Most streets in the Financial District are a warren of glorified cow paths and back alleys that date back to the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdaam. One of the rare exceptions is Water Street, which once was at the historic water line but was built out with landfill centuries ago. Now the street spans eight lanes and might as well be an expressway cutting off access between the increasingly active neighborhood and its burgeoning waterfront.
The Department of City Planning hopes to address some of these problems with a novel solution: tables and chairs.
Many of the office buildings lining Water Street were built with tower-boosting plazas. In exchange for public open space, developers could build taller buildings. But this has not only widened the canyon on Water Street to a Grand scale but also left much of this space windswept and empty, driving away the human activity these plazas and arcades were meant to promote. (See, crowded sidewalks aren’t always bad.)
Under the new zoning amendment, landlords will be able to set up temporary tables and chairs for public use, an act that was once forbidden, and cafe and other restaurant uses within the ground floors of buildings are even encouraged.
If this seems like a modest proposal, consider a few prominent examples. When the city shut down Times Square, similar seating was installed and became a huge success. Meanwhile, the closure of nearby Stone Street and the setting up of tables and chairs have turned it into the Financial District’s own restaurant row. And last summer a pilot sidewalk cafe program was launched, turning parking spaces on Pearl Street into outdoor eateries–it was such a hit, the program is being expanded to 10 sites in the coming months.
“How New York City looks and feels at the street level affects how we all experience the city,” City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden said in a release. “By allowing tables and chairs to locate in Water Street arcades, this proposal will help the street reach its potential as a vibrant and dynamic place where office workers, residents and tourists will be able to have their lunches, or simply rest and linger, under the shelter of public arcades.”
And this is only the beginning of the transformation of Water Street. Last year, the Downtown Alliance released a dramatic vision for the thoroughfare that included new street trees, a Park Avenue-style median, even a Times Square-like light show. A department official told The Observer that this is the first, quick step in transforming Water, and, pending approvals, tables could begin popping up by the summer.
Elizabeth Berger, executive director of the Downtown Alliance and Lower Manhattan’s biggest fan, sees the proposal as a boon for the area. “We applaud Commissioner Burden’s proposal to enliven Water Street with outdoor seating,” Berger said in an email. “Water Street is Lower Manhattan’s prime commercial corridor, and this is great news for the 70,000 people who work there, the 5,000 people who live there, and the millions of annual visitors to the cultural and historic attractions on the east side of Lower Manhattan.”