City Council Subcommittee Hears Testimony on the Rezoning of Water Street’s Privately Owned Public Space

Proposed rezoning of the Water Street POPS. Image credit: Department of City Planning

Proposed rezoning of the Water Street POPS. Image credit: Department of City Planning

Council Members voiced concerns over the proposal’s provisions stripping the City Council of its review over future applications brought pursuant to the proposal. On May 4, 2016, the City Council Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises held a public hearing on an application submitted by the Alliance for Downtown New York, the NYC Economic Development Corporation, and the Department of City Planning to amend the zoning text controlling the Water Street corridor in lower Manhattan. For CityLand’s previous coverage on the proposed rezoning of the Water Street POPS, click here.

At the May 4th Hearing, City Council Member Margaret Chin, who represents and lives near Water Street, testified in favor of amending the zoning text, but is not sold on the proposed text as it exists today. She noted, however, that public space is currently at a premium, and said that the City would be making a mistake if it were to allow the publicly accessible space located on the Water Street corridor to be lost without re-assessing whether the City is receiving any benefits in exchange.

Alliance for Downtown New York President Jessica Lappin testified that the proposed rezoning would incentivize the growth and financial development of the Water Street corridor in Lower Manhattan, which is a corridor spanning more than one mile long and holding 19 million square feet—more than then World Trade Center and Brookfield Place combined, and even more than downtown Pittsburgh. “In almost any other American City, this would be the premier central business district, but it certainly doesn’t look like a premier central business district,” said Ms. Lappin. Instead, according to Ms. Lappin, the Water Street corridor is home to the densest concentration of arcades in the City, which occupy one-third of the privately owned space therein and sever the blocks and sideways from the street, giving the area a deceptively unlively appearance. Many pedestrians would rather walk away from the arcades rather than underneath them, because many of the arcades are occupied largely by smokers, and they are dark and uninviting because they are set back. Further, it is difficult to actually see the retail spaces underneath the arcades from the street which, paired with the lack of pedestrian traffic, contributes to the circumstances causing the rents for retail space on the Water Street corridor to be 65 to 70 percent below the average rental price for ground floor retail throughout lower Manhattan.

Ms. Lappin explained that the proposed rezoning would provide an exhaustive and comprehensible governing framework to regulate plaza upgrades, which could yield a quarter-million square feet of improved public space for the benefit of the neighborhood and the City.  The proposed rezoning seeks to accomplish its goals by incentivizing property owners to fill in the arcades on their properties by converting them into and maintaining public plazas.

Hardy Adasko, senior vice president of the Planning Department of NYCEDC, testified that the improvements that would be made to the Water Street area under the proposed rezoning would require the property owners to upgrade their buildings to comply with modern flood prevention requirements set by the Department of Buildings, which would be costly to the property owner. The proposed rezoning would also allow for free public events to be held on the plazas, which is not permitted today.

City Council Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises Chair Donovan Richards questioned the applicant team about how the neighborhood’s residents can be sure they are getting a fair deal and asked whether the zoning text would set forth a particular standard for plazas that would developed where the arcades exist today.

Ms. Lappin noted that those who infill their arcades in exchange for an additional floor area bonus would be required to create and maintain a public plazas and update their buildings to current standards. Richard Suarez, city planner at the Department of City Planning, testified to the incredibly detailed nature of the proposed rezoning as requiring, for example, one linear foot of seating per every 30 square feet of plaza area, 20 percent of the plaza area to be covered with ground plants and additional planting to be included within six inches of the curb, a minimum of four trees per every 6,000 square-foot plaza and an additional tree per every additional 1,500 square feet of plaza area, and more than 10,000 square feet of additional amenities.

Land Use Committee Chair David Greenfield asked about the actions that could be taken to ensure that the community only receives the type of retail it desires within the new retail spaces that would be created under the proposed rezoning.

Mr. Suarez testified that the existing zoning text points to retail spaces that are not permitted to be placed within the Water Street POPS area, such as furniture show rooms, offices on the ground floor, and that other restrictions exist for retail fronting plazas, such as the prohibition on banks.

Council members Richards, Daniel Garodnick, and Ritchie Torres all questioned the applicant team on whether there existed any way to pass the proposal with provisions allowing for City Council review, such as is done through the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure process. The applicant team testified that there currently exists a special permit process that property owners could utilize to infill their arcades, but that in the 50 years since the arcades first came into existence on Water Street, only one property owner has even attempted to undergo the process due to its onerous and uncertain nature. Ms. Lappin noted that the applicant team’s intention in making the proposed rezoning text so detailed is to ensure the City Council has the opportunity to provide its input now and provide property owners with more of a streamlined process, because the area covered is so small and has such a unique need that what is appropriate for one property within the covered area would necessarily be appropriate for all.

Council Member Chin testified that many plazas that already exist in lower Manhattan are bare and are not kept clean, which raises concerns about whether the property owners in the Water Street POPS area would live up to their responsibility in maintaining the plazas they create.Instead of offering an incentive that would require the City to forfeit public property, she would like to find a way to modify the existing special permit process to allow for an easier, more streamlined process for property owners who want to infill their arcades, which would also include provisions legalizing free public events and beautifying upgrades in the Water Street POPS area. Additionally, Council Member Chin does not feel that the public plazas would be as popular as the applicant team believes it will be, because the area is surrounded by active streets that present substantial competition, such as Broadway and Fulton Street.

The Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises is expected to vote on the proposed Water Street POPS rezoning on June 2, 2016, which will be followed by the Land Use Committee’s vote before the proposed rezoning makes its way to the full City Council for review.

City Council: Water Street POPS Upgrades (LU 0361-2016) (May 4, 2016).

By: Jessica Soultanian-Braunstein (Jessica is the CityLaw Fellow and a New York Law School Graduate, Class of 2015)

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