Today, the City Planning Commission (CPC) will vote on whether to approve a controversial plan to privatize almost 5,000 square feet of public space at 200 Water Street, where the building owner wants to enclose arcades — the columned porticos that adorn the ground-floor facades of more than a dozen Water Street buildings — to create new retail space at street level, as well as three new market-rate rental apartments at the second floor level. The same plan also aims to absorb several hundred square feet of outdoor space on the plaza in front of 200 Water Street, which will be used for a cafe.
This move has elicited condemnation from Community Board 1, which enacted a resolution in September urging the CPC to veto the planned changes to the arcades and plaza at 200 Water Street, saying, “CB1 believes the proposed plaza designs are generic, mundane and lack aesthetic vision for this iconic space.” The resolution continues, “there is no adequate compensating amenity to justify enclosing 4,743 square feet of the double height arcade, constructed in return for additional building [floor-area ratio], and converting it to private use by infilling the arcade,” and notes, “the proposed infill of the second level of the arcade with three market-rate apartments contradicts the City’s mission to increase affordable housing in the neighborhood and provides no public benefit.” The measure concludes, “CB1 has serious concerns about the Water Street zoning as a whole, particularly in terms of public benefit and equity. The Department of City Planning has agreed to meet with CB1 to discuss Water Street zoning and we will follow up with a resolution detailing our position on the zoning as a whole.”
The CB1 resolution was followed by similar calls from a coalition of elected officials representing Lower Manhattan, including City Council member Margaret Chin, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and State Assembly members Deborah Glick and Yuh-Line Niou. These protests were accompanied by similar calls from a phalanx of public service organizations, such as the Municipal Art Society, the City Club, and Friends of Privately Owned Public Spaces.
The open sections at the second level of the building’s facade are slated to become new, market-rate apartments.
The CPC’s procedure in cases such as this is to hold two public meetings: one that is information (which took place in November), and another at which a vote is taken among the panel’s 12 commissioners, thus rendering a decision.
At the November meeting, staff from the Department of City Planning gave a presentation on the 200 Water Street proposal. For some reason, however, this presentation omitted any mention of one of the most controversial aspects of the plan: the provision to create three new market-rate apartments, with no affordability protections for the tenants who will eventually live there.
Even without being informed about this issue, however, some members of the CPC voiced skepticism about the proposal. After hearing the November presentation, Cheryl Cohen Effron, one of CPC’s 12 commissioners, observed, “in my opinion, there isn’t a sense of place here and I think that’s really a very disappointing aspect.”
She added, “Downtown is a really special place, and there is a sense that this should be soaring space and it should be distinguishable and different, so that when you’re in it you know you are in what was the Financial District in the Downtown, close to the water.”
Having aired these reservations, however, Ms. Effron concluded by indicating that she would be voting at today’s meeting to approve the project, saying, “I suspect I’ll be voting with my fellow commissioners. But I vote with a heavy heart for the first one that we’re doing.”
This was a reference to the fact that the proposal for 200 Water Street is the initial instance of a larger — and widely criticized — 2016 plan by the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio to allow the owners of buildings along Water Street to enclose a dozen-plus arcades (comprising more than 100,000 square feet of public space) in exchange for a promise to maintain and upgrade the adjacent open-air plazas that are found in front of many of the same buildings. Critics derided this at the time as, “a giveaway to developers” and condemned the fact that public space was being traded away in exchange for a public service (properly maintaining the plazas) that building owners were already supposed to provide. But CB1 approved this overall plan, in part because officials from the de Blasio administration offered repeated assurances the CPC (which must authorize each application by the owners of buildings on Water Street who wish to fill in arcades) would be guided by the Community Board’s judgement in each case.
The arcades at 200 Water Street (along with those in many nearby buildings) were created as a result of zoning regulations in the 1960s and 70s that were intended to encourage builders to add public amenities to their plans, in exchange for which they were permitted to erect taller, bulkier skyscrapers. In the case of 200 Water Street, the original “floor-area ratio” (FAR) permitted for the site was 10.0, meaning that the developer had the right to construct a tower that had a square footage ten times the size of the lot on which the structure was built. This would have allowed for a building with 334,000 square feet of interior space. But, in exchange for adding arcades and a plaza at the building’s entrance, the original developers were permitted to increase the size of 200 Water Street by 61 percent, to 541,000 square feet. The financial upside from this extra space — in terms of both increased rental income each year since the building opened in 1973 and increased overall value to the building — is almost impossible to calculate. But it can be reasonably assumed to range in the tens of millions of dollars, if not more than $100 million.
Whether the promise made by de Blasio administration officials that CB1 would have a voice in any decision about privatizing public space on Water Street (by converting arcades into new retail storefronts) will be borne out, or turn out to be empty rhetoric, will likely become apparent at today’s meeting, which will be held in Spector Hall (22 Reade Street, between Centre Street and Broadway), starting at 10:00 am.