City Planning Commission to Consider Endorsing Privatization of Public Space in Tribeca
Above: Signs on the outside of 240 Greenwich Street forbid the public from entering a lobby that was created as a public amenity, in exchange for multiple benefits to the building developer, such as closing multiple streets, and allowing the structure greater height and bulk than would otherwise have been legally permissible. Below: The owners of the one-million-square foot office building at 240 Greenwich Street are seeking to privatize space created as a public amenity, which may be worth more than $19 million.
Today (Tuesday, February 16), the City Planning Commission will consider a request by the owner of large bank building in Tribeca, seeking to privatize in perpetuity a space it originally created as a public amenity. Community Board 1 (CB1) has strongly denounced this move.
The developer (the former Irving Trust investment bank, which is now part of the Bank of New York Mellon) received valuable zoning variances for creating the public space it now wants to absorb at 240 Greenwich (also known as 101 Barclay and 88 Murray Street), when it erected the building in 1980. These benefits included closing one block of Washington Street (between Murray and Barclay Streets) and two blocks of Park Place (which once extended all the way to West Street), so that portions of those thoroughfares could be incorporated into the building’s footprint. City officials in the late 1970s also agreed to modify setback requirements, allowing for approximately one million square feet within the building’s 23 floors, which gave the structure it boxy appearance.
In exchange for these benefits, the builder agreed to provide several public benefits. These included 24-hour passage for pedestrians through the building’s soaring atrium lobby (creating a north-south easement that duplicated the right of way once traced by the vanished section of Washington Street), an outdoor plaza, and access to a planned (but never built) pedestrian bridge that was meant to cross Barclay Street and connect the building to Seven World Trade Center.
All of these decisions were incorporated into the master plan for what was then known as the Washington Street Urban Renewal Area (WSURA), a legal vehicle through which the developer leased for 99 years the land on which 240 Greenwich Street would eventually sit. The 1969 amendment to this plan noted that the site of what is now 240 Greenwich Street, “is designated for commercial use, with a pedestrian easement on the present Washington Street.” The same document reserved for the City, a “non-exclusive easement for public pedestrian passage at ground level on, over and across the Bridge Landing Zone and the Extended Walkway Zone.” When the WSURA plan was amended again in 1980 (to provide for the construction of 240 Greenwich) and 1990 (when plans for the elevated walkway were formally abandoned), the commitments to pedestrian access through the lobby were reaffirmed.
For decades, the building owner appears to have abided by these commitments. Longtime Lower Manhattan residents whose children are now in their late 20s and early 30s can recall walking those youngsters to school at P.S. 234 and P.S. 150, and using the public lobby of 240 Greenwich as a passageway on days when the weather was inhospitable.
This changed on September 11, 2001, after which heightened security measures led the owners of many office buildings to restrict access to what had formerly been publicly accessible facilities. But while most building owners were entitled to make these changes as of right, 240 Greenwich Street is a special case, because it falls into the category known as “privately owned public spaces” (POPS), which were created in exchange for valuable zoning concessions, creating a legally enforceable claim on such amenities.
The disconnect between public rights and private property was highlighted in 2017, when a report by City Comptroller Scott Stringer found that of 51 POPS located in Lower Manhattan, only eight were meeting legally required standards for public access, hours, or the availability of amenities such as artwork, lighting, furniture, plantings, drinking fountains, and bike racks.
Mr. Stringer’s report cited the example of 240 Greenwich as particularly egregious: “the owner… received a permit allowing modification of height and setback regulations in exchange for providing a public lobby.” But when the Comptroller’s auditors attempted to inspect the facility, they found the lobby closed to the public with a sign posted outside that reads, “this lobby is the private property of BNY Mellon and is intended for use by BNY Mellon’s employees and invited guests. All other persons are not permitted and must leave upon request.”
When Mr. Stringer’s staff attempted to enter the space, “building security informed the auditors that this lobby has been closed to the public for at least 15 years and is only open to Bank of New York staff,” according to the report, which also noted that, “the property owner has not received approval for this closure.”
