Community Board 1 (CB1) is voicing reservations about a plan to convert the block of Thames Street between Broadway and Trinity Place into an outdoor shopping arcade, but is procedurally barred — at least for now — from giving official credence to these worries.
The proposal comes from Capital Properties, the owner of 111 and 115 Broadway, a pair of twin, landmarked structures that are known together the Trinity Centre. The developer wants to close Thames Street, which separates the historic buildings, and turn the thoroughfare into a block-long retail plaza.
For decades, Thames Street has been more of an alley than a roadway, used mostly by delivery trucks. (It is accessible to vehicles only from northbound Trinity Place, and forces all its traffic to head south on Broadway, from which the next legal turn in either direction is almost half a mile away.)
Capital Properties has long hankered to monetize the untapped retail potential of more than 500 feet of street frontage located in the heart of the Financial District, and just steps away from multiple tourist magnets, such as the World Trade Center complex — which, in the aggregate, draw more than 14 million visitors per year. Currently, Thames Street is home to only two storefronts: Stanley’s Shoe Repair and Big Al’s Chicago Pizza. The remainder of both sides of the block are empty retail locations or service entrances for 111 and 115 Broadway.
Capital Properties president Richard Cohen envisions Thames Street a pedestrian market and restaurant hub similar to Stone Street, and has hired the architecture firm of Beyer Blinder Belle, which helped restore Stone Street in 2001. Capital Properties has also engaged a Philadelphia-based consultancy, The Lighting Practice (which designed illumination plans for the Statue of Liberty and the United States Capitol Dome) to envision street lights that will evoke the early 1900s, and brighten up one of Lower Manhattan’s most chronically eclipsed streets.
The proposal calls for repaving the road with granite tiles at the same level as the sidewalk, effectively eliminating the Thames Street as a passage for vehicles. This will entail approvals from multiple City agencies, such as the Department of Transportation, the Department of City Planning, and the Public Design Commission, and the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The project will also require cooperation from other stakeholders, such as utilities that have infrastructure buried beneath Thames Street.
At its November 22 monthly meeting, CB1 discussed a resolution that narrowly considered the issue of the lighting fixtures and signage that would, under this plan, adorn the outside of the buildings.
Bruce Ehrmann, co-chair of CB1’s Landmarks and Preservation Committee, began the discussion by observing, “these are sister buildings — beautiful, beautiful buildings. The street is so narrow that it is almost impossible to drive down, only 30 feet from sidewalk to sidewalk. That street is going to be closed. It’s going to become pedestrian-only.”
At that point, Pat Moore, who chairs CB1’s Quality of Life and Service Delivery Committee, interrupted to say, “I’m totally opposed to this.”
Mr. Ehrmann replied, “that’s not in our purview. Our resolution notes that that we don’t want it to become another Disney-fied, outdoor shopping mall. But we are looking only at the proposals for the buildings themselves. They propose to open up the arched windows along the street, and add many bishops-crook style lighting sconces.”
CB1 chair Anthony Notaro attempted to refocus the discussion, saying that the resolution, “is just a review of those changes.”
But Ms. Moore pushed back: “I live around the corner from that street, and we’re like a closed-off little community down there. The streets are always being reconfigured or closed for street fairs. I think it’s ridiculous.”
CB1 member Michael Ketring asked, “how will the building receive deliveries, because Trinity Place and Broadway are essentially bus lanes?
Mr. Ehrmann replied, “it would be open to service vehicles at night. But all we can consider is this part of it, as regards landmarks, in terms of lights and blade signs, that may peripherally impact this ‘mallficiation.'”
Tammy Meltzer, who chairs CB1’s Battery Park City Committee tackled this procedural question directly. “When this came before CB1’s Planning Committee, it wasn’t given to us as an option to vote on a resolution about whether to close the street, or keep it open. Is that going to come back to us at any point? There was no bite of the apple for CB1.”
Michael Levine, CB1’s director of land use, answered that the City’s Department of Transportation (DOT), “said they would came back to us at some point in the near future to describe the exact plan for closure, the hours during which it would be closed, and how access would be maintained for emergency vehicles and for deliveries. But technically, this is a DOT action and a resolution supporting it from CB1 is not necessary.”
“DOT will be bringing it to us as a courtesy and ask us if we have comments or concerns about how the street will be closed,” he continued. “But they were very clear that the action before us now is strictly related to the facades of the buildings and not to the street closure. We will have a second opportunity with DOT to address these other issues that are being raised right now.”
Ms. Moore then interjected, “we all know that once these improvements are passed, then DOT coming before us will be a moot point.”
CB1 member Wendy Chapman raised another concern: “Those buildings have no handicapped accessibility on the Broadway side or the Trinity Place side. All the entrances for wheelchairs are on Thames Street. Is there any accommodation for handicapped?”
No one had an answer to this question.
CB1 member Joe Lerner returned to the protocol question of whether the resolution being discussed should confine itself only to lighting fixtures and signs, or might address the broader issue of whether CB1 supported or opposed the closure of Thames Street. “It may not be appropriate, but why not put it in and take a stand anyway?”
Ms. Moore echoed this sentiment, saying, “we need a strong resolution opposing this.”
In the end, however, the resolution remained focused only on the question of whether the lighting fixtures and signs proposed by Capital Properties were acceptable. Because nobody could find any reason to object to those features, CB1 passed a resolution endorsing that portion of the plan. And the proposed conversion of a public street into a private shopping center took one additional step toward becoming a reality.