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MAS Testimony to Land Use Committee regarding Water Street Upgrades Text Amendment N 160166 ZRM

MAS Testimony to Land Use Committee regarding Water Street Upgrades Text Amendment N 160166 ZRM.

June 13, 2016


The Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS) is not aware of any revisions to the proposed Water Street Upgrades Text Amendment. As such, MAS reiterates that we are opposed to the proposed amendment without the inclusion of the recommended modifications outlined in our May 4, 2016 testimony, which are also included herein.


MAS believes an abundance of high quality public space is essential to the well-being of our city. Truly accessible and connected public spaces that are well-designed and thoughtfully programmed add vibrancy to our streets, strengthens our civic culture, and enhances the value of neighborhoods. As such, MAS applauds the efforts of the Alliance for Downtown New York (ADNY), the Department of City Planning (DCP), and the Economic Development Corporation (EDC) to improve the Privately Owned Public Spaces (POPS) in the Water Street corridor.

Many of the POPS in this area were built during an era that subscribed to different ideas about the role of cities, principles of urban planning‎, and approaches to the architecture of public space than we have today. As a result, most of the POPS in the Water Street corridor are considered by many to be uninviting, lacking vibrancy, an impediment to investment, and, in some cases, unsafe. In fact, as noted in Privately Owned Public Space: The New York City Experience, a book jointly published in 2000 by MAS, DCP and Jerold S. Kayden, a qualitative assessment of the POPS in this area found that many received the worst rating. Thus, 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.


MAS supports the important goals the project sponsors seek through this text amendment; however, we recommend the following modifications to the current proposal:

Recommended Modifications

Set a City-wide Precedent – There are 525 POPS across the City of New York and many of them are also poorly designed and maintained, and could benefit from similar creative solutions initiated for the Water Street corridor. The Water Street corridor represents only 3% of the total number of POPS in the city in need of activation or reimagining. We urge 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.

Establish a Public Review Process for Deaccessioning POPS – A public review process should be established to assess on a case-by-case basis each POPS proposed to be removed from the inventory, in which there would be:

  • An expressed finding that no public interest is served by continued existence of the public space under review and applicants must explore all alternatives to eliminating the spaces, short of deaccessioning;
  • A commitment by the property owner that additional public benefits will be secured by its removal;
  • A quantitative assessment of any financial gain accruing to the owner from this action and a plan that no such gain will be larger than necessary to encourage the owner to remove the space and provide the additional public benefits; and
  • The case-by-case assessment for each deaccessioned POPS should be conducted pursuant to a Chairperson’s Certification, if not a City Planning Commission Certification.

Calculate and Ensure the Public Benefit – The 1961 Zoning Resolution allowed for the creation of POPS‎ by granting property owners additional FAR in exchange for the inclusion of public space on their properties. As conceived, both the additional FAR and public space were intended to exist in perpetuity. The Water Street text amendment changes this important equation. Property owners who benefitted from the additional FAR but did not improve their POPS would be allowed to replace arcades with commercial, revenue-generating uses.


MAS understands that the cost to rebuild the POPS will be substantial and that developers need an economic incentive to carry out the improvements. However, it is clear that the buildings that received additional FAR are inherently more valuable than they otherwise would be. As seen in places like Times Square, we also know that well designed public places can more than triple retail rents. Thus, improvements to the POPS will provide added financial benefit to property owners. Finally, the inclusion of commercial uses in existing POPS will provide additional revenue for property owners.

As presently drafted, the text amendment does not require property owners to complete a full accounting of their 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. Mechanisms must be put in place to ensure that, in addition to paying to upgrade their POPS and introduce commercial space in their POPS, property owners must also pay a fee if the financial benefit to the building owner exceeds the calculated value of the lost public space.

For instance, such a fee could be calculated based on the combined incremental value: 1) achieved as a result of the additional FAR constructed in excess of the permitted FAR at the time of construction and as a result of a POPS bonus scheme; and 2) projected as part of the conversion of POPS to commercial space. The City could then use the revenue from the fee to support public programming and other activities related to the remaining public spaces in the area. The City could also consider reducing the fee for property owners that commit to reserve a percentage of new retail space for below-market retail and other uses. This would support much needed arts organizations, community services, social services, and neighborhood retail while increasing the vibrancy of the Water Street corridor.

Contextual Commercial Development – The addition of commercial uses into existing POPS must be contextual and respectful of adjacent uses. For example, particular care must be given to the inclusion of any new commercial uses at 55 Water Street, 2 New York Plaza, and 4 New York Plaza that are directly adjacent to The New York City Vietnam Veterans Memorial Plaza.

The MAS looks forward to seeing these changes incorporated into this proposal, and to working with DCP and EDC toward a city-wide approach for improving all POPS.

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