“Auditors who attempted to inspect the site were stopped, an attempt was made to prevent photographs, the auditors were escorted to the security office and questioned, and were informed that they were prohibited from further entry into the building’s lobby, notwithstanding the fact that it is a POPS location and so a public space,” the report continued, adding that, “auditors were not allowed to take any further pictures of the lobby and were asked to leave this POPS location.”
“What’s happening is simply unbelievable,” Mr. Stringer said in 2017. “New Yorkers are literally getting cheated out of tens of millions of dollars in public space—and the City is willfully choosing to do nothing about it. Public resources are effectively being given away at the expense of all of us.”
Above: This City Planning map from 1972 illustrates the intention to remove Park Place (between Greenwich and West Streets) and Washington Street) between Barclay and Hubert Streets from the Tribeca Street grid, in order to facilitate development in what was then known as the Washington Street Urban Renewal Area. Below: The soaring atrium lobby at 240 Greenwich was envisioned as a welcoming public space that would serve pedestrians traveling the same route as the length of Greenwich Street that the building obliterated.
More recently, Bank of New York Mellon briefly took a more enlightened view of its obligations as the operator of a POPS. For a period of several months in 2018, the signs warning the public not to enter the lobby were removed, and security guards did not challenge people seeking to walk through the lobby. This period happened to coincide with Bank of New York Mellon’s negotiations with the City to end their lease, and purchase outright the land beneath the building. A cynic might be forgiven for imagining that the owner belatedly brought itself into literal (if temporary) compliance, in order to avoid upsetting these negotiations. In any case, once Bank of New York Mellon had successfully completed the purchase (for $352 million), the signs were once again installed on the outside of 240 Greenwich, and the public was once more barred from the building. (Those signs remain there today. A reporter who attempted to enter the lobby and take photographs was ordered to leave by building security staff.) All of that noted, even with the lease no longer in force, use of the building’s public spaces was (and is) still governed by the “special permit” granted through the Washington Street Urban Renewal Area in 1969, which makes repeated reference to a “public lobby.”
Now, Bank of New York Mellon is seeking to give retroactive legal sanction to its de facto confiscation of a public amenity. An October 30 application filed by the company with the City Planning Commission (which that body will consider today) calls this proposal a “minor modification,” and argues that, “it is the Applicant’s understanding that the purpose of this portion of the lobby was to provide access to stairs/escalator that would allow members of the public to travel to and from the second level public walkway, and, consequently, that when the second level public walkway was eliminated pursuant to the 1990 Minor Modification, a ‘public lobby’ area was no longer needed to provide connection to this walkway.”
This application offers no evidence that the original plan (or its periodically modified and updated versions) did not intend to provide for public access to the ground-floor lobby—in addition to, and separate from, access to the pedestrian bridge. Nor does it make even an argument to that effect. Rather, it simply asserts that this was the firm’s “understanding.” Such an interpretation is contrasted by the City Planning Commission’s website, which currently lists the lobby at 240 Greenwich in its database of POPS, and documents that public access is required 24 hours per day.
The application by Bank of New York Mellon also acknowledges that, “the 1990 Minor Modification did not address a reference in the original ground floor drawing to a ‘public lobby’ on a portion of the ground floor,” meaning that the City Planning Commission had an opportunity to nullify the firm’s obligation to maintain a ground-level pedestrian easement, in light of the cancellation of plans for a sky-bridge, but chose not to do so.
In January, CB1 adopted a resolution noting that Bank of New York Mellon’s position, “amounts to a legal conclusion,” and that, “based upon the applicant’s view of the facts, and insofar as the facts are in dispute… the issue should not be adjudicated by agency or administrative action, but instead, by a more appropriate forum (i.e., the courts).”
