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MAS Opposes Loss of Public Space on Water Street

MAS Comments Regarding the Zonings and Franchises Subcommittee Approval of the Water Street Upgrades Text Amendment N 160166 ZRM.

June 21, 2016

The Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS) is deeply disappointed by the City Council Zonings and Franchises Subcommittee’s approval of the proposed Water Street Upgrades Text Amendment without any significant modification to the original plan. We urge Council Members representing districts across the City that also contain Privately Owned Public Spaces (POPS) to reject this proposal today as a dangerous precedent.

As presently constituted, the modified proposal that was approved last Tuesday allows property owners within the Water Street Corridor not only the benefit of the initial additional floor area accorded to them under the 1961 Zoning Resolution’s POPS regulations, but also the financial benefits of the additional retail infill without any economic evaluation or a measurable benefit to the public.

The so-called compromise brokered last week is no compromise at all; essentially, the amendment authorizes a giveaway to property owners who benefitted from the additional FAR but did not improve their POPS as the zoning regulations required, to replace arcades with commercial, revenue-generating infill without just compensation owed to the public. Moreover, the approval also sets a potential distressing precedent that invites property owners of the 525 POPS citywide, many of which are as underperforming as the Water Street POPS, to enjoy the same double benefits allowed under the current proposal with little in the way of compensation for the public.

MAS maintains that the text amendment as currently written does not require property owners to account for the costs and benefits for upgrading their POPS and eliminating or reducing public space. Given that these POPS were intended to exist in perpetuity and provide a public benefit, it is imperative that the reduction or elimination of existing public space be subject to a thorough economic analysis. Our preliminary estimation suggests that this change could deliver a one-time profit of $55-77 million for building owners, with no accounting of the cost to the public.

As we have stated throughout the environmental review process for the text amendment, MAS supports the goals the project sponsors seek. We are in favor of reimagining these POPS to ensure they are welcoming places for residents, workers, and visitors that offer space for respite and contemplation while also activating the street realm. We have also urged DCP and EDC to develop a city-wide approach that would provide all property owners the framework, tools, and incentive to improve their underperforming POPS.

However, we are strongly opposed to giving property owners the added benefit of additional retail space without an equitable return for the public. We urge the Council to reject this proposal today.

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