Replacing a Poorly-Conceived Upper West Side Public Space with Retail?

Developer Ashkenazy Acquisition is seeking special approval to install ground floor retail space to replace the good-intentioned, but ill-conceived, public space located in the ground floor retail component of the Bel Canto condominium, a residential tower adjacent to the Upper West Side’s Apple Store near Lincoln Center (and Grandma Bunny).  In 1985, when the condominium building was built, in what was then a much different neighborhood, the developer received additional development rights in exchange for dedicating the ground floor retail space fronting Broadway to public space.  Most recently, the beloved (albeit mediocre) Chinese restaurant Ollie’s occupied the rear of the ground floor and had a takeout counter open to the public space.  The restaurant vacated the space in 2013 after a fire, and it has sat vacant ever since.  Now it is October 2014, and prime Broadway retail space in the West 60s (especially space next door to the perennially jammed Apple Store) can lease for upwards of $400/sf, so the public space is not looking like such a good idea anymore.  The 7,500sf retail space could potentially gross in excess of $3,000,000 per year if the public space is converted to retail and combined with the former restaurant space in the back.  Ashkenazy is requesting that it be permitted to sacrifice this space in exchange for an agreement to rehabilitate an unspecified amount of the leafy landscaped malls on Broadway.

There are a couple ways of looking at this.  My bleeding heart is tussling with the pro-development real estate professional inside me right now.  The public space is poorly maintained now and very rarely provides sanctuary for anybody other than the neighborhood’s homeless, but it is still a neighborhood amenity for those members of the community, who should not be overlooked.  At the same time, as the neighborhood has changed, it is arguable that the public (neighborhood residents included) is better served by the operation of a store in that location, which would fill a retail void there, generate taxable revenue and create new jobs.

Maybe the solution should be to allow Ashkenazy to build its store, but instead of rehabbing the malls, which bears little relationship to the public amenity being demolished, require the company to pay the City, for the right to use the public space, an annual sum that is keyed to a percentage of gross revenues generated by the space.  That money can go into a fund that is linked to promoting the health and well-being of New York’s homeless population or to improve existing shelters.

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