South Street Seaport Approaches Its Moment of Truth


South Street Seaport
In recent years, the South Street Seaport, hit by the 2008 recession and Superstorm Sandy, has struggled (Image: Emily Assiran/Commercial Observer).

New York City’s centuries-long relationship with its 500 miles of shoreline has always been fraught with tension between practical use and aesthetics. Instead of treasuring the waterways as an asset that raised New York above other Northeast port cities in the nation’s earliest years, multi-lane highways were paved along its banks, billowing factories dotted its shoreline and raw sewage was disposed in its flow.

It is fairly recently that New York’s waterways have been embraced by politicians and the city’s people as a recreation destination and critical artery connecting the boroughs—at least in the lower part of Manhattan that goes by the name South Street Seaport.

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The port at the end of Fulton Street has existed in some form or another since the Dutch West India Company erected a pier in 1625. It has waxed and waned in the public’s eye ever since. But it is currently the focus of a massive redevelopment—as well as significant backlash. The 11-block historic district touted as the birthplace of commerce sits east of FDR Drive, separated both from the city grid and the consciousness of most New York natives. It was dealt a one-two punch with the 2008 financial crisis and 2012 Superstorm Sandy, the latter of which left the neighborhood in tatters. There is little debate that this area, directly south of the Brooklyn Bridge, needs to be revived.

Enter the Dallas-based Howard Hughes Corporation, which holds long-term leases from the city for a number of properties in the historic district. Howard Hughes has put forth comprehensive plans for a mixed-use development project they say would restore the vitality of the nearly 400-year-old neighborhood. Though many community members concede improvements are necessary, including reinvigorating the now-unusable Tin Building, harnessing the foreboding dead space under the FDR and opening up the waterfront for additional use, many are leery of a plan that would bring a luxury high-rise to the enclave and potentially overshadow the area’s cultural significance.

Last week, Community Board 1 passed a resolution on the elements of Howard Hughes’ development proposal that sit within the historic district’s boundaries. The fate of the plan will soon be in the hands of the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), the city agency responsible for protecting historic buildings and sites (though there is no set date yet for the LPC hearing). The question remains whether Landmarks will allow the design and whether Howard Hughes will be granted a Certificate of Appropriateness for the 10 different items proposed, including massive amounts of residential and retail space.

Make no mistake: The power struggle for the seaport has been heated. Politicians and community members have cast blame on Howard Hughes for not listening to the needs they painstakingly outlined in the Seaport Working Group, an assembly of Lower Manhattan residents, elected officials and stakeholders, to foster dialogue about the district’s uncertain future. Howard Hughes insists it has considered all of the Working Group’s guidelines (save the 500-foot luxury residential tower with sweeping views of the Brooklyn Bridge in its plans); it has highlighted its participation in the first-of-its-kind pre-ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure) process as a clear demonstration of its commitment to the community. The company has also offered, by its own calculations, over $300 million in neighborhood benefits—which they say would be transformative. Regardless, both sides are committed to ensuring a historic district achieves a greatness that has long been elusive.

The State of the Seaport

The South Street Seaport got off to a rocky start in the new millennium. One of the community anchors, the Fulton Street Fish Market, decamped for the South Bronx in 2005, bringing over 170 years of history to an end. The tourists that frequented the district stopped coming after Superstorm Sandy, when the deluged area quickly devolved and never quite regained its footing.

“We were hit as a neighborhood extremely hard by Sandy,” said Marco Pasanella, the owner of Pasanella & Son Vintners and a founder of the Old Seaport Alliance, an organization created after Superstorm Sandy to promote local businesses. “We’re a little bit secluded to begin with and people kind of got different patterns. They started to go in different places [and] it’s been a slow comeback for us.”

Community Board 1 used the word “gritty” to describe the seaport of late, but a better word choice may be “static.” At the Community Board 1 meeting last week, one attendee said, “There are rats the size of cats” roaming the streets. Many community members, especially those with children, were excited by the prospect of imminent change.

“The pier that was there before [and] the things that happened here before were not great,” said Diane Honeywell at the community board meeting. Ms. Honeywell owns Nelson Blue, a New Zealand bar and grill at Front Street and Peck Slip. “There was nothing going on here. South Street is a mess.”

The Community Speaks

Seaport-area residents have voiced their concerns through the Seaport Working Group, a coalition formed by Manhattan Community Board 1, Councilmember Margaret Chin, Borough President Gale Brewer and other politicians. The City’s Economic Development Corporation, Department of Cultural Affairs, Department of City Planning participated, as did Howard Hughes. This was the first time that the city had ever conducted a pre-ULURP process of this nature.

