The Architect’s Newspaper has continued its excellent coverage of the public realm along Water Street in Lower Manhattan and the application to City Planning to eliminate the arcade at the Fulton Street end of 200 Water Street (formerly 127 John Street).
Thank you for sending on the article on Water Street. You are right, It is excellent.
I wish somebody would ask Rockrose or any other developer, who wishes to take back the bonused arcade or plaza space, to pay for it. A fair price would be the capitalized value of the net operating income of the bonused floor area within the building.
(I am not always as pro-development as some people foolishly believe).
Alas, Alex Garvin’s approach to valuing the arcades ignores the value to the public of the space, it accounts only for the monetized value of to a potential buyer in the current market. It is an approach in the legal world that Richard Posner has advocated, and is a minority position among legal theorists.
Among economists, adopting such a valuation technique would be ignoring a complete accounting of the value of the space, and would thus be inconsistent with economic theory. For the wider approach to thinking about how to value public assets, Joseph Stiglitz’s famous quote might apply: “the invisible hand is invisible because it isn’t there.”
Thanks, John, for sending this excellent article. I remember 200 Water Street very well with the corrugated metal entry and the colorful seating. It was unique then and would still be if subsequent owners hadn’t dismantled the installations. I agree that Rockrose and other developers should pay for converting this space and, most likely, they will install boring and un-needed chain stores.
But we should not be selling off public assets anyway: we should be stopping most of such sales in their tracks. And making a deal just for the sake of making a deal and then moving on with a claim to victory is the time-honored politician’s way in NYC, but not necessarily one that is conducive to the longer term interest of city residents.
The sale of public assets is happening all the time of course, just in this case the Broadsheet Daily brought the case to the public eye for once.
What it highlights is that it is happening without due consideration of the principles involved and how the ULURP process to make it happen is so unreliable a method for protecting the public interest.
And if, as a democratic city, we do decide that it is indeed in the long term public interest to sell off public assets, there arises the issue of “what price”? The price convenient to the buyer, or the price that values the asset as a public good, or the one that encompasses intergenerational value? Should it be the boom-time price or the economic meltdown price after 2008? Should we sell it the price that will arise before or after the next hurricane?
The value of the asset as a public one is also usually far higher that it’s immediate economic use value to the developer, which is why developers always want the monetized price “that we can see,”, one that doesn’t account for its public value, let alone its intergenerational value. It is the easy way out, but not the right way, IMO.
Historic districts, individual landmarks, city buildings such as the Clocktower landmark at 349 Broadway or 134 Centre, sidewalks, streets, parkland, libraries, school playgrounds, piers, wharves, waterfront, the air rights from the pier near St. John’s, and yes, the sky over Midtown – they are all are public assets. Why sell them off anyway? What crisis justifies each incremental sale? And how real are the crises used to justify each sale?
Looking forward to the time when we have to pay tolls to enter the sidewalk and cross the street as pedestrians.
Maybe these deals—the original ones, that create these POPs or similar public amenities, not the take back deals—should be designed to include a permanent retirement of development rights. If the potential to reverse the original deal is left alive—that is, if even a dim possibility of future development is not legally extinguished it seems almost inevitable that battalions of high NYC retail lawyers will spend as many decades as it takes to unravel the original deal that sequestered the development rights.
Is this possible? Would the deal have to include ceding of title to the spaces in question (to some public conservancy, or govt department)?
OR, Alex’s proposal could work if the law or particular deal included a price setting mechanism that worked to arrive at a figure that was punitively high. (e.g., triple an appraised market value?)
Or something! (I think I speak for all of us, there). These deals—in concept and in each application—never could make sense if they were to be only a loan of the space to public use for 20 years or so. And I don’t think they would survive politically if candidly described this way at their initiation.
Like Pat Z., I used to work in this area and always thought these delightful touches on and around that building were more or less the only humanizing, amusing, or simply nice physical features for blocks around. (west of the Seaport district).
