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Plan to transform Lower Manhattan arcades into retail is in jeopardy

The retail spaces may not stand up to FEMA regulations

A plan to transform largely underutilized public plazas below buildings on Water Street into retail is facing a threat from federal flood regulations, Crain’s reports. In June, the plan to convert those open air arcades located on a 10-block stretch between Whitehall and Fulton Streets on Water Street, was approved by the City Council, but now it seems the development might not be up to code.

The measure was put forward by the local Business Improvement District (BID)—The Alliance of Downtown New York, and subsequently received the support of the City Planning Commission and the Economic Development Corporation.

The problem however lies in the fact that all of Water Street is in a flood zone, and development on that street should be able to withstand floods that rise up to 12-feet. A city law on the other hand requires that retail storefronts be mostly built with glass, which only further complicates the matter.

When all the city agencies were going over this proposal over the summer, they suggested that metal shield be put in place that can be installed when there’s a warning of a flood and removed when it has passed.

However after a recent conversation between City Planning and the American Society of Civil Engineers, a non-profit that helped create many of the city’s construction rules, there is some uncertainty around the project. The non-profit will formally issue its recommendations in the next few weeks, but those recommendations will be based on guidelines developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the non-profit could decide against the metal shields. In the past there has been criticism of the shields for detaching during flooding.

An alternative would be to install aquarium glass on the storefronts, but the cost could be prohibitive for developers. One building owner on the street has suggested the use of triple pane glass, but it’s not clear if that will be approved either.

A city official however told Crain’s that the matter may likely be resolved on an individual basis with each storefront. The arcades were created between the 1960s and 1980s as an exchange between the developers and the city where the former could create taller buildings if they created these public spaces. They never quite took off however, and elected officials have pushed in recent years to transform them. Funds from the retail development would allow the BID to carry out cleaning and street beautification projects along the stretch.