Over the course of 10 months, the community group met and devised a set of guidelines for the development of the South Street Seaport Historic District. Though non-binding, these recommendations were not made hastily; the group met weekly for hours on end.

For Howard Hughes, ULURP can start once the company submits a proposal to the Department of City Planning and it is certified. This could happen as early as the latter half of 2015. However, to date, both Ms. Chin and Ms. Brewer have been vocal in their opposition to the proposed plan.

“We have given the developer every opportunity to listen to the community and to look at alternatives,” said Ms. Chin. “We spent months with the working group, looking at the history of the area and really trying to do something there that would continue to make the South Street Seaport a historic treasure for the city.” Ms. Chin is not ideologically opposed to collaborating with the corporation; she did approve Howard Hughes’ redevelopment of Pier 17 in 2013 (which was designed to be a piece of a much larger overhaul of the area). But Ms. Chin is wary of the company’s commitments, especially after the food market that includes locally and regionally sourced food promised by Howard Hughes in the Pier 17 proposal did not come to fruition. And last year, Ms. Brewer compared building a tower at the South Street Seaport to building a tower in Colonial Williamsburg.

Not everybody agrees. “Every time I go back to London, there’s a ton of buildings that are being built but its the cohabitating of old and new,” said Mark Lee, originally from the U.K., who spoke at last week’s Community Board meeting. “I think that we’ve sort of moved on for pure preservation. It’s embracing the collaboration between the old and the new. It’s a great opportunity to look to the future as well as keeping the eye on the past.”

Howard Hughes' seaport plan.
A rendering of Howard Hughes’ plan for the seaport (Image: SHoP Architects).

The Tower

The most disputed element of Howard Hughes’ proposal that does not coincide with the Working Group’s guidelines is its 494-foot tower, slated to sit directly outside of the historic district. The guidelines outline that “alternatives to the proposed 50-story tower should be sought and any building on the New Market site should be contextual with the buildings within the South Street Seaport Historic District.” Howard Hughes has already announced revised plans for the tower, shrinking it from 600 feet to 494 feet.

“It’s not that we’re against the tower, it’s the location of the tower,” said Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.

Yet, as Gregg Pasquarelli, a founding principal of SHoP Architects and the lead designer on the seaport project, noted, “The tower is a very simple issue of zoning and mathematics. There’s only one place that’s outside of the district, that doesn’t really have a height limit on it, where you can build the thing that generates the revenue to pay for all these other issues. It’s that simple,” he said.

Mr. Pasquarelli added, “It’s not that the tower is the goal. The tower brings vitality and a mix and different uses. But it’s really about paying for everything that makes the whole area come together.”

But community members are still worried that the now-42-story building, which will include condos, will look out of context with the low-rise neighborhood (to that Mr. Pasquarelli would point out that there are 50 skyscrapers within five blocks of the site).

“The tower is a clunker,” said Roland Lewis, the president and chief executive officer of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance. “I’m not sure it’s even environmentally possible under the [current] environmental regulations.”

“This is a historic district with cobblestone streets and [that] captures New York’s birth,” he said. “It’s a terrible thing from that point of view.” Mr. Lewis also said that from a maritime perspective, it’s not particularly good to put a building in water where dock space would be preferable.

Community Board 1 agrees, and has gone so far as to request that the Landmarks Preservation Commission extend the South Street Seaport Historic District to match the Federal Historic District boundaries (the South Street Seaport has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1972), which would include the area where the tower would be built.

“The pier that was there before [and] the things that happened here before were not great. There was nothing going on here. South Street is a mess.”

The Benefits Package

But the $300 million benefits package offered by Howard Hughes would not be feasible without the tower-generating revenue.

David Weinreb, the chief executive officer of Howard Hughes, told Commercial Observer in a sit-down interview, “If there were $100 million in savings that we weren’t putting forward, that could be reflected in the height of the building. Conversely, if the community wanted an additional $100 million in benefits, the building would need to go taller.”

Mr. Lewis believes that the grounds for approving the tower, the generous benefits package, are misguided.

“You don’t have to build a skyscraper to rebuild a city street. We don’t have to build a giant 50-story building for luxury condominiums to maintain a cultural institution or repair the pier,” he said. “We need to pay for upkeep of our waterfront. We need to pay for this like we pay for anything else—not through a skyscraper.”