It’s a pretty barren landscape of glass boxes and the only relief for eye or heart are the occasional, legally-required plaza amenities like these. In my opinion, anyway. Don’t suppose this kind of consideration matters now, but to give credit where it is due and without over-personalizing, this kind of consideration of aesthetics was welcome during Amanda Burden’s tenure. Doesn’t seem to occur at all, anymore.
I agree 100%. The Water Street issue has, in my impression, more to do with programming and amenities than with building or even plaza design. Many of the needed design solutions might involve a more modest, “tweaking” approach akin to what PPS and the BID did with Bryant Park—i.e., keeping the basic configuration, but changing (unifying?) the programming, amenities, street furniture, visual access, etc.
I also agree with the other comments that there are ways to (1) create stronger incentives for plazas. (2) create stronger disincentives for their abandonment (by neglect as well as demolition and redevelopment); and (3)create strong incentives for the improvement of existing plazas. One that occurs to me is that after a period (could be as long as 50 years) the plaza is revisited for compliance with the current, better regulations, with a mediation component to forestall unreasonable demands or objections. A key issue is that as sites get smaller (e.g., in East Midtown with the new zoning), there is a need and opportunity for more indoor plazas with second floor office lobbies. The new DCP guidelines for outdoor plazas works really well. They could replicate this effort for indoor plazas.
The big issue is that the DCP itself, as an agency and as staff people, would likely benefit from getting out of the business of plazas and POPS altogether. DCP gets the blame when things are not as hoped, but never the credit when they are. The plazas involve enormous amounts of review, transaction, and administrative work that is disproportionate to their impact and size compared to citywide rezoning, etc. Rarely if ever do the plazas relate to the agenda of their boss (or that of their boss’s boss—the Mayor). Enforcement is extremely hard for a whole other set of reasons, and yields a “what’s the point” perspective. So, what’s the point?
But from a public interest point of view, the plazas and POPS mitigate unremitting density and can even create meaningful amenities in the highest density zones, if not in other places as well. They can, if improved, play an even more important role as we face an increasing problem with heat islands. If it is true that self-driving cars will reduce the need for on-street parking as well as congestion (I’m skeptical); and thus create opportunity for more greenery and placemaking (I’m hopeful); then a number of small and large plazas might over time be improved by blending private/public investment, design and programming.
If not DCP, maybe other agencies can take on the challenge of plazas: The Design Commission, or the SBS downtown unit, or the Parks Department, or the Department of Design and Construction or the Chief Architect? Or maybe it is DCP; and it is like eating unsalted lima beans—it may taste bad for DCP but it is good for the city.
In this context:
Water Street could be a distinct model for showing how a series of plazas can create a placemaking as well as an urban design landscape. The over-wide sidewalks and street present the opportunity to test some of the ideas that we may want to explore mindful of self-driving cars.
If I were to recommend one immediate step independent of Water Street, it would be a coffee table book and/or study documenting plaza successes, to modify the urban legend that they never work out, and to give DCP (and a good number of other players) credit for their successes. That book/study would also point the way to how modifications might be made in the future, to specific plazas, to the legislation, and to the reviews. The book might be organized around the nature of the challenges: large sites, small sites, and indoor settings. The Department of Design and Construction under Bloomberg created such a book with regard to its design excellence program.
Something for MAS or Van Alen or Architectural League or Design Trust or Pratt Institute Urban Placemaking Program or AIA to consider? Certainly, it would have more meaning if done by an entity from outside the city.
And it might lead to a discussion of improving rather than undermining or reducing the plaza bonus; and assuming that zoning (I would add mandates to incentives; and some sort of review such as every 50 years) remains the primary implementation tool, what non-DCP agencies might handle discretionary reviews, oversight and enforcement.
John is 100% right. Building an agenda around upgrading, activating, enhancing what we already have and succeeding at it will drive more attention to other types of spaces in communities. PPS does just that in cities around the world. NYC, where we all 35 of us live has never seemed to be the city we could do anything meaningful in. We just completed a Placemaking Week in Amsterdam where over 400 people (community activists) came from 46 countries to do, as part of the week, Placemaking exercises in 7 struggling neighborhoods in Amsterdam where significant growth is predicted. We did it with “area” resource teams or managers who are being trained to be community Placemakers. These “Placemaking Weeks” are now happening next in Valparaiso next month where 300 people from Latin America are coming together to tackle many of the issues John describes in his email. Other cities happening next year at Auckland, London (Our International Market Cities Conference), Kuala Lumpur, a second one in Nairobi, and one in China (working with the UN Habitat). There are others, but the point is that globally many cities are moving swiftly to create local activation movements that will systemically change how cities and community leaders work together to shape what we call Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper activations that get around the usual top down design and planning processes that consume so much time and don’t deliver the outcomes desired.
