How to Make Water Street a More Vital & Exciting Center of Life

06/28/2010 in

Water Street

Using what works to rescale a great boulevard: A new Water Street might someday look like this.

By Liz Berger

Water Street wasn’t always Lower Manhattan’s premier commercial corridor.  For 350 years, it was maritime central:  a port and shipyard, with a fish market, warehouses, noisy, late-night restaurants and hotels of questionable repute.  But its fortunes faded, and when the Pearl Street el came down in the 1950s, the roadbed was widened, the City’s Zoning Resolution was amended and Water Street was transformed.

Today, Water Street is home to 70,000 jobs, more than 19 million square feet of office space and some of the region’s most prestigious companies.  There’s the Police Museum, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Elevated Acre, one of New York’s best-kept secrets (and home of the Downtown Alliance’s free summer Movie Nights).  And there are new residential buildings and hotels, like the Andaz, which is about to launch a chef-sponsored farmer’s market.  Like the rest of Lower Manhattan, Water Street has something (including the world’s largest digital clock) for everyone.

But these attractions can be hard to find on a street with arcades and plazas designed for pedestrian circulation but all too often empty and austere. The problem is amplified by a street that is too wide for the amount of traffic it serves.

Tens of thousands of workers, residents and visitors make their way to Water Street every day, but they rarely dawdle.  The street life gives few clues to what’s happening in the buildings above, and here’s the irony:  With all the public spaces, there are not enough places to linger on Water Street and too few places to stop. The current transformation of the rest of Lower Manhattan into an intense mix of street-level uses and activities can seem distant here.

There’s lots that’s right about Water Street:  premium real estate, fantastic views, easy access to subways, buses and ferries, and a great place to catch a cab.  But that’s not enough to stay competitive.  Think Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, the Ginza in Tokyo or Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay. Water Street should be on that list.

So last year, the Downtown Alliance convened a committee of property owners, residents, real estate brokers, business owners, marketers, preservationists, restaurateurs, Community Board 1 members and other Lower Manhattan stakeholders, who chose a team led by local landscape architects Starr Whitehouse to figure out how. After 18 months of research, analysis, workshops and renderings, I am excited to share the results.

Water Street: A New Approach Transforming Lower Manhattan’s Modern Commercial Boulevard is a blueprint for change that can— and must—happen now.  It’s about four simple ideas that will take Water Street from 0 to 60, preserving what works and reinventing what doesn’t:

Rescale Water Street as a pedestrian-friendly boulevard, with a median, dramatic plantings and monumental public art — Lower Manhattan’s Park Avenue.

Connect Water Street to the waterfront and to the historic Financial District with signage, easy crossings and two new public gathering spaces.

Rethink decades-old zoning to encourage more street-level retail activity and restaurants.

Add more culture, entertainment and events during the day, in the evenings and on weekends.

New York City owes a massive debt to Holly Whyte, the author who famously chronicled the patterns of activity that make New York New York. He spent a lifetime observing and thinking about place-making, and wrote: “The street is the river of life of the city, the place where we come together, the pathway to the center.”  This is Water Street’s past, and we propose that it be its future.

—Liz  Berger is President of the Downtown Alliance.

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