Community says open space closed because of OWS fears
By Paul Bisceglio
The Financial District’s population is exploding. According to a 2000-2010 survey by Community Board 1, 28,000 residents now live in the Financial District alone, excluding Battery Park City, the Seaport/Civic Center and Tribeca. That’s 288 percent more residents than at the turn of the century, including enough new and expecting moms to win the area the nickname “The Diaper District.”
The closure of One Chase Manhattan Plaza last September has not made pedestrian traffic any lighter. Barricaded by a wire fence and orange plastic barriers for a yet-to-be-seen construction project, the 15,898-square-foot plaza that houses J.P. Morgan Chase’s 60-floor skyscraper now keeps pedestrians off the walkway that stretches from the corner of Nassau and Liberty streets to Pine and Williams streets. This open space, with benches, a small cluster of trees, an iconic sculpture and a sunken garden, has been a major public meeting place and thruway for decades.
Members of the Financial District community have objected to the plaza’s closure since it started, arguing that the alleged construction project is a guise to ward off Occupy Wall Street protestors. Now, CB1’s newly formed Urban Planning Committee is adding its voice to demand that the bank reopen the plaza to the public.
On July 5, the Committee devoted most of their inaugural meeting to a discussion of what should be done about the plaza. They agreed that the closure is a significant obstruction in the daily lives of Financial District residents.
“It’s a catastrophe,” said committee member Ro Sheffe.
“It seems to be to be extraordinarily unneighborly,” said Jeff Galloway, the Committee chair.
The problem the Committee faces is that unlike most publicly accessible parks in the Financial District, One Chase Manhattan Plaza is not legally considered a Privately Owned Public Space (POPS)—it’s just private. CB1 Director of Land Use and Planning Michael Levine explained at the meeting that Chase’s building was constructed before POPS zoning laws were implemented in the 1970s, so the bank has no legal obligation to keep the square open to the public.
Levine noted that the legality of the fencing could come into question if Chase were proven not to be engaging in construction there. Evidence to confirm this, however, would be hard to find: one citizen recently sued the New York Department of Buildings for refusing to disclose Chase’s construction plans, but One Chase Manhattan Plaza’s place on a Police Department list of buildings potentially vulnerable to a terrorist attack has allowed the bank to guard the details of the project from public scrutiny for security reasons.
The Committee decided that if no legal imperative compels Chase to reopen the plaza, a social one still should. Chase President David Rockefeller declared the plaza’s openness to the public a triumph when it was built, and the Committee reasoned the bank could add new rules to the plaza to deter protestors without fully blocking pedestrians. The Committee voted to tell Chase that the plaza should be opened as quickly as possible, that security concerns should be accommodated in a way that has minimal impact on the public and that the bank should provide a timetable for the construction project’s completion.
At the time of the Urban Planning Committee meeting, Chase had not responded to CB1 staff’s attempts to contact them about the plaza’s closure. Recently, however, the bank agreed to send a representative to this evening’s CB1 Quality of Life Committee meeting to discuss the issue.
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