The resolution continued, “the City of New York, through the CPC, should not simply waive the designation through a purported ‘minor modification’ to the Special Permit. Rather, the Committee believes the City has an obligation not to waive the ‘public lobby’ designation and an affirmative obligation to assert and pursue all available legal defenses to the designation.”
The resolution concludes by saying that, “CB1 opposes and urges CPC to reject the portion of the application that seeks ‘Minor modification of the Special Permit in order to replace a Special Permit drawing to reflect the… elimination of the reference to the ‘Public Lobby.’”
“We count on our City Planning Commission to uphold agreements the City reaches with private actors over the public amenities that are promised in exchange for property that will be used to make a profit,” explains CB1 vice chair Alice Blank, who also serves on the Board’s Land Use, Zoning & Economic Development Committee, and chairs its Environmental Protection Committee. “In this instance, over 40 years ago, Irving Trust Bank built an approximately one-million square foot, 23-story building, which promised to provide public access to its beautiful atrium space on two floors, and to plant trees and provide landscaping in the interior and exterior of the building, bringing beauty and value to both the bank and the community. That was the agreement, and there is no legitimate reason today to let the bank welch on its commitments to provide these public spaces. If the Commission agrees to deaccession a public space, it should conduct a Uniform Land Use Review Procedure process, as the law requires, and not allow for any attempt to circumvent this public process. Our commitment to the integrity of government and to the rule of law are undermined when institutions and actors are allowed to walk away from hard-won terms and conditions governing ownership and use of public property.”
One method for weighing the legitimacy of this proposal is to consider the value of the space in question. The area of the lobby that Bank of New York Mellon hopes to privatize is 7,600 square feet. (The original public area was much larger, as it included retail space on the second floor of the lobby, near access points to the elevated bridge, but 7,600 square feet are all that now remain.)
Two nearby commercial spaces are currently for sale in Tribeca, according to multiple online databases. One, located at 177 Duane Street, is 2,365 square feet, and is priced at $2,950,011, or $1,247.35 per square foot. The other, at 345 Greenwich Street, is 2,105 square feet, and priced at $5,500,005, or $2,612 per square foot. Using these comparables as benchmarks, it is possible to value the space within the lobby at 240 Greenwich Street as falling somewhere between $9,477,200 and $19,851,200. This appears to be the value of the property of that Bank of New York Mellon is asking the City’s permission to take away from the public.
In a separate (but related) development, Bank of New York Mellon is also proposing to upgrade the outdoor plaza surrounding its property with plantings, seating, a water fountain, and multiple bike racks. CB1 has endorsed elements of this plan, while expressing reservations about the proposed removal of a Citibike station at Murray and West Streets, and the installation of numerous security bollards on public sidewalks.
But CB1 also included a criticism of the implied quid pro quo that seems to link enhancement of the outdoor plaza to Bank of New York Mellon getting its way about privatizing the building’s lobby. “The Committee further questions the applicant’s motivation for seeking to remove the ‘public lobby’ designation at this time,” the January resolution observed, “particularly as it is coupled with that separate portion of the application that seeks to make improvements to the exterior of this commercial bank building. The Committee believes the owner of 240 Greenwich / 101 Barclay, BNY Mellon, improperly seeks to take its laudable business decision to improve the exterior of its property and bootstrap it to an unacceptable annexation of the interior ‘public lobby’ space for private use.”
The measure also noted that, “CB1 first objects to the coupling of two distinct actions into one application. If the applicant believes the designation of the ‘public lobby’ should be removed, it should be reviewed as an independent application on its own merits.”
Nine-Hundred Foot Tower Will Include 300-Plus Affordable Units
The boards of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) have both approved the proposal by a development partnership that wants to erect a 900-foot-plus tower at Five World Trade Center, a now-vacant lot that occupies the three-quarter-acre square block bounded by Liberty, Greenwich, Albany, and Washington Streets.
