Watershed moment: Controversial Water St. arcade plan gets Council committee green light

Photos by Yannic Rack
Downtown Alliance president Jessica Lappin (inset) is poised to declare victory in her group’s quest to allow developers to put retail space into the Water St. pedestrian arcades (left) in exchange for sprucing up the area’s public plazas (right), after the Council’s Land Use Committee unanimously endorsed the proposal on Jun15, setting up approval from the full Council on June 21.


It’s game over for the Water St. arcades.

The City Council is set to sign off later this month on a controversial zoning change that would hand two football fields worth of public space to developers along Water St., after the Land Use Committee unanimously approved the plan on Wednesday.

Downtown councilmember Margaret Chin had successfully pushed for several changes to the text amendment to reflect community concerns, but the measure’s chief critics — who decry it as a giveaway to developers that shortchanges the community — still argue the zoning text change is a bad deal for Lower Manhattan, and for public open spaces across the city.

“It’s depressing that this is going through. It just opens the door — it sets a precedent,” said Alice Blank, an architect and member of Community Board 1 who spearheaded local opposition to the plan, in part because she feared it could lead to similar public spaces being handed over to landlords elsewhere. “Any agreement of taking away public space is a bad idea,” she added.

At the initial subcommittee hearings last month, several of the legislators expressed grave concerns about the deal, but once Chin came on board this week opposition on the committees evaporated, since councilmembers usually defer to the local member when considering a measure that falls entirely within their district.

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 ceded to the city by landlords in exchange for permission to construct taller, bulkier buildings than zoning laws allow.

The idea behind the text amendment, according to the Alliance, is to incentivise landlords to bring in more of the retail amenities so lacking along the Water St. corridor and make the area more attractive to its growing residential population.

“This amendment should enliven the street, improve public plazas, and incentivize investment for the benefit of all those who live, work, or visit the area,” said Alliance president Jesica Lappin following the committee vote.

As originally written, the text amendment would have allowed landlords to develop the arcades any way they saw fit, barring a few restrictions, with only a sign off by the City Planning Commission. Under the modifications secured by Chin, any retail infill at the six largest arcades will be subject to extensive pubic oversight through the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP.

Other changes include limiting banks and drug stores to 30 and 50 feet of retail frontage, respectively, and restoring some compliance and reporting provisions that the original proposal would have eliminated, leading Chin to throw her support behind the plan.

“This wasn’t an easy decision to make,” Chin said in a statement after Wednesday’s vote. “There have been many passionate voices that wanted this proposal to be rejected outright, or conversely, wanted the text amendment passed as is. The modified proposal seeks to strike a balance of community input and public oversight with regard to the infill of arcades while providing flexibility to achieve the desired goals of improved public space, neighborhood retail, and pedestrian experience.”

But Blank and her fellow critics — both on the community board and at various organizations including the Tribeca Trust — said the changes don’t go far enough.

“It still doesn’t take away the fact that [the arcades] can now be removed, and that we’re getting nothing in exchange,” Blank said.

Photo by Bill Egbert
The owners of 100 Wall St. could realize a $6-million annual windfall if they built out 2,518 square feet of ground-floor retail in the building’s public arcades, as the Downtown Alliance’s zoning plan will allow.

Landlords that do infill will be obliged to spruce up the nearby public plazas, to bring the 1960s-era spaces into compliance with new standards instituted in 2007 and 2009 that require more plantings and greenery. But critics doubt that this would be fair compensation to the city for handing over development rights to 110,000 square feet of space, which real estate experts estimate could collectively net $250 million in rent as ground floor retail.

But what seemed to irk locals most about the plan — which even skeptics agreed could help revitalize a dreary section of the Financial District — was less about the particulars than the sense that it was being pushed on to the community.

The Downtown Alliance said it had been working on the proposal for years with community stakeholders, but when the group presented the fully formed proposal to CB1 earlier this spring, it was the first time many had ever heard such a dramatic zoning change was in the works.

After initially rejecting it, the board eventually approved the zoning change in March, but critics claim most of the community was never given the chance to weigh in, and that the Alliance was less than upfront in the way it presented and promoted the plan.

“This is a strange example to me of how the community can get a voice,” said Roger Byrom, the chair of CB1’s Landmarks committee, “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 to 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.

The plan will now go before the full Council, which is expected to approve it on June 21.

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.