By Julie Shapiro
BATTERY PARK CITY — The Grand Staircase in the Winter Garden of the World Financial Center could be demolished before the end of 2012, despite objections from city officials and local residents and workers.
Letters between John Ziccotti, chairman of World Financial Center owners Brookfield Properties, and City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden that were obtained by DNAinfo show that the developer has already decided to get rid of the staircase to clear a path for a new pedestrian tunnel beneath West Street.
If the staircase stays in place, commuters exiting the tunnel will run directly into the 88-foot-by-15-foot wall that supports the steps, “creating choke points and major inconvenience for pedestrians, severely impeding the flow of traffic,” Zuccotti wrote to Burden on June 23.
“Our proposal removes the wall and the steps, restoring the unobstructed view of the Winter Garden and river beyond.”
Many Battery Park City residents and workers say the stairs have practical, aesthetic and symbolic value and ought not be removed. Heavily damaged on 9/11 and rebuilt afterward, the 40 marble steps have become a community gathering place, often serving as an amphitheater for free concerts and plays.
Burden, who may review the proposed changes because they affect public space, said in a June 2 letter to Zuccotti that removing the stairs would “create a substantial void” unless Brookfield replaces the staircase with something similar.
Zuccotti replied on June 23 that Brookfield would reconfigure the walls and escalators of the Winter Garden to create a clear corridor lined with seating, with a temporary stage in the middle. In light of that plan, Zuccotti asked Burden to “reconsider” her objections.
But Burden was not satisfied and wrote in a July 9 letter to Community Board 1 Chairwoman Julie Menin that City Planning “objects strongly to the removal of the Grand Stairs.” Burden called Brookfield’s response “tepid” and said it “does not suggest an alternative with a permanent architectural solution.”
City Planning declined to comment.
"Brookfield has commissioned independent studies to determine the most efficient and safe pedestrian traffic flow," the company said in a statement. "Brookfield is working with the Department of City Planning and the Battery Park City Authority to come up with the best solution for the community, which also preserves the integrity of the Winter Garden as a public space."
Community Board 1 passed a resolution last week urging Brookfield to try to maintain the staircase. After repeated overtures from the community board, Brookfield recently agreed to attend a public meeting about the stairs in September, Menin and a Brookfield spokesman said.
“The staircase is seared in people’s minds as an integral part of the neighborhood,” Menin said. “People want the opportunity to tell Brookfield what the staircase means.”
In addition, Brookfield plans to hold a smaller, private meeting this month with residents to discuss retail and other issues related to the World Financial Center. Several residents who were invited say they plan to mention the staircase then as well.
“It may be a perfectly wonderful design, but we don’t want to lose the staircase,” said Linda Belfer, chairwoman of CB1’s Battery Park City Committee, who has lived in the neighborhood for 27 years. “It’s stood as a memorial to what happened [on 9/11].”
Many World Financial Center workers on a recent afternoon were surprised to hear the staircase would likely be demolished.
“It’s beautiful the way it is,” said Bernadette Moylan, 42, a Staten Island resident. “They should leave it alone.”
Deba Sahoo, 32, of New Jersey, said he spends lots of time in the Winter Garden eating lunch or watching free performances.
“Don’t do it,” he said of Brookfield’s plan. “Just don’t do it.”