Quantcast

Infill face off: Water St. arcade proposal faces pushback in Council

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.
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 she faced tough questions from the Council at a hearing on the measure on May 4.

BY YANNIC RACK

A controversial plan to hand two football fields worth of public space along Water St. over to landlords faced tough scrutiny in the Council this week, with legislators questioning the measure that aims to put shops into the pedestrian arcades along the Financial District corridor.

A zoning text amendment — proposed by the city and the Downtown Alliance, and approved by the City Planning Commission on Apr. 25 — would allow the owners of almost two dozen office buildings along Water St. between Whitehall and Fulton Sts. to build out their covered walkways with lucrative retail in return for fixing up the area’s public plazas.

The plan went before the Council’s zoning subcommittee on Wednesday, where councilmembers gave voice to community opposition to the proposal by grilling its architects on the trade-off between giving up the privately owned public spaces (POPS) in return for an ill-defined public benefit.

“You want to give [these building owners] something, when they’ve done absolutely nothing to give us. In fact, we’ve already lost out by giving more floor area for what’s supposed to be public plazas,” said Councilmember Antonio Reynoso. “No one here is doing us a favor — we are doing them a favor. So I’m not sold on this at the moment.”

Both the plazas and the arcades were originally created by the builders in a swap with the city to allow greater height for their office towers.

Supporters claim the zoning measure would make better use of the arcade space, make the area more inviting to pedestrians and small businesses, and even provide space for community facilities.

“The value of tremendously improved public plazas, new shops and restaurants, and an enhanced streetscape greatly outweighs any potential loss of outdated, underutilized arcade space,” Downtown Alliance president Jessica Lappin told the councilmembers on Wednesday. “These arcades have failed as public spaces.”

But some locals who showed up to the Council hearing even challenged the underlying premise of Lappin’s entire argument — that the arcades are just dreary, unused wastes of space.

“I use the arcades every day — my kid used to scooter under 85 Broad Street,” said Pearl St. resident Chuck DeLaney, who said he is also a residential member of the Alliance. “No one has ever consulted me about this,” he added. “Arcades are dark by definition, but they have a tremendous public benefit.”

Opponents also complained that the scheme, which would turn more than 110,000 square feet of public space into lucrative ground-floor retail, is an uneven deal and a blatant giveaway to building owners.

“This debate is all about the owners getting more square footage for their buildings,” said Alice Blank, who is a member of Community Board 1 but testified against the plan as an architect and local resident. “Everything else about this issue — the under-utilization of the arcades, the promises of future senior centers and mom-and-pop stores — is pretext. What is real here is the plain value of free New York City real estate, with no compensation for the public.”

Landlords would be required to spruce up the nearby public plazas in exchange for the free, ground-floor retail space — which, at the local average rent of $200 per square foot, could amount to an annual windfall of more than $250 million for the building owners if all the arcades were built out.

“Nobody in their right mind is going to tell you we need another potted plant in exchange for 110,000 square feet of space,” Blank said of the trade-off.

The proposal was originally pitched as a way to enliven the sleepy stretch of office buildings in a fast-growing neighborhood that still lacks many of the retail amenities common in other residential areas. The Alliance also argues that the current regulations around the spaces make it all but impossible for building owners to build out individual retail spaces on their own.

But the Downtown business group, together with the Dept. of City Planning and the city’s Economic Development Corporation, did not address one of the main sticking points for many residents, as well as the councilmembers — exactly how the enormous potential windfall from the retail spaces would be balanced by the plaza improvements.

“How can we make sure this is a fair, even trade if we’re giving more space to the buildings,” said committee chairman Donovan Richards. “I would assume that building out the arcade space would be more lucrative for building owners,” he added. “Can you tell me the cost for upgrading the plazas?”

“No, we can’t give you a figure,” Lappin said. “Over time, in maybe 10, 20 or 30 years, an owner will benefit from the retail arcade space. But if we don’t create incentives, no one will upgrade the plazas.”

City Planning officials previously told Downtown Express that improvements would bring the 1960s-era plazas into compliance with new standards instituted in 2007 and 2009 that require more plantings and greenery, among other changes.

The councilmembers also expressed concern over how the measure would limit their own involvement in the approval process for the retail in-fill. Currently, such an application would require a full ULURP process and need to be approved by the full Council, but under the text amendment, in-fill applications would only go before the community board for a non-binding vote.

Another line of questioning was on how the Alliance planned to ensure that the spaces would be filled with small shops that benefit the community rather than just more bank branches and drug stores.

“How do we prevent big-box stores from moving in?” asked Downtown councilmember Margaret Chin. “The community doesn’t want that.”

Lappin pointed out that the small layout of many of the spaces would naturally limit their use, and that banks were not allowed to front on the plazas anyway.

“The way that this is written, there is no way that we will get a big-box store,” she said. “The goal here is not to become Broadway.”

Community Board 1 initially rejected the text amendment after a heated debate, but later narrowly passed a resolution supporting the measure with some stipulations — including a requirement that each potential retailer come before the board for approval before they build out.

Before it approved the plan, the Planning Commission did incorporate some of the changes that CB1 had asked for — notably the 45-day community board review period for individual infills.

The Planning Commission’s full-throated support for the initiative wasn’t entirely unexpected, since the commission’s chairman, Carl Weisbrod, is the former president of the Alliance.

The subcommittee will hold another hearing on the plan on May 17.

After that, the plan still needs to be weighed by the Land Use Committee, as well as the full Council.

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.
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.