for the glass-topped hub. Many of the businesses left the area when their buildings were demolished in 2006, but those who stayed face construction-choked streets ill suited to commerce.

The M.T.A. says the buildings on Broadway had to be demolished to complete the belowground work, regardless of whether anything is ever built aboveground.

William Saad, a tailor, was among those forced out of 198 Broadway. The best place he could find to reopen was at 7 Dey St., on a block torn apart by construction, where rents were higher and foot traffic never wandered. After spending a year and a half on Dey St. operating at a loss, Saad finally had to close shop for good last week.

“Day after day, you can’t just sit there, do nothing and pay the rent,” Saad said from his home in Jersey City. “You’ve got to blow air in a balloon that has no holes in it. The balloon Downtown doesn’t even exist, let alone have a few holes.”

Saad hopes to rebuild his tailoring business in New Jersey, working for local drycleaners and department stores. He also wants to offer his services to New York professionals in their offices, picking up their garments and delivering the finished product several days later. With no overhead costs, he’ll be able to offer his services at a discount, he said.

“I’m very hopeful,” he said. “I’m not throwing in the towel yet.”

In some ways, Saad even felt liberated to leave his Downtown difficulties behind. Several years after 9/11, the streets of Lower Manhattan were bustling with life, as people spent money to help revitalize the neighborhood, Saad said. Now, the narrow, dusty streets are suffocating, cut off with construction barriers from the throngs of visitors, residents and workers, he said.

Saad, who didn’t believe the M.T.A. would ever build the oculus, was unsurprised to hear the latest word on the dome.

“The glass dome is like a lollipop to the public, where the public would not object to the project,” Saad said.

He is also skeptical about the M.T.A.’s promises of retail space. “They say, ‘Retail, retail, retail,’ but they already ruined the retail life in the area,” Saad said. “Will that house any small businessman who operates by himself? I don’t think so.”

After reading a Downtown Express article featuring Saad last month, Hughes, of C.B. 1, decided to try out his shop. She brought him a coat with a hole in the pocket, which he quickly mended.

“I was so excited,” she said. “Those are the services that make living down here bearable.”

Hughes was sad to hear Saad had gone out of business — she recently tried to bring him two more coats to fix but found his door shut — and she said the M.T.A. needs to do more to support small businesses. The M.T.A. could put up additional signs at street level on Dey St., directing passersby to the invisible businesses on upper levels, Hughes suggested.

Arthur Castle, a statistician displaced by the M.T.A. for the Fulton St. Transit Center, questioned the city’s use of eminent domain.

“They should put up something there that will serve a good public purpose, something for the community,” Castle said. “I don’t think it should be a big decoration that’s a magnet for high-end retail stores.”

Castle cited the shops near Columbus Circle as exactly what he doesn’t want to see: places where “you spend $150 on lunch, then buy fancy imported handbags,” Castle said. “It’s going to have nothing to do with most of the people who live Downtown and work Downtown.”

Julie@DowntownExpress.com



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