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Another year, another big plan to “save” the Seaport.
Downtowners have coexisted with corporations running the Seaport mall for a few decades. There have been some good initiatives, and some great events, but the operators have never fully embraced the Lower Manhattan community.
The companies over the years have tried to make the area more attractive to residents, but have not yet succeeded.
There are malls all over the county, but what makes the Seaport special is its ties to early New York and the Fulton Fish Market, which did not leave all that long ago — and the South Street Seaport Museum with its historic ships decorating the harbor.
‘”It’s not just another mall on the waterfront,” is the way Catherine McVay Hughes, Community Board 1’s chairperson, put it to us.
Two weeks ago, the City Council voted to approve the Howard Hughes Corporation’s plan to redevelop the Pier 17 mall. There are clear, positive elements about the plan, but there is a lot to be concerned about too.
“Pier 17 plan and community trust,” was the headline of our editorial one year ago, and the need to restore trust is much more pressing now.
Chief reason for that is the city Economic Development Corporation’s apparent decision to withhold important information from the public until after the Council vote.
As we first reported last week online, the unredacted portions of the letter of intent between the city and the Hughes firm included the company’s intention to build a large apartment and hotel building near the pier.
The only sort of defense we’ve heard for this contemptible decision to keep the public in the dark is essentially, “big deal everyone has known for years that there was a desire for big development.”
If everyone knew, then what would have been the harm in releasing the entire document during the lengthy public debate process?
If we ever get an answer to that one, we’ll let you know.
More importantly, everyone didn’t know. Every time Community Board 1 members and other advocates asked about development beyond Pier 17, they were met with silence — not with “you know what we want to do.”
General Growth Properties, Hughes’ predecessor, did make their development plans clear five years ago. Then they went bankrupt and reorganized as Howard Hughes Corp. so it was far from clear that anything had stayed the same.
There’s no question that if the full information were made public earlier, it would have affected the debate at the very least, and perhaps even the outcome.
Clearly, the city and H.H.C. did not want to negotiate about anything other than Pier 17, but we can’t help but wonder if a more strident position would have won more. We weren’t in the room so we can’t know. There’s always a risk if you take too tough a line.
But this would not have been the first time the city negotiated two land use projects, known as ULURPs, simultaneously.
Officials did it before in Tribeca nine years ago, and that deal which involved two sites and different developers, led to the Spruce Street School, an annex for P.S. 234 and the Downtown Community Center.
We’re not suggesting a similar deal was possible this time. It’s a different time, and the comparisons are far from exact, but it does make us think.
Councilmember Margaret Chin did win some concessions at Pier 17. One — like extending the leases of Pier 17 shops — was hard, but it should not have been since it’s smart business to let the merchants sell through the busy summer season, before things close up for redevelopment. These stores lost lots of money as a result of Hurricane Sandy, which also should have made the decision easier to make.
We are also pleased to see the agreement includes more public access on the roof of the new Pier 17, more boat mooring for the museum and two large, locally sourced food markets, with one expected to open next year.
A large, permanent food market has been the dream of many. It’s a natural replacement for the former home to fish merchants, and we hope the new markets prove to be viable.
The Council vote did put much more restrictive size limits at the New Market Building, which is just outside the Seaport Historic District. Howard Hughes Corp. has an option on this building.
But with so little talk about the zoning limit, it makes us think that those in the know have reason to expect an attempt to get approval to build bigger.
Howard Hughes Corp. will have to go through the same review process regardless of whether they look to build big or small.
It’s never too late to begin building trust. You do it by sharing your plans early and working with a community.