The joint venture consists of four partners: Silverstein Properties (which leases the rest of the World Trade Center site from the Port Authority), Brookfield Properties (which operates the Brookfield Place office and retail complex in Battery Park City, across the street from the World Trade Center), Omni New York (a developer, owner, and manager of affordable housing nationwide), and Dabar Development (a minority-and-women-owned real estate firm). To read more…
To Broadsheet editor;
I was very disappointed to hear that Silverstein Properties won the bid with very little competition for other proposals, and was disheartened to learn that CB1 so actively supports it.
Those of us who have lived in this neighborhood for years and tried to weigh in on what should be built on the site after 9/11 were never listened to when we expressed our needs and concerns. The commercialization of this area, embodied by the poor tourist-centric aspects of the Occulus for example, are yet another failed result of development run amok at the expense of the local inhabitants. This building should be truly affordable and low-income. Now Silverstein offers a hollow claim of “affordable housing”, but affordable to whom? Middle class professionals can afford to live there but certainly not the working class increasingly forced into longer commutes to work in a city that will not house them. As a resident of this neighborhood for over 30 years I have watched as the city continues to accommodate the rich and the transient. We don’t need more hotels and luxury housing. That is a shallow and inhospitable environment for the rest of us.
And how sad and disappointing is it when the wishes of the family of deceased firefighter, Joseph Graffagnino, are not even heeded? As Todd Fine points out so tellingly, particularly in this age of Covid, Five WTC is destined to go the way of the failing Hudson Yards, because the property owners are so unwilling to envision an open-minded ideal of true affordable living and quality of life for all of its residents and workers. We could have had a new vision for redevelopment on this site, but continue with a cold cynical perspective of business as usual.
The Deutchebank fire on August 17, 2007 was a tragic circumstance that many community leaders had warned about when they tried to get LMDC to separate the toxic abatement from the demolition instead of doing it all at once. They didn’t heed us then and are not heeding us now. For those who weren’t there I am attaching a photo of the fire at the former Deutchebank, the site where firefighters Joeph P. Graffagnino, and Robert Beddia tragically lost their lives on that day. This was the horrific view from my roof. I hope that at least some form of tribute will be paid to these men on the site where they paid such a heavy price.
To Broadsheet editor;
I read with interest your recent article about the design of the new park on Gansevoort Peninsula, but took issue with the following statement: “Plans call for a scenic beach (more for viewing the water than public bathing, owing to concerns about hygiene and safety)”.
The park will not come with a beach. It will instead come with a gloried sandpit that the Hudson River Park Trust is calling an upland beach. The only access point to the water will be via a narrow ramp, which will be a kayak launch. Whether the public will be allowed to walk down this ramp and touch the water has yet to be determined.
Local beaches need not create concerns about hygiene or safety. For example, the very popular little beach that is directly over the Hudson River from the Gansevoort Peninsula in Hoboken has had few issues. The same is true for the popular beach in Brooklyn Bridge Park that is on the opposite side of the East River from Lower Manhattan.
Manhattan is the most populated island in the world with no publicly accessible beach. Given the many tens of billions of dollars that have been spent cleaning up the harbor in recent decades, and the lack of recreational space on the island, this situation is far from ideal.
