Taking stock after NYC lost its Water Street privately owned public spaces

(Courtesy NYC DCP)

After much debate, the New York City Council passed the Water Street Upgrades Text Amendment on June 21, giving 110,000 square feet of privately owned public spaces (POPS) to the developers and owners of 17 buildings in lower Manhattan to infill. These specific POPS are defined as arcades—covered pathways originally intended to offer pedestrians continuous coverage and protection in inclement weather and provide places of respite. In the 1960s, developers were given additional square footage in the floor area ratio (FAR) in exchange for providing these spaces to the public. However, when these spaces were created, there were different design preferences and standards than what we have today. The modernist arcades are devoid of ornamentation, offer varying degrees of sightlines due to the overhangs and columns, and have deteriorated over the decades. The amendment would allow commercial infill in these spaces, ideally to better serve the community than the arcades did.

Opponents believe that the developers will benefit overmuch, as they received additional FAR for originally providing the arcades, and will now receive them“back” for commercial use—potentially earning additional millions of dollars in rent. Community activists such as Community Board 1 member and architect Alice Blank have also voiced concerns that this will set “a precedent for the future conversion of public space for use as commercial space.”

However, Harvard professor Jerold S. Kayden, author of Privately Owned Public Space: The New York City Experience, said, “I think it would be a mistake to view this as anything more than dealing specifically with the conditions of the Water Street POPS.” The New York Department of City Planning and the Municipal Art Society also worked on the book; together they evaluated over 500 POPS spaces in New York and issued five different classifications: destination, neighborhood, hiatus, circulation, and marginal.

According to Kayden, the majority of the Water Street arcades received a classification of “marginal.” “It’s hard to make the claim that stellar spaces are being removed. This should not serve as a precedent for any other space in any other place,” he said. “If a space is irredeemable as a public space and there is no benefit to continuing it as a public space, then one finding that I would be satisfied with is potentially removing it.” Kayden suggested that, considering how much the owners stand to gain to profit from the situation, the city is in a good position to receive community benefits from them in return. Additionally, said Design Trust for Public Space  fellow, urban designer, and planner Douglas Woodward, “Retail activation in POPS is a frequently used strategy, and some of the best and most successful POPS (e.g. the Rubenstein Atrium at the Lincoln Center, the IBM space on 57th Street, and 60 Wall Street) all have active retail.”

In the current amendment, the owners are responsible for revitalizing the nearby plazas to better serve the public, but exactly how that might play out is unclear. Our verdict? Watch these spaces—good things may or may not be coming.

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