City Plan to Swap Public Space For Retail in FiDi Meets Community Pushback

 A city plan would allow building owners to fill what is now public arcades with retail space, in exchange for upgrades to surrounding plazas. A city plan would allow building owners to fill what is now public arcades with retail space, in exchange for upgrades to surrounding plazas. View Full Caption

Department of City Planning

LOWER MANHATTAN — Residents aren’t completely sold on a city plan that would give up public space to landlords for retail use in a bid to overhaul desolate stretches of Water Street.

The rezoning proposal would allow some 20 buildings along Water Street, from Fulton Street to Whitehall Street, to fill in pedestrian arcades — stretches of covered pathways, lined with columns — with retail shops.

The city is proposing giving public walkways to building owners who could “fill in” the space with shops. (Courtesy of Department of City Planning)

In exchange for the 110,000 square feet of public walkway space, landlords would have to make upgrades to adjacent, expansive plaza space — something they are not currently required to do.

Proponents say the plan — proposed by the Department of City Planning, along with the Economic Development Corporation and the Downtown Alliance, a Lower Manhattan business improvement district organization — would breathe needed life into what’s now dark, underutilized and awkward space, while also enlivening more than 200,000 square feet of open plaza with things like tables, chairs and planters.

A rendering depicts how the arcades and adjacent plaza space could be revitalized. (Courtesy of Department of City Planning)

Community Board 1, however, voted the plan down at a recent full board meeting, a decision that mainly hinged on the issue of giving away public space and whether it’s a fair trade.

“I think the concept of giving away public space, something we are always trying to find more of, is difficult,” said Catherine McVay Hughes, the chair of CB1. “Even in this case, where the configuration of the public space is not working.”

The planning committee of CB1 had given the plan its support earlier this month, with the stipulation that the board can review proposals for the “fill-in” shops before they are built — but for others on the board, the trade didn’t perhaps seem completely fair.

Jessica Lappin, the president of the Downtown Alliance, said she is hopeful that the proposal, which will go before the City Planning Commission at the end of March, will move forward.

Lappin said the proposal took years of research.

“There is a tremendous amount of residential growth and the demand is there now — we’ve heard over and again that there’s nowhere to eat and shop on Water Street,” Lappin said. “Those arcades are dark, uninviting and people don’t want to walk through them.”

For the past several summers, the Downtown Alliance has taken steps to activate the plazas along Water Street, including adding tables, chairs and creating events — but that was only allowed through a temporary override of the current zoning.

“We’ve gotten this feedback that people want more activity on Water Street,” Lappin said. “We want this area to be a more vital and vibrant place — the arcade spaces are not that big, they’d be inviting small retail shops, filling a barren, dark arcade.”

“I think we have to accept that what is there now is not working, and there are ways we can make this better — both with shops and creating more inviting public plaza space,” she added.

McVay Hughes said that City Planning will come back to CB1 for another meeting in March about the plan, which ultimately needs approval from the City Council to move forward.

Some new ideas CB1 may put on the table include trying to get that 110,000 square feet public space someplace else Downtown, if the walkways are given up — like transferring air rights, but with public space, a board member said. Another idea is trying to ensure that the new retail spaces are environmentally friendly and possibly LEED certified.

The current plan would require that landlords update their ground floors for flood proofing.

CB1′s next planning meeting is slated for March 14.

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