The City Planning Commission (CPC) has overruled Community Board 1 (CB1) and ignored a phalanx of local elected officials by approving a controversial proposal to fill in arcades at 200 Water Street, to create new retail space and market-rate apartments. On December 13, the CPC voted to authorize the project, with eight commissioners on the 12-member panel backing the idea, one abstaining, and three absent.
The one CPC member who abstained, Michelle de la Uz, said, “the Community Board, the Borough President, and civic groups have expressed concern about whether the specific proposal before us actually does advance the change that was made last year for the Water Street upgrades. So with that, I’m going to abstain.”
Another member, Anna Hayes Levin, said, “I’m not happy about this plaza. I fully agree with Community Board 1 that the design is generic, mundane, and lacks the creative spark that this crossroads location used to have and still deserves. But I have to acknowledge that it provides what the zoning requires and will be better than what’s there now. I vote yes.”
A third CPC member, Cheryl Cohen Effron, said tersely, “the application meets the requirements, so I vote yes.” At an earlier meeting, in November, “in my opinion, there isn’t a sense of place here and I think that’s really a very disappointing aspect. 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 predicting that she would vote at the December session 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.”
CB1 chair Anthony Notaro responded to the CPC vote by saying, “CB1 is disappointed and dismayed by the certification of CPC of the application for the infill at 200 Water. We spoke loud and clear that while we understood what the Water Street text amendment called for, the spirit of enlivening that streetscape was not achieved. Much was lost in terms of what had been there years before and, as a gateway to the new Seaport area, this fails that objective. There are arcades that should be studied, but we reject the idea that one size fits all and we are emphatic that 200 Water Street should not be a precedent.”
Mr. Notaro added that, “CB1 will continue to work with CPC and other stakeholders to preserve our public realm, while balancing improvements that make sense from the community perspective, not solely the property owner’s.”
The plan approved by the CPC will privatize more than 4,700 square feet of public amenity space at 200 Water Street. The space in question consists largely of arcades — the columned porticos that adorn the ground-floor facades of more than a dozen Water Street buildings — that would be enclosed to create new retail space at street level, as well as three new market-rate rental apartments at the second floor level, in addition to several hundred square feet of outdoor space on the plaza in front of 200 Water Street, which will be used for a cafe.
Alice Blank, who serves as co-chair of CB1’s Waterfront, Parks & Resiliency Committee and is also a member of its Land Use Committee responded to the vote authorizing the 200 Water Street proposal to move forward by saying, “it is troubling that the CPC did not choose to follow the recommendation of the Lower Manhattan community, elected officials and civic groups City-wide to save the 4,743 square feet of open public space along Water Street. There is nothing in the removal of this once-revered public space that benefits the public or provides ‘vibrancy to Water Street’ — the claimed rationale for adopting the Water Street Zoning Text Amendment last year that opened the door for this action. The CPC needs to explain how luxury residential housing units are a public benefit. How a restaurant fronting Fulton Street ‘activates Water Street.’ How the remaining plaza, described by Commissioner Anna Levin as ‘generic, mundane, and lacking creative spark’ is a fair compensating amenity for the public.”
The proposal for 200 Water Street is the first case in 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 specifics of the plan for 200 Water Street were particularly troubling for many community leaders. The original “text amendment” (the name for the overall change in regulations that will permit enclosure of arcades along Water Street) mentioned nothing about creating new apartments, much less dwellings that lack affordability protections. Many CB1 members also derided the generic quality of the newly designed plaza. These concerns led the Board to enact a resolution in September, calling upon 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 continued, “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.” The measure concluded, “CB1 has serious concerns about the Water Street zoning as a whole, particularly in terms of public benefit and equity.”
CB1’s 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.
Many opponents of the 200 Water Street proposal had hoped that such united opposition would have an effect, because CB1 was originally persuaded to support the 2016 overall plan for the Water Street arcades based in part on repeated assurances from de Blasio administration officials that the CPC would be guided by the Community Board’s judgement in each case. In view of the outcome of the CPC’s vote on 200 Water Street, this commitment appears to have been more rhetorical than binding.
Ms. Blank observed that, “despite promises made to the community last year and multiple meetings with the developer this year, the original deal remains: the community gets a plaza with six trees and six granite benches in exchange for 4,743 square feet of prime Downtown real estate. One can only hope that the Department of City Planning will, as promised, work closely with the community to swiftly amend the regulations to preserve the public’s remaining open spaces, not only on Water Street, but City-wide.
CB1 has since come to regret supporting City Hall on this issue. At the September meeting, Mr. Notaro said of the Water Street plan, “we jumped the gun and there wasn’t enough due diligence. We’ve learned a lesson.” At the same session, Bruce Ehrmann, who had voted for the 2016 resolution, said, “this is one of the worst votes I ever cast in 19 years on CB1.” Mr. Ehrmann, who serves as co-chair of the CB1’s Landmarks & Preservation Committee, and is also a member of its Land Use, Zoning & Economic Development Committee, added, “I express my regret.”
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. With the additional upside that landlords may now reap, by enclosing arcades and taking over plaza space, it is possible that property owners will be compensated a second time (in this instance for partially privatizing the public amenity they once created) and perhaps reap a windfall of millions more.