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BY TERESE LOEB KREUZER | When Superstorm Sandy smacked into the South Street Seaport on Oct. 29, 2012, most of the old buildings survived. Building systems were damaged, but the neighborhood fundamentally remained intact.
However, many community stakeholders fear that the historic South Street Seaport will not survive The Howard Hughes Corporation.
The Dallas-based developer has a long-term lease on parts of the Seaport including Pier 17 and much of the area between Water Street and South Street, John Street and Beekman. The community has good reason to believe that Hughes wants to erect luxury apartment buildings and hotels in the Seaport, many of whose buildings date from the 19th century.
Neither Hughes nor its landlord, the New York Economic Development Corporation, will divulge proposed plans or discuss negotiations that have been ongoing for months.
On Oct. 31, five elected officials representing Lower Manhattan sent a strongly worded letter to the E.D.C. urging it to stop negotiating behind closed doors with Hughes, its largest tenant at the South Street Seaport.
The letter asks for a “collaborative, community-based planning process for the Tin Building, the New Market Building and other potential development sites in the Seaport.”
Hughes was obliged by terms of its legal agreements with E.D.C. to submit its Seaport plans by Aug. 31, 2013 — a deadline that it met. Since then, despite repeated attempts by public officials, Community Board 1 and the press to obtain information on the proposal, both E.D.C. and Howard Hughes have refused to talk.
The letter was addressed to Kyle Kimball, E.D.C.’s executive director, with a cc to David Weinreb, C.E.O. of The Howard Hughes Corporation. It came from Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, State Senator Daniel Squadron, City Councilmember Margaret Chin, U.S. Congressman Jerrold Nadler and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer.
“There is a great deal of frustration within Community Board 1 and within the community regarding lack of information about plans for future development in the Seaport,” the letter says. “Residents are concerned by the prospect of inappropriate height and density in the Seaport. Local stakeholders have asked for an extension of the South Street Seaport Historic District to include the development sites mentioned above [specifically, the New Market Building]. They also seek to avoid the type of high-rise construction that is out of scale with the immediate area.”
The letter points out that the east side of Lower Manhattan is among the fastest growing residential communities in the city and that there is a huge and growing need for services and amenities such as schools and parks in addition to retail.
The elected officials castigated E.D.C. and Howard Hughes for their “lack of meaningful outreach to the community” and for the “limited information” that they have provided about their negotiations.
“We urge an inclusionary planning process involving residents, neighborhood stakeholders, Community Board 1, and local elected officials to craft a series of Planning and Urban Design Guidelines that would act as the governing principles for any new development in the South Street Seaport,” the letter states.
It goes on to say that, “The future of the Seaport is a critically important planning and development issue facing Lower Manhattan, and we still have a chance to get it right.”
“The Seaport is a unique and important part of our city’s landscape and history,” said Congressman Nadler. ”It is critical that any development of the Seaport takes into account the area’s needs, and includes a robust discussion with community stakeholders about planning for its future.”
Community stakeholders applauded the letter. “It’s great!” said Community Board 1 chair Catherine McVay Hughes.
“I’m very pleased with the letter. It shows that the electeds have really gotten the points that we’ve been trying to get across,” said Michael Kramer, a member of Save Our Seaport, a coalition of community organizations, businesses and individuals that has been working to preserve the Seaport’s historic buildings and its maritime past.
“I think this letter is a great sign of elected officials finally beginning to speak up about this and questioning the entire process,” said Robert LaValva, founder of the New Amsterdam Market, which has been bringing regional food producers to South Street since 2005.
LaValva also said that he wished the letter had been stronger and had said that “no matter what plans Howard Hughes has made – they’re out the window because they were made in the absence of any public input.”
Up until now, LaValva said, Hughes had had “total free rein and the feeling that they could do whatever they wanted and it didn’t really matter because no one was going to say anything about it.”
In one respect, the letter was questioned by those who read it. It says, “We are pleased that the City has secured a new operator for the Seaport Museum.”
“This is news to me!” said Danai Pointer, spokesperson for the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, which has been leading the negotiations to find an operator for the South Street Seaport Museum to replace the Museum of the City of New York. The uptown museum bowed out on July 5, 2013 after almost two years of stewardship.
“Last month, there were a few stories that came out about a potential partnership with the New York Historical Society but nothing was finalized,” Pointer said. “Those conversations are still ongoing.”
Jonathan Boulware, interim president of the South Street Seaport Museum, concurred.
“It’s true that there’s a conversation between D.C.A. and the New York Historical Society and that’s a very exciting prospect but at this point, it’s just a prospect,” he said. “No arrangement has been made.”
He said that he was “hopeful” that this relationship would work out. “Certainly an organization like the New York Historical Society will have an idea of the importance of the Seaport district and of the story of New York as a port,” he said.
The first inkling that an announcement about a new operator might be imminent occurred on Oct. 17 during the groundbreaking for Pier 17 when Hughes C.E.O. Weinreb said, “The mayor and I were just talking and we are both excited to share with you that there is an agreement in principle in place regarding the Seaport Museum.”
Given the complete secrecy surrounding plans for the Seaport, some people interpreted that to mean that Howard Hughes might take over the museum.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg indicated otherwise the next day during a radio interview with John Gambling on WOR. “Nothing has been finalized,” he said, “but the Historical Society is a terrific organization and would be a great partner for the museum.”