A Future for Barren Plazas?

For many years, the Department of City Planning has been providing a Floor Area bonus (in certain zoning districts) to developers who provide some open space at the base of their building.

In recent years, this aspect of the zoning resolution has seen increased regulation and oversight.  By all accounts, this heightened attention and focus on design has produced much more desirable plazas, with seating, lighting, and other amenities previously not included in these open spaces.

The question remains, however, about what to do about plazas that were built 20 and 30 years ago, with arguably less regard for design and usability than those constructed today.  A property owner is under no obligation to make improvements to a previously constructed plaza.  Furthermore, there is very little incentive to upgrade a plaza, as the additional Floor Area was obtained years earlier and property owners sometimes prefer not to have seating in front of their building.

One property owner is addressing this issue head on.   At this building in lower Manhattan, an FAR bonus was provided in exchange for a plaza.  The plaza, however, is devoid of amenities.  The owners of this property have devised a plan to improve the plaza in a way that aims to benefit themselves as well as the public.  The idea is to enclose some of the existing plaza in order to allow for more retail space.  In exchange for the decrease in plaza space, the owners propose to add seating, upgrade the lighting, and improve access to the plaza with new stairs.  At last week’s City Planning Commission Review Session, the application was Certified, pushing this issue into the public review process.

The issue at hand here is basic: a bonus was given in exchange for a specific amount of open space.  Now that open space is proposed to be reduced in size.  But the owners are not proposing to give back any of the floor area they received.  The questions are plentiful: is the enhancement of the open space a fair trade for minimizing its size?  Would the alternative of leaving a barren plaza in place be preferable?

There are dozens of plazas of this type throughout the City.  As mentioned by one of the Commissioners, the outcome of this application has the potential to set a precedent.  We will watch this application as it moves through the public review process and keep you posted.

As always, your thoughts on the matter are encouraged.