Game Over Arcades

City Council subcommittee mercilessly sacrifices Water Street public spaces to developers

City Terrain East Urbanism
Rendering of Water Street POPS with added retail from NYC Planning's Environmental Assessment Statement (Courtesy NYC Planning)
Rendering of Water Street POPS with added retail from NYC Planning's Environmental Assessment Statement (Courtesy NYC Planning)

The City Council’s Subcommittee on Zonings and Franchises voted yesterday to approve a proposal that would trade 110,000 square feet of Privately Owned Public Spaces (POPS) on Water Street to private developers. Although the Water Street Text Amendment will go before the full City Council on June 21, its passage in the subcommittee all but assures that the highly controversial measure will pass next week.

A map of the public spaces under threat in lower Manhattan.

A map of the public spaces under threat in lower Manhattan.

The amendment will enable developers to build retail storefronts along 13 square blocks of the Water Street arcades (known as POPS) but the building owners will not be paying for the new spaces: Developers just will be on the hook for renovating the tower-adjacent public space and making the hardscaping stormproof.

The Water Street arcades are a far cry from the ones in Walter Benjamin’s Paris, but the lower Manhattan spaces still serve a vital public function. Like all POPS, they were a quid pro quo that let developers build taller towers in exchange for providing publicly accessible space for as long as those buildings existed.

In May, The Architect’s Newspaper launched a design charrette for the Water Street POPS to start a conversation around turning these mostly dreary and neglected spaces into vibrant gathering spots and successful corridors they once were. AN also provided testimony opposing the Water Street Text Zoning Amendment for a May 27 meeting of the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises.

Councilmember Margaret Chin, who represents the district that includes Water Street, initially opposed the amendment, but now, after negotiating a few modifications, Chin has expressed her support. (Although Chin isn’t on the Zoning and Franchise subcommittee, she’s the district representative, so custom provides her buy-in with weight.)

Modifications include an exception for arcades larger than 7,500 square feet to go through a Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) review. 6 of 17 plazas will consequently be subject t0 a more intensive review before development. Other changes include limiting the frontage of drug stores and banks to 50 and 30 feet, respectively.


Chin later expounded on her decision: “This wasn’t an easy decision to make. 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,” The Broadsheet reported.

Alice Blank, architect and co-chair of CB1’s Tribeca Committee, expressed her profound distaste for the decision: “Now, in behind-closed-doors meetings with the powerful lobbyists for the developers, the City is giving away these public spaces without ever gauging their true value and without obtaining any meaningful commitment from the developers to equitably compensate the public.”

The Land Use Subcommittee is set to vote on the amendment today.

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