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City Council Mulls Controversial Plan to Swap FiDi Public Space For Retail

 A city plan would allow building owners to fill what is now public arcades with retail space, in exchange for upgrades to surrounding plazas.
A city plan would allow building owners to fill what is now public arcades with retail space, in exchange for upgrades to surrounding plazas.
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Department of City Planning.

LOWER MANHATTAN — A controversial city plan that would give up public space to landlords for retail use in a bid to overhaul desolate stretches of Water Street is now up for debate in the City Council.

The rezoning proposal, which was approved by the City Planning Commission last month, would allow some 20 buildings along Water Street, from Fulton Street to Whitehall Street, to fill in pedestrian arcades — covered pathways — with retail shops.

In exchange for the 110,000 square feet of public walkway space, landlords would have to make upgrades to adjacent, expansive plaza space, which they are not currently required to do.

The City Council held its first subcommittee meeting on the plan Wednesday, with more than 20 local residents and community leaders voicing both praise and criticism for the rezoning, proposed by the Department of City Planning, along with the Economic Development Corporation and the Downtown Alliance, a Lower Manhattan business improvement district organization.

A central point of contention for the proposal revolves mainly around whether the trade for upgrades is sufficient enough when it comes to giving away public space.

The buildings and their arcades were constructed between the 1960s and 1980s under what are now seen as ill-conceived zoning rules. Back then, developers were allowed to build higher because they created the public arcades. 

Those who oppose the plan say that ultimately the developers were given a break when they built the buildings, and now they're getting back the public space to use for retail that would ultimately give them hundreds of million of dollars. Fixing up the expansive, uncovered plaza space is not an equal trade, the opponents say.

Proponents, however, say the swap would breathe needed life into what’s now a dark, underutilized and awkward space, while also enlivening more than 200,000 square feet of open plaza with things like tables, chairs and planters.

City Council members including Lower Manhattan's Margaret Chin peppered representatives for City Planning and Downtown Alliance President Jessica Lappin with questions about the plan.

"In 1961, the city made a bad decision by allowing developers to build more in exchange for providing empty plazas and dark arcades," Chin said during the hearing. "It will be crucial to ensure that we do not make another bad decision by allowing publicly accessible space to be lost without careful consideration of the benefits offered in exchange."

"We must ensure that residents of the Financial District receive the maximum benefit in exchange for any loss of publicly accessible space along Water Street," she added.

Lappin, along with several Downtown residents, pushed the idea that the proposal, which had taken years to conceive, could transform the stretch of Water Street into an active space, for a neighborhood with one of New York's fastest growing residential communities. The retail would be a boon to the neighborhood, and would force landlords to upgrade the plazas, they said.

FiDi resident and president of the Financial District Neighborhood Association Patrick Kennell said he was in full support of the plan, saying that they "want to see this plan succeed" and that the retail in the space "would be a public benefit" as the "arcades simply aren't working."

Alice Blank, a Downtown resident and architect who opposes the plan, told City Council members that more research and "financial analysis" needed to be done before such a massive amount of public land is given away to landlords.

Diana Switaj, the director of planning and land use for Community Board 1, reiterated the board's support, but with stipulations, for the proposal at the meeting. After several heated debates, CB1 got onboard with the plan, but with stipulations. Their asks include having each potential retailer come to CB1 before they build out for approval, ensuring flood proofing is part of the construction, and that amenities for the community are considered for the spaces.

The public has another chance to comment on the proposal on May 17.

The plan will ultimately be voted on by the entire City Council before mid-June.