Julie Menin, Manhattan’s CB 1 Chair, Talks About One of the City’s Fastest Growing Districts

Comprised of Battery Park City, the Financial District, South Street Seaport, and Tribeca, the neighborhoods of Manhattan Community Board 1 are in the midst of a period of tremendous growth and development. New apartment buildings are bringing thousands of new residents to the district. At the same time, large redevelopment projects, such as the World Trade Center, promise to return millions of square feet of office space along with expanded retail and cultural spaces. Under the leadership of Julie Menin, Community Board 1 is working hard to “bring a holistic approach” to development, one that takes into account the community’s needs. CityLand talked to Menin about the important issues facing Lower Manhattan and how the Board is preparing for the future.

A Rising Voice. Menin grew up in Washington D.C. and first moved to the City to attend Columbia University. After obtaining a political science degree, she studied law at Northwestern University, and then moved back to D.C. to begin her career. In 2000, after eight years as a regulatory lawyer, Menin left her practice and opened Vine, a restaurant located on Broad Street across from the New York Stock Exchange. After 9/11, her business, like so many others in the downtown area, suffered economically. Menin said Vine and eight other businesses on Broad Street ultimately closed, in part due to new security measures that closed the street.

In October 2001 Menin founded Wall Street Rising, a coalition of businesses and residents dedicated to restoring the community’s vibrancy and vitality. Menin found that other businesses were facing similar issues, and Wall Street Rising’s membership quickly grew to include more than 30,000 members. Her work leading the effort gave her a “very strong interest in community service,” and as the organization grew, so did her involvement in the Lower Manhattan community. She served on the jury for the Ground Zero Memorial, as a Board Member on the Governors’ Island Alliance, and in 2005 she was elected Chair of Manhattan Community Board 1.

Proactive Planning. Menin’s major goal as Chair is to make the Board “proactive, not reactive.” The community supports new development, but it wants smart growth, not uncontrolled building. When individual ULURP applications reach the Board, the 30-day limit offers little time for its volunteer staff to sufficiently understand the project. Menin’s solution is to have the Board determine how it wants development to proceed before applications arrive. She envisions the Board issuing a “series of white papers” that will detail the type of development it wants in each of Lower Manhattan’s neighborhoods.

To this end, the Board added two planning experts to its full-time staff. Noah Pfefferblit, the new District Manager, brings years of experience working on planning issues, and Michael E. Levine, the new Director of Land Use and Planning, spent 30 years as a planner at City Planning. Menin noted that most Boards don’t have Land Use Directors, but she finds it critical given the complicated issues facing the district. Menin said that with Pfefferblit’s and Levine’s collective experience with planning issues, the Board is in a good position moving forward.

Shaping Growth. In February 2007 the Board held its first 197-a task force meeting. The scope of the plan is not yet clear, but Menin predicted that it will focus on infrastructure. The community needs “more amenities to keep up with the population growth,” Menin said, listing schools and parks as much needed improvements. One high-priority area for the community is Greenwich South, located directly below the World Trade Center. The area has the potential for very large development due to permissive zoning, and Menin wants the Board to proactively guide development in the area.

Menin acknowledged that 197-a plans require a lot of time to develop, but she said that with the Board’s two new planning experts, 50 dedicated members, and an active constituency, the Board is prepared for the challenge.

The WTC Site. The Board’s World Trade Center committee, Menin said, actively follows the redevelopment efforts to ensure that the community’s voice is heard. In some cases, WTC planners responded to community concerns, while in other cases there was “delay and a lack of attention to important issues.” Menin listed two Board priorities as being ignored or delayed. Revitalization of the Church Street retail corridor is moving too slowly, Menin said, and the Frank Gehry-designed performing arts center planned for the WTC site “seems to have been put on the back burner.” Menin and many other community members who worked hard to bring tourism and business back to Lower Manhattan consider these priorities as major concerns in the future.

The long delay in starting construction at the WTC site caused “a lot of frustration” with the community. In recent months, however, “things are picking up,” Menin observed, and she is excited for the future of the WTC site and the district as a whole. — Morgan Kunz

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