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Disputed Plan to Swap Public Space for Retail Pushes Ahead in City Council

 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 gives some 110,000 square feet of public space to landlords in exchange for overhauling desolate stretches of Water Street has surpassed one of its final hurdles in City Hall.

The City Council's Land Use Committee unanimously voted to approve the Water Street rezoning plan Wednesday, a day after the council's Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises did the same. The entire City Council will vote on the proposal, which passed with several modifications, on June 21.

The rezoning proposal would allow some 20 buildings along Water Street, from Fulton Street to Whitehall Street, to fill in pedestrian arcades — stretches of covered pathways, lined with columns — with retail shops.

In exchange for the large swath of public space, landlords would have to make upgrades to adjacent expansive plazas, which they are required to do at the moment.

Proponents say the plan would bring some life to what is currently underutilized and awkward space.

Critics, however, say the plan is an unfair trade, arguing that sprucing up open plazas is not enough to justify giving up public space to landlords who could make hundreds of millions of dollars from the new retail space.

Lower Manhattan Councilwoman Margaret Chin, who initially questioned whether the plan was the right move, has now given her support to the proposal, which she approved with several modifications.

Chin, who is part of the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises, said in a statement that after numerous hearings and community board meetings debating the plan, she believes the proposal now "meets the goal of enlivening the Water Street corridor while preserving vital community and City Council oversight."

The modifications include requiring spaces larger than 7,500 square feet to go through a traditional ULURP, a city land use review process that includes City Council approval, in order for retail shops to be built. That means there would increased oversight for six of the 17 buildings' arcade space.

There's also a provision that limits the amount of space chain banks and drugstores can take, to 30 and 50 feet of frontage, respectively.

"This wasn’t an easy decision to make," Chin said in a statement. "There have been many passionate voices that wanted this proposal to be rejected outright, or conversely, wanted the Text Amendment passed as is."

"After much deliberation, I came to the conclusion that neither option would give our community what it desperately needs and deserves: Improved public spaces in plazas and arcades, small-scale neighborhood retail, and innovative indoor public spaces," she continued.

Some critics say the modifications to the proposal don't go far enough, and that there won't be enough oversight with the majority of the retail spaces along Water Street.

Those in favor of plan —  proposed by the Department of City Planning, along with the Economic Development Corporation and the Downtown Alliance, a Lower Manhattan business improvement district organization — are happy to see it moving forward.

"The Alliance is heartened that after many years, and a planning process that incorporated input from a wide range of stakeholders and government officials, we have reached an agreement on a revised proposal that will bring us one step closer to our shared vision of a more vibrant Water Street," said the president of the Downtown Alliance in a statement.

"This amendment should enliven the street, improve public plazas, and incentivize investment for the benefit of all those who live, work, or visit the area."