October 4, 2010
World Financial Overhaul Hits Snag
By ELIOT BROWN
The owners of the massive four-tower World Financial Center complex in Lower Manhattan are slated to unveil on Tuesday plans for a major overhaul of the complex's retail and a remake of its eastern entranceway and signature Winter Garden indoor plaza.
But even before the design of the $200 million-plus project has been widely released, the owners, Brookfield Properties, have hit a possible snag. The firm faces resistance to its plan to remove the Winter Garden's sprawling marble staircase. City Planning Commission chairwoman Amanda Burden has objected to designs for the revamped plaza, and community members fear the loss of an iconic space that once led to a bridge to the old World Trade Center before it was destroyed.
"People walked up on the bridge to go from the Trade Center to the World Financial Center and the staircase at that point served as a monumental entrance," said Linda Belfer, chairwoman of the local community board's Battery Park City committee. "Much of the community is concerned about it."
For years, Brookfield has been pondering a redo of the complex's retail and its Winter Garden, the expansive palm tree-lined indoor space that sits below a signature bubbling glass atrium. The popular area and tourist attraction often holds concerts, festivals and other public events with the staircase serving as an amphitheater of sorts where people sit.
Facing a series of major lease expirations in the next few years that Brookfield is seeking to replace, the project has gained urgency lately given that the leasing job could be made easier by the prospect of a renovation.
Under Brookfield's plan, the firm would remove the stairs at the eastern end of the 1980s Cesar Pelli-designed complex. That would effectively extend the open plaza to a revamped entrance at West Street to meet an underground connector with the PATH and subway system under construction at the World Trade Center site. The plans call for new escalators by the eastern entrance.
With thousands of commuters expected to pour through that entrance every morning, Brookfield argues the stairs' removal is essential given that workers and residents would otherwise be funneled into the existing narrow entrance constrained by the staircase. The firm plans to present the plans to the local community board Tuesday.
"People that are coming into the World Financial Center for the first time will be entering the complex from the street level—that's basically the new reality that we've had to deal with," says Ric Clark, Brookfield's CEO. Having the bulk of commuters come through the existing entrance, keeping the stairs in tact is "not appropriate, and it's not safe," he added.
"Had this new reality been in existence at the onset, the complex wouldn't have been designed with steps," he says.
But Brookfield's plans haven't been embraced by the Department of City Planning in earlier presentations, meeting criticism from Ms. Burden, who cut her teeth in planning at Battery Park City and is known for her obsession with detail of design.
This has put her at odds with John Zuccotti, the co-chairman of Brookfield's board who was Chairman of the City Planning Commission in the 1970s. In a June letter to Mr. Zuccotti, she wrote that "removing the stairs creates a substantial void which cannot be filled by a small temporary stage and curtain," which Brookfield had proposed. "We think it is highly questionable as to whether there is compelling rationale for removing the stairs, which are used regularly by a broad range of people throughout the day," she wrote.
Should revisions by Brookfield fail to appease Ms. Burden, it's not clear that she would have the ability to block the stairs' demolition. Brookfield believes it doesn't need her direct approval. However, her assent would be needed for a planned glass-clad pavilion that would expand out of the eastern entrance and enclose the entranceway to the PATH and subways.
The pavilion and Winter Garden redo would be coupled with a major renovation of the complex's retail. Mr. Clark said food-service retail currently takes in about $55 million in revenue a year, a number he would hope to expand. Leasing retail space at the World Financial Center has always been challenging partly because there's far less traffic there during nights and weekends. However, the residential population of Battery Park City has grown substantially over the years, a market Brookfield seeks to better target.
Brookfield hopes to start construction by the end of the year, targeting early 2013 for a full completion.
"When the World Financial Center was built, the retail was really an afterthought," Mr. Clark says.
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I originally thought that the only way to preserve at least the central part of the stairway was to put the escalators to the 2nd level on the sides of the stairway. But looking at the renderings of the tunnel headhouse, which appears to be extended from the Winter Garden glass wall, it's possible to put the escalators in the headhouse. About 40 feet of run would be needed.