WATER STREET WARS: Arcade plan critics want to stop the clock on zoning approval

Photo by Yannic Rack Roxanne Earley, Councilmember Margaret Chin's land-use director, at left, discusses the Water St. text amendment with Community Board 1 member Roger Byrom, center.
Photo by Yannic Rack
Roxanne Earley, Councilmember Margaret Chin’s land-use director, at left, discusses the Water St. text amendment with Community Board 1 member Roger Byrom, center.


It’s down to a race against the clock.

With less than two weeks before the Council will have to vote on a highly controversial zoning change that would hand two football fields worth of public space to landlords along Water St., Downtown’s councilmember is racing to make changes to the bill to satisfy critics who decry it as a land grab for developers that shortchanges the community.

“I will fight for all the things you still want and deserve on Water St., no matter what,” vowed Roxanne Earley, Councilmember Margaret Chin’s Director of Land Use and Planning, at a rally of the plan’s opponents this week.

The zoning text amendment, introduced by the Downtown Alliance and the city’s Economic Development Corporation and Dept. of City Planning, seeks to hand 110,000 square feet of covered arcades at 20 Downtown office towers to building owners for retail development in exchange for upgrades to public plazas in the area.

Both the walkways and plazas — which are privately owned public spaces, or POPS — were originally provided by landlords in exchange for permission to construct taller and bulkier buildings than otherwise allowed.

Consideration of such a zoning change is held to the strict timetable dictated by the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP, which normally requires the Council to act on the measure no later than 50 days after the City Planning Commission signs off — which in this case would mean June 15.

But while the councilmember is trying to modify the contentious measure — which would allow about two more weeks before the Council must vote — its chief critics are hoping to stop the clock on the review process altogether and push the reset button on the Water St. proposal.

“We want the application to be removed, to go back to the drawing board, and for the community to be involved in looking at what makes sense on a case-by-case basis,” said Roger Byrom, the chair of Community Board 1’s Landmarks Committee at the June 7 rally. “But to continue, with only one week to go, to push through a $250 million land grab for developers, is just outrageous.”

In a letter to the mayor and a who’s who of city leaders, Byrom, fellow CB1 members and public space advocates asked that the measure be withdrawn to allow time for an independent working group to revise it to ensure better community input for any future arcade infill.

It is not uncommon for a measure’s sponsor to withdraw it midway through the ULURP rather than risk it being rejected by the Council, since the sponsor can then restart the process later.

“We want them to suspend all action on the amendment until the public is afforded a real and meaningful opportunity to be heard. Without any intervention, this will give away 110,000 square feet of public space,” said Alice Blank, an architect and staunch critic of the proposal.

The Alliance, which says it has been working on the text amendment for years with community stakeholders, presented the proposal to CB1 earlier this spring. After initially rejecting it, the board finally approved the zoning change in March, attaching a list of changes it wanted before sending it on to the City Planning Commission, which incorporated some of CB1’s ideas before endorsing it unanimously on Apr. 25.

Despite this, the plan’s critics claim that most of the community was never really given the chance to weigh in, or even adequate notification of the Alliance’s plans.

“This is a strange example to me of how the community can get a voice,” said Byrom, “even though this has been done, in my opinion, in the most manipulative of ways — in terms of not having full transparency from day one, in having oblique answers to very basic questions all the way through this, and then to finally discover that the agencies that are promoting this have used extremely unethical, if not illegal practices to try and get this through.”

Byrom’s last comment refers the disturbing experience of fellow CB1 member Paul Hovitz, who recently received a call to solicit support for the zoning change that purported to come from Chin’s office, but was actually from a public relations firm hired by the Alliance.

Chin’s staff is doubtful that the proposal will be withdrawn to stop the clock, and if the Council does not vote on the measure before the time limit is up, it automatically heads to the mayor’s desk for his signature.

“We can neither compel nor stop the applicant from pulling the amendment. So if we don’t act, it will go through [as is],” said Earley.

The best option at this point, according to Earley, is to agree on the modifications that critics want to see and present them to the Alliance, which will either accept them, proceed as is and risk failure in the Council vote, or withdraw the proposal to buy time to build more public support.

“It’s very crucial we get this to where we believe that it addresses your concerns — and if that is not agreeable to the applicant, they have the option of withdrawing, she said.”

The Alliance wouldn’t comment on whether it would consider withdrawing the amendment if no compromise can be reached, but spokesman Andy Breslau acknowledged that “all parties are involved in substantive conversations on a variety of issues.”

Chin has been critical of the zoning change from the start, and is pushing to mandate an individual public review of any future infill proposals, as well as a full ULURP on the largest of them, such as 77 Water St., according to Earley.

Currently, the text amendment would give the building owners nearly free reign in putting retail into the arcades, only requiring a sign-off from the City Planning commissioner, who supports the proposal.

The only compensation the public would receive for ceding the space is a requirement that landlords spruce up the adjacent plazas to bring them up to new standards instituted after the spaces were built — a trade-off the measure’s critics think is laughably lopsided.

Chin is also asking for stronger Council oversight, so members are able to weigh in on any City Planning authorizations of the infill spaces and plaza upgrades.

“We’re looking at a special permit process to ensure that we are able to negotiate and fine-tune every single update to every single plaza and every single kind of infill,” Earley said. “The spaces that are the largest, which stand to benefit the most — we won’t entertain them simply slipping through.”

The councilmember is also seeking to streamline the process for plaza upgrades, in order to incentivize building owners to bring them up to code even without any accompanying retail infill.

Working with the amendment’s sponsors, Chin’s staff has until Tuesday, June 14, to make any modifications, at which point the Council’s Zoning subcommittee is expected to vote on the modified text amendment.

After that, the modified text needs to go back to the City Planning Commission for review, to make sure any changes are within the already-conducted environmental review, before it comes before the full Council for a final vote, likely on June 21.

“We do not currently have an agreement, but Margaret has been very clear about the things that are not acceptable in this process — it is unacceptable to not have public review on 110,000 square feet of public spaces,” said Earley.

Critics like Byrom and about a dozen other community board members also doubt that the plaza improvements would measure up to the value of the retail infill.

City Planning officials say the required 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.

Pressed on an economic evaluation of the upgrades versus the infill — which collectively could earn the landlords $250 million a year in ground-floor retail rents— Earley had a disappointing answer for the plan’s opponents.

“Economic evaluations in land use are very tricky, to have them stand up to legal scrutiny. We cannot do an evaluation of dollar-for-dollar amounts here,” she said.

But Earley credited the plans critics for forcing the Council and the Alliance into serious negotiations on changes to the text amendment, which just a few weeks ago looked like it might sail thought the Council without much scrutiny.

“The risk is that, if we do not negotiate a better proposal, it could simply get voted ‘yes,’” she added. “The fact that this is not a done deal, and the fact that we are taking a very close, scalpel look at all of that at each and every specific site … is a testament to how you’ve been involved in this process. I’m trying very, very hard to get you everything you have asked for.”