The problem here is that most everything is top down and professionally led. Most of the design projects in the last 10 years clearly have not benefited from local engagement in the design process. I won’t name the biggest examples that we believe are significant failures because to the design community they might be considered successes. That needs to be part of a larger discussion which we would be glad to have. Meanwhile take a look at what happened at the Placemaking Week two weeks ago in Amsterdam. (We did a similiar Placemaking Week last year in Vancouver.) We would be glad to be part of this discussion. We have been waiting for a time to come back into the city we live in and care so much about. The politics have been such that it is almost impossible to have this discussion in in any meaningful way.
The politics are indeed tricky.
Many agree that it would be great to keep track of, improve, monitor, and re-activate the huge number of poorly designed POPs, to make them the best they can be given that they are low-hanging public fruit and sub-optimal in their current state. Yet there is also widespread and legitimate grassroots discontent with the zoning code that grants the plaza bonuses in the first place. Why? First, the plaza is rarely an equivalent exchange for the FAR removed from the public realm (ex: the awful plaza next the new Silverstein tower by the Woolworth). Second, the fight is usually about a building that is too tall in the first place. They are often mere bones thrown to shut the public up and claim (falsely) that the public interest was maintained. Other examples of bare-bones ‘amenities include a case where we get a small school but without a full-on, auditoriums, full-scale gyms, play-yards, and art rooms, one that is immediately overcrowded due to the lack of planning for density. And third, plazas are routinely awful – dreary, dark, cigarette strewn messes. In many cases, no amount of activation and redesign can improve the situation – it is just putting lipstick on a pig. For every ‘good’ plaza, there are twenty more that are terrible. Last, and most confounding, is that it is very difficult to generate local citizen interest in the plazas because public ownership is so weakly asserted: the popular perception is that these are corporate places, not public places. They are in fact being managed as corporate places, which is part of the problem. The City’s unwillingness to muscle in there on the property rights issue is astonishing to me. You’d think the politicians would get tired of this game and just start calling these places ‘privately managed public spaces.”
In Tribeca, we had two of the better plazas in the city at 105 Duane and at the Citibank Building on Greenwich Street. Neither of them of course made up for the actual tower monstrosities that generated the plazas, but each plaza was at least generously and well planted with good seating, creative landscaping that fit the place, and had a mix of light and shade and high quality materials, as well as different spots in which to perch suitable for a variety of potential users. In that way they also radiated in subtle ways a ‘public’ character. Then the corporate overlords of the situations (Related, in one case, and Citibank in another), mysteriously decided to renovate – both plazas lost whatever appeal they once had and have ended up looking like corporatized airport design fantasies rather than something the public might like and want to use. Property signs are everywhere. The community had no input in either redesign. The overlords came to the community board and politely informed them of what was up, and that was that.
Why should we care when the current regulatory regime blesses the corporatization and quasi-privatization of these spaces? Interest might be provoked if public ownership was reasserted.
If the property owner wants some inspiration on a more active PUBLIC SPACE, just look across Fulton Street at the little pocket park that ALWAYS HAS KIDS, ELDERLY, 24/7. It has one piece of play equipment and benches. Simple. The other is at John/ Front Streets. A well used pocket park.
Its by choice that this developer has chosen a blank desolate uninviting space. Commercialization is not the only way to “activate” and by the way, we need some serenity once in a while in the city.
BTW- I could use less billboards, less ads on newspaper kiosks, less ads on bus benches, less ads on wi-fi stations, less ads on pull carts, less ads polluting New York’s neighborhoods. Enough is enough. Stop the commercialization of everything.
Resident of Water Street