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When shutdowns made in-person experiences like video shoots and concerts impossible, the team at Genius—the internet’s most popular destination for song lyrics and music knowledge—quickly found a way to continue to engage their community of passionate music fans: by adapting all of their video series to “At Home” editions; introducing a music creation program; and launching a fully interactive livestreaming platform where fans get to control the show. Through these projects, they realized that this shift allowed them to meet the music industry in its current moment: a transition to digital and remote-first collaboration. In this virtual session, three key members of Genius’s creative production team will join Anastasia Wright, Owner of IMG Agency+Records, for a conversation about how they were able to work with artists and creators in new ways and adapt Genius’s brand ethos to introduce remote-friendly experiences—plus highlights and lessons learned over the past year. Free
Skyscraper Museum webinar. Scott Duncan is a partner in SOM’s Chicago office, where he leads the design of high-rise and mixed-use projects locally and around the world. Since joining SOM in 1998, he has championed the firm’s vision for integrated design, leading interdisciplinary teams that focus on research on quality of life, planetary health, and improving cities. Tianjin CTF Finance Centre dominates the Tianjin Economic-Technological Development Area (TEDA), located just outside Tianjin, the coastal city south of Beijing that is China’s fifth largest metropolis. The sleek tower’s undulating curves subtly express three programmatic elements: offices on the broad lower floors, serviced apartments in the shaft above, and a luxury hotel in the tapering top floors. The curtain wall of gently curving glass conceals the innovative structural system of eight sloping columns that increase the structure’s stiffness in response to seismic concerns. Multistory wind vents combined with the tower’s aerodynamic shape reduce vortex shedding, which in turn dramatically minimizes wind forces. Free
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A Shore Thing
HRPT Moves Ahead with Plans for ‘Beach,’ Park and Historic Sculpture for Gansevoort Peninsula
The Hudson River Park Trust (HRPT) has released a package of three requests for proposals (RFPs) intended to kickstart the process of transforming the Gansevoort Peninsula—a five-acre-plus chersonese that juts out from the West Side waterfront, between Gansevoort and West 13th Streets—into a new public amenity.
Plans call for a scenic beach (more for viewing the water than public bathing, owing to concerns about hygiene and safety), along with a 56,000-square-foot ballfield for use by local youth leagues, a playground, an outdoor “river gym” (consisting of rust-proof calisthenics equipment), a dog run, and public restrooms.
Suspect in Chambers Street Subway Stabbing Taken Into Custody
A suspect in the October murder of a man at the Chambers Street subway station of the J and Z trains (located beneath the Municipal Building and across the street from City Hall) has been taken into custody.
On Wednesday, officers from the NYPD’s Warrant Squad arrested 29-year-old Amado Garzon Morales, a resident of New Brunswick, New Jersey, who was tracked down in the Richmond Hill section of Queens.
State Attorney General Files Federal Suit Against Anti-Abortion Protestors
The New York State Attorney General, Leticia James, has filed suit in federal court to protect a Lower Manhattan-based nonprofit, Planned Parenthood, from harassment by anti-abortion protestors.
Planned Parenthood, based at 123 William Street, in the Financial District, provides reproductive health care throughout the United States, often to women living below the poverty line. To read more…
A Debt of Gratitude
City Council Candidate Argues Against Squeezing Schools
City Council candidate Christopher Marte led a February 4 rally on the steps of Tweed Courthouse (the headquarters of the City’s Department of Education, or DOE) to demand “budget amnesty” for public schools in the Downtown district he hopes to represent. To read more, click here.
Transit Hub Becomes Venue for Multiple Violent Crime
The Fulton Center subway and retail complex (at the corner of Broadway and Fulton Street) has been the scene of several violent assaults in recent days. On Friday, January 29, shortly after 11:00 pm, a gang of six young people (four male and two female) quietly entered the Dunkin Donuts location within the facility, and crept up behind a man who was placing an order at the counter. To read more…
CLASSIFIEDS & PERSONALS
Swaps & Trades, Respectable Employment, Lost and Found
No judgment for those of you who will want to drop those new year’s resolutions (or whatever other health kicks you’ve got going on) after reading this PSA:
NYC Restaurant Week launched this week, as hundreds of hot spots citywide have been lining up special delivery deals through February 28.
Promotions include lunch or dinner with a side for $20.21, two-course brunches and lunches ($26) and three-course dinners ($42), mostly Monday through Friday. (Some participating restaurants are honoring those prices on weekends.)
Dozens of restaurants south of Chambers Street plan to take part in NYC Restaurant Week, including Brooklyn Chop House, The Fulton, Crown Shy, Stone Street Tavern, The Dead Rabbit and more.
The Restaurant Week website lists several more tempting options to treat yourself — even if it means playing it a little fast and loose with your commitments to fitness. (We won’t tell.)