New zoning for the mostly corporate corridor of Water Street hopes to bring a shot of vitality to a sterile stretch of lower Manhattan. The measure, unanimously passed by the Department of City Planning on Tuesday, will allow cafe seating to spill out from arcades, the recessed area within a tower that incorporates the sidewalk a few feet into the ground floor level. The arcades were initially intended to shield pedestrians from inclement weather, but they never really fulfilled their intended function. “They’re such a bad idea because the retail is behind it,” Commissioner Amanda Burden said during a review session. The commissioner went so far as to describe the street scene in the 23-block area as “dead” and “dying.”
With Condé Nast, The Daily News, and Newsweek/The Daily Beast all expected to relocate downtown, the East River Waterfront park set to open next month, new residential towers bringing 30,000 well-heeled residents, and millions of World Trade tourists expected, an unwelcoming Water Street seems off-message.
The bill is now on its way to City Council for approval. If all goes as planned the area could see tables and chairs by summertime. Looking forward, the New York Economic Development Corporation put out an RFP for enhancing the street life. The RFP calls for streetscape design, identity enhancement, and adding a landscaped median to soften the concrete corridor, thus linking east side parks to west side parks at the recently landscaped Peter Minuit Plaza.
The new café zoning stipulates that 40 percent of the seating be set aside for the public and the remaining 60 percent be designated to the cafe. As the proposal prohibits dividers such as planters or low walls to differentiate the seating, Commissioner Anna Hayes Levin voiced concern during the public hearing about how the public would know that part of the seating was there for them and not just cafe customers.
Downtown Alliance spokesperson James Yolles predicted that restaurants would come up with creative ways to differentiate between public and private, perhaps using different tables or chairs. Regardless, Alliance testimony posited that activating the arcades is critical for the 70,000 people who work in the area. It didn’t seem to quell Levin’s concerns of an unabated “cafe creep” which would lay claim to the area. CB1 Director of Land Use and Planning Michael Levine assured the commissioners that if cafe proliferation becomes a problem, the board would come back to the commission and address it. After the hearing he added, “We should live so long to see that it’s a problem.”