Photos by Yannic Rack
Downtown Alliance president Jessica Lappin (inset) wants to allow developers to put retail space into Water Street’s “uninviting and underutilized” public arcades (left) in exchange for sprucing up the area’s equally bleak public plazas (right), but Community Board 1 had other ideas.
BY YANNIC RACK |
The city’s plan to give away two football fields worth of public space to landlords on Water St. hit a snag on Tuesday when Community Board 1 refused to support it.
The Dept. of City Planning wants to hand over more than 110,000 square feet of public arcades — covered walkways along a building’s front — to the owners of 20 buildings along the street for them to build out as retail space, in return for fixing up the area’s public plazas.
But CB1 voted down a proposed resolution of conditional support at its monthly meeting on Feb. 23, in part because the deal struck some as an uneven — and perhaps even unnecessary — exchange.
“I don’t know why it has to be funded, effectively, by giving the developers an extra bonus, which this is,” said Roger Byrom, who led the opposition. “We should question why they wouldn’t do that anyway — why wouldn’t they want to make the arcades appealing and interesting to their residents?”
The proposed zoning change is supported by the Downtown Alliance, which joined with City Planning to pitch the idea to a somewhat skeptical Community Board 1 committee meeting earlier this month, arguing that the arcades are a dark and deserted waste of space, and new retail, plus renovated open space, would be a fillip for an underappreciated neighborhood.
“If this were the commercial strip of almost any other city in America, it would be the commercial strip, and not just any commercial strip. It sometimes gets forgotten, and we think it doesn’t get its due,” Downtown Alliance president Jessica Lappin told CB1’s Planning Committee at its Feb. 8 meeting, where it drafted a resolution supporting the plan with a few caveats.
The building owners originally constructed the arcades because zoning rules allow developers to build additional floor area if they provide public open space. The arcades around the Water St. buildings allowed for 2.5 million more square feet of floor area to be built, according to the city.
“Those [arcades] were negotiated with the developers when the buildings were proposed, many of them a while ago, and the developer got a bonus for them — typically building higher,” said Byrom. “So for us to just say, ‘Oh we’ll now give you that public space back,’ is a bit unreasonable.”
Giving it back would be a boon to landlords, who could get around $200 per square foot on average for ground-floor retail space, according to a local commercial broker, amounting to more than $250 million in annual rent for the building owners.
Lappin made the case on Feb. 8 that the half-mile strip stretching from Whitehall St. to Fulton St. and South St. to Pearl St. needs more ground-floor retail.
“There are about 12,000 residents who live nearby and around 100,000 office workers, which means that there is a lot of foot traffic, but not a lot of places for that foot traffic to go,” said Lappin.
The arcades, meanwhile, actually serve little public purpose, she said.
“I find them to be uninviting and underutilized,” Lappin said of the walkways under buildings such as 55 Water St., one of the city’s largest office towers, and Brookfield’s One New York Plaza.
The arcades were supposed to act as protected pathways along the street, but their layout — often too deep or narrow, and complicated by thick and close-set columns — means they seem more like dead-ends, argued Lappin.
On a sunny day this week, the plaza in front of 55 Water St. was deserted, safe for a few office workers from the building taking cigarette breaks.
Jose Rodriguez, who has worked at the All American Deli across the street for four years, said he would welcome the development.
“There’s a lot of tourists around here on the weekends, so I think it’s a good idea,” he said. “Our customers would have more space to sit and eat outside in the summertime.”
The presentation to CB1 by Lappin and city planner Richard Suarez of the Dept. of City Planning was the first step in the 60-day public review period for the proposal, which will get a hearing at the City Planning Commission next month and a final Council vote by mid-June.
The rezoning would mean any building owner renting out ground-floor retail space would have to provide amenities like plantings, tables, seats and drinking fountains on the plazas surrounding their buildings — which cover a bit more than double the area of the arcades that would be built out.
Building owners would also be required to install new flood proofing for their ground floors.
Despite some concerns, the committee voted last week to approve the zoning change — as long as facilities such as schools, libraries and senior centers are encouraged for the empty spaces, and the community board has a chance to review and comment on every proposed arcade infill, which currently would only require signoff by the City Planning Commission or its chairperson.
But the committee’s resolution failed to pass the full board at the meeting on Feb. 23.
Byrom said the Planning Committee will meet again on March 10 to consider another approach, and would work with the city and the Alliance to find a plan the full board can support.
“We should sit down and more carefully try to find a better way to both revitalize the arcades, but also, at the same time, recognize that in doing so, the public should not lose all of their amenities,” he said.
Courtesy of the Dept. of City Planning
Under the proposed zoning text amendment, 20 buildings around Water St. would be free to fill their public arcades with retail in return for sprucing up the surrounding plazas.
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