Fair Deal? At 200 Water Street, a Give and Take Over Public Space

The view of 200 Water Street from the corner of Water and Fulton, as it looks today and a rendering of the proposed plan to fill in the arcades with retail and revamp the plaza with new trees, plantings and seating. The current plaza and arcades, said Dan Shannon of MdeAS Architects, the project's designers, "is very little used." The sculpture near the corner is a placeholder for an artwork yet to be selected. Photo and rendering: MdeAS Architects 

Jul. 31, 2017

A controversial zoning change approved last year encourages the owners of 20 buildings along a corridor of Water Street, from Fulton to Whitehall, to make a deal with the city. They can enclose what are now covered public areas along the fronts of their buildings—spaces known as arcades—and rent those spaces to retail tenants. In exchange, they would have to make certain improvements to nearby, and presumably underused, public plazas.

The city now has its first taker, and it’s a big one: 200 Water Street, the 32-story residential tower at the prominent corner of Fulton Street.

Rockrose, the owner, revealed its plans recently to a skeptical joint committee of Community Board 1, a board that debated the zoning change for months last year before approving it by just one vote.

The reduced public space on the building’s Fulton Street side would be refurbished with new seating, trees, plantings, paving and lighting. The owner has already improved the corner of Water and John and plans an upgrade to its corner at John and Pearl. New resiliency standards for the ground floor also would be met.

“We have directed our design team to a very high level of design, more than would be required, to make this a really special plaza,” Paul Januszewski, the Rockrose vice president for planning, told the board members.

In exchange, Rockrose is proposing to add nearly 3,000 square feet of new retail space, which they say would allow for two more stores in addition to its current tenant, Duane Reade. And, to the surprise of the committees, an extra 1,778 square feet of new residential space would be added to a now empty second-floor portion of the building above the arcade.

Concerns over whether the neighborhood would be getting enough in return for the loss of public space—the big issue that absorbed hours of debate over the zoning proposal last year—resurfaced once again. In its 2016 resolution, the board singled out 200 Water Street, "where the benefit to the property owner clearly outweighs the community benefit" and calls for additional neighborhood improvements, such as an upgrade to nearby Pearl Street Playground.  

"I see a beautiful design that satisfies the letter of the law but not the spirit of the resolution that the community wanted," said Land Use Committee member Tammy Meltzer.

Paul Goldstein, another member of the committee and a former longtime CB1 district manager, called the Rockrose proposal "disappointing."

"There is a long history in this board of developers being very generous and contributing to community needs," he said.

Alice Blank, an architect on the committee who last year led the opposition to the zoning amendment, argued that "one of the great urban plazas in New York City" was being lost along with much public space. "Understand that we have accepted the realities of the Water Street text amendment but we as a community did not accept that we would get nothing in addition to the plaza," she said, calling on the owners to contribute the second-floor space to a non-profit group.

Rockrose's Paul Januszewski called the request for a community amenity inside the building "not something we can accommodate."

Zachary Bernstein, a real estate lawyer representing Rockrose, argued that there would be no significant financial gain to the trade-off. So far, he said, no other owner has applied to the city for one. "It's not a great rush to get the spoils from this proposal," he said.

Following the discussion, the joint committee decided it wanted to take up the matter again at its September meeting before issuing a final recommendation. (The Department of City Planning later granted an extension to the board's 45-day response period.)

“People need time to think about this," Land Use Committee chair Patrick Kennell told Januszewski.

The Rockrose representative said he didn’t oppose the extra time, "but I don't want to give the impression that our position is going to change," he said, adding,  "I don't think we'll be willing to contribute any more."