The Seaport Fight to Come

Rendering courtesy of Howard Hughes Corp./Downtown Express photo by Josh Rogers Rendering of the proposed marina at the South Street Seaport, which Howard Hughes Corp. considers a community amenity as part of its tower and redevelopment plan. Inset: Protest sign from the latest effort to stop Hughes.

Rendering courtesy of Howard Hughes Corp./Downtown Express photo by Josh Rogers
Rendering of the proposed marina at the South Street Seaport, which Howard Hughes Corp. considers a community amenity as part of its tower and redevelopment plan. Inset: Protest sign from the latest effort to stop Hughes.

BY JOSH ROGERS  |  Before the de Blasio administration begins to consider a proposal to build a 600-foot tower at the South Street Seaport, officials want to see affordable housing added to the plan, according to the project’s developer.

Chris Curry, senior executive vice president of development of the Howard Hughes Corp., the Seaport’s developer revealed last week that the firm reached out to Bill de Blasio during his mayoral transition, and a few advisers told Curry in December that the best way to make the plan more appealing would be to add some type of subsidized housing.

Tower, de Blasio & affordable housing in the mix

“I know the administration has already mentioned to us… affordable housing,” Curry said during a presentation of the project to Downtown Express Jan. 7. “[It’s] very important to the mayor.”

He said it was not clear if the affordable housing needed to be included in the tower, which is strongly opposed in the community, or if it could be built somewhere off the site in order to curry favor with the mayor.

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Images courtesy of Howard Hughes Corp. A look at the Tin Building and esplanade now and under the proposal. The building must be raised to meet new storm protection guidelines and there is not room to do that in its current location under the F.D.R. Drive. The motto of the tower s visible behind the Tin.

Images courtesy of Howard Hughes Corp.
A look at the Tin Building and esplanade now and under the proposal. The building must be raised to meet new storm protection guidelines and there is not room to do that in its current location under the F.D.R. Drive. The motto of the tower s visible behind the Tin.

Curry did not reveal the meeting’s attendees and a de Blasio spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. De Blasio has said repeatedly that affordable housing is a top priority so Curry couldn’t have been too surprised by the direct signal.

When the mayor-elect announced Dec. 31 that Kyle Kimball would be continuing on as president of the city’s Economic Development Corp., Kimball said in a prepared statement that “we will innovate in new ways to spur affordable housing and meet the needs of neighborhoods.”

Kimball’s agency owns much of the Seaport and will be negotiating with the Hughes Corp. on its  latest proposal to build a tower on the New Market Building site.

The mixed use building is likely to have apartments, a hotel and retail.

Curry is taking comfort in de Blasio’s decision to retain Kimball.

Image courtesy of the Howard Hughes Corp. Rendering of Howard Hughes Corp’s plan for the Seaport.

Image courtesy of the Howard Hughes Corp.
Rendering of Howard Hughes Corp’s plan for the Seaport.

Downtown Express photo by Sam Spokony Howard Hughes Corp. executive Chris Curry explains the project as Gregg Pasquarelli, the lead architect, looks on.

Downtown Express photo by Sam Spokony
Howard Hughes Corp. executive Chris Curry explains the project as Gregg Pasquarelli, the lead architect, looks on.

“I think that it’s helpful for us that Kyle was appointed president of E.D.C.,” Curry said. “Now that doesn’t mean the administration is gonna have the same perspective as the previous administration did, but I think it’s helpful to him to be able to articulate to the new administration what it is we’ve beentrying to do for the last three years.”

Similarly, during the same meeting last week, the project’s lead designer, Gregg Pasquarelli of SHoP Architects, pointed out that his firm has worked with E.D.C. for a decade to redesign Lower Manhattan’s East Side waterfront immediately north and south of the Hughes project.

“It’s nice to know there’s people there who understand why we made the decisions we made for the last ten years,” Pasquarelli said. “This is really the critical point in the development of that whole waterfront.”

Kimball joined E.D.C. in 2008 and became president last July, four months after the Pier 17 project was approved. Prior to joining government, he was a vice president at Goldman Sachs, which also helped groom another of the key administration figures in the Seaport project, Alicia Glen, deputy mayor for housing  and economic development.

An E.D.C. spokesperson declined to comment for this article.

The project also includes a large food market in the Tin Building and a marina.

Adding affordable housing by itself though, is not likely to win over much community support.

“That may be fine for the administration but not for the community,” John Fratta, chairperson of Community Board 1’s Seaport Committee, told Downtown Express when told of the message from the de Blasio camp. “It’s still a tower and it just doesn’t belong.”