Ms. Brewer agrees. “You look first at what you want first in terms of zoning because otherwise, it doesn’t feel like it’s a project that has what the community wants,” she said. “You work on what you want for the area first. I don’t start with community benefits agreements ever, ever, ever.”

But it’s indisputable that the seaport’s piers and structures are decrepit and to date, have not been adequately cared for by the city. Howard Hughes estimates it will cost $64 million to replace and upgrade the piers. In addition, it assumes it will cost $54 million to restore the Tin Building and move it out of the floodplain and $53 million to extend the East River Esplanade, now a disjointed, often dangerous path, through the Seaport and to the Brooklyn Bridge.

When asked about the $300 million in community benefits Howard Hughes has repeatedly stressed in its marketing campaign, Ms. Chin was skeptical. “I’m not even sure that the amount that they’re talking about is realistic,” she said. “They have not shown us exactly … how they itemize it out.”

She was also was skeptical of Howard Hughes’ commitment to affordable housing. “They talk about affordable housing. What they’ve shown us is almost $1 million a unit. A million dollars for affordable housing? That’s not right. I don’t know where they got that number.”

The Museum

Another major concern is the fate of the beleaguered South Street Seaport Museum. “I think that the most important role for the Seaport Museum in this process and going forward is that of interpreter and curator of the district,” said Captain Jonathan Boulware, the museum’s president. “The museum has a unique voice programmatically and educationally that speaks for the historic ships, buildings and piers that really represent the birth of New York.”

Yet in recent memory, the museum’s unique voice has been muffled and by nearly all accounts, the institution has not lived up to its potential. Founded in 1967 as a steward of New York’s maritime history, the museum has faced significant financial burdens. In 2011, The New York Times referred to the museum as “comatose” and highlighted the depths of its fiscal mismanagement. It earns revenue from programming and has some support from the city, but it has struggled to attract visitors and donors. Many of the historic ships, the museum’s crown jewels, are in need of extensive rehabilitation at costs that will run into millions of dollars.

And then came Superstorm Sandy. While the museum’s ships fared better than expected, six feet of water flooded its lobby and destroyed critical electrical infrastructure. Millions of dollars in damage were sustained.

Today, the Museum is undergoing a feasibility study looking at programming and finances that will outline what will make a robust Seaport Museum going forward, though Mr. Boulware declined to comment on when the study would be completed.

“It’s a goldilocks scenario,” said Mr. Boulware. “The museum needs to be large enough and have enough vessels to effectively perform its mission. Candidly, the museum has had historically more vessels than it can maintain to a level that is sufficient. Being judicious to have the right types of vessels, the right amount and type of space is essential to our success and our survival.”

SHoP and Howard Hughes both have said they believe in creating a museum that complements this historic area.

“We’ve come up with literally half a dozen different ways for them to occupy different parts of the project,” said Mr. Pasquarelli. “I think that everyone feels that they are incredibly important, that they should be the cultural heart of the project.”

Mr. Weinreb said there has been a lot of misinformation circulating around Howard Hughes’ view of the Seaport Museum; the company has pledged much-needed capital to the museum, but the institution’s plans are still in flux.

“We have offered tens and tens of millions of dollars to the Seaport Museum, but they’re still working on their programming,” he said.

When asked what qualms Mr. Boulware had with Howard Hughes’ plans for the area, he declined to comment.

Construction South Street Seaport.
Construction is already underway in the area (Image: Emily Assiran/Commercial Observer).

The Future

Community Board 1’s resolution makes it clear that the Seaport area needs substantial improvements on a concrete timeline. But it also stresses that it will not support a proposal that does not meet all the guidelines of the Seaport Working Group.

On Feb. 5, Ms. Chin and Ms. Brewer sent a letter to Meenakshi Srinivasan, the chair of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. In the letter, they say that it is virtually impossible to evaluate the plan without knowing the outcome of the inevitable negotiations that will happen during ULURP.

“We feel strongly that we and the public do not have adequate information with which to evaluate these precipitous applications to the Landmarks Commission,” the letter states, ultimately asking for LPC to postpone its review.

The resolution of this dispute is months, if not longer, away. As is consensus. “My view of this is to balance a lot of different points of view, to not be guided by my self-interest and to really put my faith in working with elected officials and stakeholders to really try to make this thing as good as it can be,” said Mr. Pasanella. “It’s an ongoing process. We’re trying to pull various interests together. It’s a hard puzzle.”