Zoning complaint highlights tension around POPS regs

Recent complaints about the Andaz Wall Street’s new beer garden underscore the increased strictness of zoning rules for privately owned public spaces. Downtown Express photo by Sam Spokony

BY SAM SPOKONY  |  An amendment to the city’s zoning laws, passed by the City Council in spring 2011, has resulted in new commercial uses for the privately owned public space (POPS) outside the Andaz Wall Street hotel. While the changes have received a generally positive community response, they have also sparked recent complaints that highlighted the strictness with which POPS regulations are now observed.

This May, the hotel, located at 75 Wall St., opened a beer garden in the space it owns between Pearl and Water Streets.

The Lower Manhattan Arcades Text Amendment, which affects 17 buildings on and around the entire length of Water Street, rezoned those properties to allow for the placement of café tables, chairs, umbrellas and garbage cans in outdoor public spaces, in addition to public seating, according to documents obtained from the Department of City Planning (D.C.P.). It was unanimously approved by Community Board 1, and also approved by the D.C.P.’s City Planning Commission, before being adopted by the City Council.

Andaz’s beer garden has now filled its previously deserted outdoor area with a small bar and a variety of tables, often packed by both local residents and Financial District workers seeking a drink after work.

“They should have more places like this,” said Wall Street resident Claudio Quaranta, 54, as he passed through the beer garden on a recent weekday evening. “It fills the dark, empty space so nicely, and it’s a great addition to the community.”

Another Wall Street resident, 30-year-old Summer Harris, who was walking her dog there on the same evening, said that in addition to the beer garden, she enjoys the farmers’ market held within Andaz’s POPS on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

“I’ve lived down here for four years, and there used to be nothing, said Harris. “I think this has become a fantastic gathering place, and the hotel has done a really good job of keeping it clean.”

But senior citizen Diane Wintering, who lives on Hanover Square, recently confronted Andaz managers after being incensed by the beer garden’s violations of its POPS zoning regulations.

Wintering complained to the hotel on Fri., Aug. 10 because ping-pong tables and a large flat-screen TV had been placed in the public space, and because hotel staff were playing music on outdoor speakers. Those entertainment features are not allowed in the space, according to the Arcades Text Amendment.

By the following week, the music, ping-pong table and television had all disappeared. It was a relatively quick turnaround given the fact that Wintering was the only person who actually approached the hotel about the zoning violations, and city officials had not gotten involved, according to Rachel Harrison, a regional spokesperson for Andaz.

“A lot of people loved the ping-pong table and the T.V., but we took the complaint really seriously and immediately removed them,” said Harrison. “We have a great relationship with the community board and the city agencies, so we wanted to maintain that by being a good neighbor.”

But the Andaz’s swift compliance may have resulted from more than just an inclination toward good, neighborly behavior.

Since last September, when hordes of Occupy Wall Street protesters camped out in Zuccotti Park — a public space owned by developer Brookfield Office Properties — adherence to POPS regulations has become an increasingly scrutinized issue, said C.B. 1 Financial District Committee Chair Ro Sheffe.

“People are much more attuned to the proper and improper uses of those spaces now,” said Sheffe. “What happened last year [at Zuccotti Park] was certainly an eye-opener for many of us, so I think there’s a heightened awareness about the POPS rules.”

During the protesters’ encampment, which lasted about two months, police, city officials and Brookfield all struggled to figure out how to legally clear the park. The fact that it was technically open to the public 24 hours a day clashed with zoning laws that allowed Brookfield to impose restrictions on how the space could be used.

City Council Member Margaret Chin — whose office also received a complaint about the Andaz Hotel beer garden before its violations were corrected — stressed the necessity of maintaining strict POPS rules in order to avoid confusion in the future.

“It is important that operators, like the Andaz, adhere to zoning restrictions,” said Chin. “[The Lower Manhattan Arcades Text Amendment] wasn’t a license to take over and do whatever you want. There is a balance here, and it must be preserved.”

Wintering conceded that, to some degree, she appreciates that the Andaz addressed her complaints so quickly. But she remains dissatisfied overall, noting that she is disturbed by the very fact that the hotel’s outdoor space was legally rezoned for commercial purposes.

“If the Andaz POPS is allowed to continue functioning as a beer garden, it sets a precedent for others in the area to do the same,” said Wintering. “Soon, we will have a string of similar POPS all along Water Street, Wall Street, Front Street and, heaven forbid, Occupy Wall Street will have a bar in Liberty Park.  How will the public like that?”