Hughes has not finalized its proposal, and negotiations with the various parties have not begun, but the parameters of the talks are becoming clearer.

C.B.1 and the local politicians are united in opposing a 600-foot tower, but if that height were to drop significantly, and large community amenities were added, a split would probably form, as some in the community might accept a smaller tower if there were enough sweeteners.

The board discussed that issue briefly last month.

“We don’t want to confuse the issue of the tower and anything else,” said Joe Lerner, a board member who lives in the Seaport area. “We are not selling our life and giving them a tower.”

But Fratta said at a certain point it may be fruitful to begin discussions of community needs, a list which includes schools, libraries, community centers and playing fields.

And Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver told Downtown Express last month that he could envision negotiations beginning around a smaller building.

“We’ve expressed our opposition to the height of the tower just as an opening,” Silver said, but if the height were reduced, “yeah, I think if we sit down with Catherine [McVay Hughes, C.B.1 chairperson] and other members of the community board and work out some of the things the community needs — obviously that’s what dialogue is about.”

At last week’s meeting with Downtown Express, Curry acknowledged that they have released prelimanary plans “without making a larger gesture to the community,” but later, he pushed back at the suggestion that from a community perspective the plan is a step back from a proposal five years ago which included a school and a smaller tower of 500 feet.

Asked to point out where in the mixed use building a large space to satisfy community needs could go, he said “when we get into our ULURP [land use application], I’m sure a lot of people will be asking for a lot of things, and some of it we can provide potentially and some of it we may not be able to provide.”

In the firm’s view, the community is geting an investment of about $125 million for community goals including a restored landmark structure, the Tin Building, a repaired pier which is decaying, better views and more access to the waterfront, a better esplanade and a large expensive marina.

Fratta countered that argument at last month’s C.B.1 meeting.

“If they don’t rebuild the pier their project is gone, if they don’t rebuild the Tin Building, they can’t do anything with it, and the marina is gonna bring a lot of money to them,” Fratta said. “There’s not one tangible thing that the community is getting from this project other than the destruction of our community.”

Pasquarelli, the project’s architect, told Downtown Express  “we understand it’s a problem to put a tall building there,” but he is working on design features to “soften the scale.”

He said the building will be so narrow that it will not block one resident’s view of the Brooklyn Bridge.

He said the only way you can fund the $125 million or so needed to restore the Tin Building (preliminary estimate is roughly $45 million), repair the pier platform ($50 million) and build an esplanade and marina ($35 million) is to build on the only site outside the South Street Seaport Historic District.

The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission will review most of the plan, but not the tower since it’s outside the historic district.

C.B.1 and preservation groups have been unsuccessful in the past in adding the New Market building to the historic district, although they have not lost hope that they will have better luck with de Blasio appointees, who have yet to be named.

If Hughes gets Landmarks approval, they will submit a formal land use application. Once that is certified, the community board and borough president will have the chance to issue advisory opinions before the plan goes to the City Council for an up or down vote, perhaps by the end of the year.

On Monday, the community board held a town hall meeting on the project with a few hundred attendees, and almost all of the four dozen or so speakers were opposed.

“Howard Hughes, if he develops this building, is going to have an unbelievable amount of free marketing,” said Southbridge Towers resident Ze’ev Keisch, noting the proximity to the Brooklyn Bridge. “Every time you see a movie in the future there will be Howard Hughes and his money so if he wants that marketing, make him pay for it. Let’s start with 200 million upfront just to consider his plan.”

Councilmember Margaret Chin, who will be one of the chief negotiators on the plan, declined an interview request for this article and did not attend the town hall, citing a scheduling conflict.

She sent two aides to the meeting, one of whom reiterated her public statement of two months ago expressing “serious concerns” about the tower and her desire to work “toward incorporating much-needed public amenities that reflect what residents want to see in their neighborhood.”

There were a handful of project supporters who spoke, including a representatives from the Downtown Alliance business improvement district, and members of building and hotel worker unions.

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Protest signs from the new group hoping to stop Howard Hughes Corporation’s Seaport development plan. Downtown Express photo by Josh Rogers.

Robert LaValva, the founder of the Seaport’s New Amsterdam Market and one of the leaders in the fight against the Hughes firm’s projects, announced at the meeting a new effort, “Just Press Pause” (justpresspause.org), calling on the city to stop the march to more neighborhood development until a full master plan is developed with more consideration given to historic preservation.

David Sheldon of Save Our Seaport asked whether the city’s E.D.C. showed up.

He got his answer, then said “there’s the elephant that isn’t in the room.”

