New ideas for Greenwich South, Downtown’s underbelly…


By Julie Shapiro

some wouldn’t have to take many years

Another big idea for Greenwich St. South comes along every few years, but the neighborhood just south of the World Trade Center site remains largely unchanged: scaffolding-covered sidewalks, some seedy strip clubs and few residential amenities.

Columbia University graduate students set out earlier this year hoping to succeed where previous urban planners had not. Working with Prof. Ethel Sheffer, Community Board 1 and city agencies, the students developed a new vision for the neighborhood, including affordable housing, an improved streetscape and expanded park space. Their primary goal was to create a 24-hour community for Greenwich South’s 6,100 residents.

“The area remains under utilized and below its potential,” said Caitlin Dourmashkin, a Columbia planning student, during a presentation to C.B. 1 earlier this month. “Greenwich South today is an area of great opportunity, but lacking one cohesive plan.”

The plan that Dourmashkin and her classmates crafted would rezone the neighborhood to reduce the bulk of new buildings; use a tax break to encourage affordable housing; build a community center; and overhaul the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel entrance to create a 60,000-square-foot park.

Some elements of the plan are easy to implement — like improved streetlights and a bike path — while others would require state legislation or the buy-in of developers. Community Board 1 met even the less realistic ideas with enthusiasm at a meeting earlier this month.

“This is fantastic,” said Ro Sheffe, chairperson of the board’s Financial District Committee. “I know it’s pie-in-the-sky dreaming, but I love every bit of it.”

The students’ presentation came at a time when very little is happening on the city’s plan for Greenwich South, first outlined in Mayor Bloomberg speech’s on Lower Manhattan at the end of 2002. The city had wanted to deck over the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel entrance, creating over a million square feet of air rights for new residential development projects. Seth Pinsky, president of the city Economic Development Corp., told Downtown Express last week that all aspects of the plan are too expensive during a downturn and the plan is on hold for now. That includes a possible tour bus garage which the city and Lower Manhattan Development Corp. had hopes of building until recently.

“That’s one of those projects that works when the economy is really strong, but only when the economy is really strong,” Pinsky said of the broader plan. “It’s certainly something that when the economy comes back we’d be very interested in seeing done.”

With the city’s plan on the back burner, the students’ ideas could come to the forefront, particularly if the community pushes for the pieces that are less expensive.

Michael Levine, director of land use and planning for C.B. 1, said one potential first step is to rezone the neighborhood as the students suggested. Greenwich South once had its own zoning subdistrict, but the city eliminated it in 1998. The students would recreate that district, and change the zoning to reduce the allowable floor-to-area ratio to 10, with an increase to 12 if developers include affordable housing. The allowable commercial F.A.R. is currently 15, with a bonus of up to 18, while the allowable residential F.A.R. would not change.

Jeff Galloway, chairperson of C.B. 1’s Planning Committee, wants to make the rezoning a top priority.

“It’s a defensive move,” he said. “Then if the markets revive and things start to happen, [development] would be governed by the zoning we would like to be there.”

The students met with the Dept. of City Planning, and a spokesperson said the city is always open to new proposals. If the city supported the zoning change, Levine said it would take about 18 months to get approved.

An idea that would take more political negotiating is to give residential developers a tax break. The tax break would allow developers who build new or converted apartments to pay no taxes for 12 years if they include 20 percent affordable housing for families making less than $80,000 a year.

Under the abatement, developers would get an even larger benefit if they included community-friendly retail on the ground floor of the building, or if they built a mixture of office and residential space. The tax abatement would require the State Legislature’s approval.

The students also recommended improvements to the neighborhood’s walkability, especially since Greenwich St., the neighborhood’s spine, will eventually be reinstated through the rebuilt World Trade Center site. Now a dark, narrow corridor lined in parked cars and scaffolding, Greenwich St. is not inviting to either residents or tourists, the students said.

The students want to remove one lane of parking from the street, add a bike path and widen the sidewalk to include trees and street furniture. They also suggested improving the lighting, adding navigational signage and painting murals on blank walls.

Levine said these suggestions are “right on target” and could be quickly implemented. He said the board would discuss them with the city Dept. of Transportation, which said they are open to suggestions.

Other ideas the students had for the neighborhood included converting the American Stock Exchange Building into a community center on the ground floor with offices and condos above, and tearing down part of the Battery garage for a condo tower and park space.

While the last idea in particular would have to wait until the economy recovers, John Foss, co-chairperson of C.B. 1’s Planning Committee, said it makes sense to consider all the options now.

“This is what planning is about,” said Foss, who has a masters in planning from Tufts University. “You don’t do planning at an economic boom time when everything is being built around you. You sit back and reflect on where the community would want to go in the next 20 years.”

The Columbia planning studio, Foss added, “was a great project at a really good time.”