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City Council Approves Contested Plan to Swap Public Land for Retail in FiDi

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

FINANCIAL DISTRICT —  The City Council approved a long-contested rezoning proposal that grants Financial District landlords 110,000 square feet of public space in exchange for overhauling desolate stretches of Water Street.

The council voted unanimously to approve the plan, which allows 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.

► READ MORE: Disputed Plan to Swap Public Space for Retail Pushes Ahead in City Council

In exchange for the large swath of public space, landlords would have to make upgrades to adjacent expansive plazas — which they had not previously been required to do. It's a trade that those opposed to the plan have said is not fair.

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 are against the plan say the developers were given a break when they built the buildings and they're now getting back the public space to use for retail that would ultimately give them hundreds of million of dollars.

Fixing up the uncovered plaza space is not an equal trade, opponents say.

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

READ MORE: Planning Commission Approves Plan to Swap Public Space for Retail in FiDi

The 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 — was approved Tuesday with several modifications, changes that Lower Manhattan City Councilwoman Margaret Chin said gives greater oversight of the swap.

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 be 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.

Chin, who initially questioned the benefits of the swap, said on Tuesday that while it was a difficult decision to make, the modified plan meets "the goal ... to improve pedestrian experience" and "to promote badly needed neighborhood retail."