Spread the word:

10 Responses to The Seaport Fight to Come

  1. 2015 opening my tush. This is a disaster that has been in play since 9/11 when the plan started to throw out tenants on the sneak by the EDC

  2. I don't believe one word that the Hughes representatives say………….develop, develop, develop……..all over
    the City of New York and especially downtown where there are water views. No schools in the plan, no
    senior center, no affordable shopping, no reasonable shopping center………..only a tower reaching to the
    sky and blocking citizens views of the East River and the Brooklyn Bridge.. Does the Hughes Corporation
    really care about residents in the Seaport and Financial Area? Ouch! My foot!

    • Wow do you live down here seems not?
      1. Spruce street school opened 2 years ago 3 blocks away.
      2. No shopping center – 5 blocks west , new World Trade Center mall= 500,000 sq feet
      3. Senior center- high rise on Fulton and water for years now –

      Other than that you are spot on –

  3. What a shame! These people do not care one bit about the community. They are ruining the character of our neighborhood!

  4. very discussing that we are not keeping the history of th area now a tall building with sail boats come on ,we need to preserve the history and culture there everything should be landmarked nyc keeps destroying our area put one tower more will come try investing in saving the seaport rich history very disgusting

  5. This is an excellent article as far as it goes, but it doesn't probe deeply enough: it begins with the assumption, promulgated by Hughes and EDC, that this is simply another neighborhood and another development site. It frames this as a two-sided fight between a greedy developer and a local community that wants the same things other communities want and need: schools, libraries, parks, etc. But that ignores the Seaport's uniqueness as a historic site of national — indeed international — significance.This special place — New York's oldest historic district, the birthplace of the great Port of New York, and for hundreds of years, the city's market district — isn’t just another development site, and doesn't belong solely to the local community. The article focuses exclusively on the tower, but ignores the fact that Hughes already controls a lot more of the district than that site and is angling for more. I believe the tower is simply a "red herring" to divert attention from their larger plans: Hughes will make concessions, as the article implies. They may agree to a lower building or to relocation. But they could still destroy the two historic structures at the historic Fulton Fish Market, famous around the world, and they will undoubtedly continue to "program" what they have publicly referred to as "their campus," filling it with activities that detract and in some cases obliterate neighborhood's historic character: a fake grass lawn obliterating the cobblestones! Fake-hipster food stalls in shipping containers that overshadow historic buildings and streets; a skating rink they promised would be free to locals, but lo-and-behold now costs $10. And they are proposing more: let’s hear it for a movie theater that serves dinner! (Really? New Yorkers need a place to see movies that also serves crappy food?) The rest of the city is becoming a mall. That was tried at the Seaport and it failed. The Hughes mall, already approved for Pier 17, will is headed for the same fat. Let's not let these misguided mall developers from Dallas do any more damage in our city. The Seaport needs and deserves a democratic, transparent planning process that charts a course for this district that respects its history, its authenticity, and all the people who care about it, wherever they come from.

  6. I'm a rare new yorker in that I both live in Southstreet seaport, my business is here, and I owen a boat and fish in new york harbor (boat is in brooklyn though). I'm also Italian American and following on a 100 year tradition of fishermen in new york. I can't wait to be able to walk down to the water and have my boat there. This is the greatest thing I could possibly imagine. People should remind themselves that everything old is new again.

    • Well said – change is good and the seaport needs a re boot. But we will be labeled as tea bangers by the left wing occuskumers against it.

  7. Doris on Fulton

    I have lived on Fulton St for several years and attended the Town Hall meeting, Im glad to report that there is a far larger group of supporters for this project that include young families, small businesses, and residents of the area. The Seaport has been a neglected area for years and it was brought on by poor Museum leadership combined with a retail model that quickly became outdated. Can you name for me other cultural institutions that have gone through multiple leadership changes in such short time spans? Not likely – because the museum model was doomed from the start. The romantic vision of a Nantucket village preserved on the East River does nothing to actually convey the history of this jewel of a neighborhood. The Town Hall meeting was a sham, a gathering of kooks and assorted obstructionists that fear change so much they are fighting a fight based on misinformation and conspiracy theories. The fact is love or hate the designs shown – the Seaport needs a huge change, something only private investment can deliver. Giving more time to supposedly review these plans will only allow this forgotten area to fall deeper into despair. Although I can only assume thats what the opponents want – no change at all, and from that you get what you asked for. Nothing.

  8. The Seaport pier is a mess, the vast majority of visitors tourists who walk away disgusted and dissapointed. If I was a tourist visiting I might spend 10 minutes there looking for something not there. I'm not sure what I would replace it with but replaced it must.

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