Bank Offers to Green Its Drab Tribeca Block, But There's a Catch

Rendering of the proposed Alexander Hamilton Place at Murray and West Streets. The plan calls for 11 new trees, a curved wall for seating and tables and chairs. The now sunken grade of the plaza would be raised to the level of the sidewalk. Credit: BNY Melon/Stantec

Posted
Feb. 01, 2021

Bank of New York Mellon is proposing to green the wide, unwelcoming swath of concrete on the block around its headquarters at 240 Greenwich Street. It’s a plan that includes a pedestrian plaza at West and Murray Streets that honors the bank’s historic founder.

Alexander Hamilton Place, with new trees and plantings, tables and chairs, and an undulating seat wall is proposed as a spruce up for the nearly 7,000-square-foot lot behind the bank building, at Murray and West Streets. Additional seating and greenery would surround the bank tower.

“The project will enhance the pedestrian experience and the new outdoor public space will provide much needed additional greenery and open space for the neighborhood, and Lower Manhattan,” David Vandivier, the bank’s director of government relations, told a Community Board 1 committee last month on the bank’s proposal before the City Planning Commission.

But there’s a catch.

The bank is linking its offer of public amenities outside the building to a request to remove public access to its impressive L-shaped lobby, a space officially listed by the city as a Privately Owned Public Space, or POPS. Bank officials call that designation an error, and they’re packaging their request for the outdoor amenities with an application to amend the lobby’s status, making it officially off limits to the public. (Currently, security personnel turn away people who want to visit the space, due to the pandemic, they say.)

“This is not about eliminating a POPS-type space,” David Karnovsky, a lawyer representing the bank told CB1’s Land Use, Zoning and Economic Development Committee. “It is about clearing the public record.”

Not so, said CB1. In an advisory resolution, the board called for rejecting the application to privatize the lobby, while approving the pedestrian amenities.

“It’s very much an understood public space,” argued committee member Alice Blank, who showed a floor plan of the lobby on a 1980 city document that indicated the public portion of the lobby. 

“I think it’s egregious,” Blank added, to ask the community or city to deaccession the space. If the bank wants to do what they should have already been doing, the beautifying of Greenwich Street, then that’s grand.”

Alison Brown, a senior planner with the Department of City Planning, called the record on the status of the space “unclear, and quite tenuous” because the lobby “has no features tied to what we would typically see of a POPS.”

In 1980, the city approved a plan for an anticipated elevated walkway that would connect the bank building and 7 World Trade Center, with public access through the lobby and up an escalator to the second-floor. But 7 World Trade’s designers did not include access to a walkway, so it wasn’t built. Ten years later, the city modified the 1980 permit that would have allowed the walkway, without changing the lobby’s public status. Still, for most of the years since 9/11, the space has been kept off limits, though it remains listed as a POPS on the Department of City Planning’s website.

“I can’t and won’t vote for anything that would waive the rights to a POPS,  especially given the applicant hasn’t been remotely cooperative in its duty as part of its original deal with the city in the first place,” said committee member Colin Mahoney. 

In its resolution, which approved the outdoor amenities and rejected changes to the lobby's official status, CB1 refused to lump the two proposals together. “I don’t understand why we have to entertain that portion of the application just to get those improvements that I think are quite beautiful,” said Patrick Kennell, the committee’s chair. 

(The CB1 resolution, while approving the enhancements, took issue with parts of the plan, such as removing the Citi Bike station, and the addition of a ring of security bollards around the bank’s property. It also sought the position of District Council 37, which is next door to the proposed plaza.)

Asked by Kennell whether the community would still get the improvements if the bank’s lobby request is turned down, Karnovsky, the BNY Mellon lawyer, demurred. “That’s something we’ll have to discuss,” he replied, “but I think that we’ve made our position clear about what this is and what it isn’t.”