Hughes reacts to Seaport guidelines; Brewer & Chin differ on possible smaller building

Downtown Express photo by Josh Rogers Construction work on the approved plan for Pier 17, with the South Street Seaport Museum’s tall ships in the background.

Downtown Express photo by Josh Rogers
Construction work on the approved plan for Pier 17, with the South Street Seaport Museum’s tall ships in the background.

BY JOSH ROGERS   |  What happens next?

That was the question on the minds of many in the crowd of a few hundred Monday night at the first public meeting of the Seaport Working Group. Regardless of whether they were committee members on the inside, or they were viewing the group’s development “Guidelines and Principles” for the first time, few were clear on what it would all mean once Howard Hughes Corp. formally submits its plan that includes, at least for now, a 600-foot tower adjacent to the South Street Seaport Historic District.

The carefully-worded, draft guidelines were painstakingly constructed after 11 Thursday meetings of two hours or more, and were generally well-received by people who either support or oppose big development at the Seaport.   

“I think if you look at all the guidelines, I would say the project that we’re envisioning is consistent with those guidelines,” Chris Curry, Howard Hughes Corp.’s senior executive vice president of development, told Downtown Express. 

He did acknowledge “I might have an issue” with Guideline 6, which calls for alternatives to a 50-story tower. 

Curry of course was on the inside even before the Seaport Working Group formed in February as a reaction to his firm’s proposal, but he was hardly an outsider at the June 2nd meeting packed mostly with people who were standing in the Southbridge Towers community room. 

He is a member of the working group, although he resisted acknowledging that when a reporter pointed that out to him.  

“Not really, I was there but I was not…” he said before his voice trailed off inaudibly. He did not want to repeat the full sentence. He did say that he supported the working group process.

David Sheldon of Save Our Seaport, which opposes the Hughes plan, said personally he was impressed with the time the group spent drafting the guidelines but “none of it is binding on the developer. The developer is going to present his plans to this private group and a little piece of it will come out at the community board. It’s a way of putting off the ULURP. There’s not a lot that’s very different.”

Once a formal Uniform Land Use Review Procedure plan is submitted, perhaps this fall, it will undergo review on an advisory basis by Community Board 1 and Gale Brewer, the Manhattan borough president, before it goes to the City Council for an up or down vote. 

It’s still unclear what the current administration thinks of the proposal, although the city’s Economic Development Corp., which manages the city-owned land in question, was supportive of Hughes’ efforts under Mayor Bloomberg, and Mayor de Blasio retained Kyle Kimball as corporation president in January.

E.D.C. also supported the working group, hiring facilitators to help members develop the guidelines. Agency officials attended the public meeting but did not speak.

Many community leaders have longstanding criticisms of E.D.C. actions at the Seaport, and this time, the corporation says it does not want to drive the process.

Kate Blumm, an E.D.C. spokesperson, said the agency sees itself as taking a backseat, and would wait for clear consensus between the developer and the community before it did anything to help get a plan approved.

The Seaport Working Group includes local legislators, Community Board 1 leaders, business groups as well as neighborhood residents, small business owners and preservation advocates. 

Pratt Institute’s Jonathan Martin, who led the meetings, said support for each of the eight guidelines ranged from 80 to 100 percent, but the group is refusing to release the percentages on any in particular, or to disclose who opposed what.  

In total, the document boils down to “a recommendation to E.D.C. and to Howard Hughes,” said Brewer.

She said the thrust is to “keep the Seaport authentic.” Among other things, it outlines the need to preserve historic buildings “to the greatest extent that’s practicable,” to protect the cash-strapped South Street Seaport Museum financially, and to increase open space. 

The tower site, current home of the decaying New Market Building, is outside the historic district although some members of the working  group have tried in vain for years to get city Landmarks protection for the old Fulton Fish Market building.

Brewer, in a phone interview, said one alternative to the tower that would not be acceptable is a building built to the 350-foot zoning limit.

“A squat, as-of-right building clearly isn’t what these guidelines are calling for,” Brewer said.

Such a building would block a much larger portion of the Brooklyn Bridge than the proposed slender tower.

The lead designer, Gregg Pasquarelli of SHoP Architects, maintains that his current design would not obstruct any resident’s view of the bridge.   

Brewer voted against the zoning change last year when she was sill in the City Council, but another active leader of the working group, Councilmember Margaret Chin, voted for the zoning as part of Hughes’ approved plan to redevelop the Pier 17 Seaport mall.

Chin would not say this week if she would support a 350-foot building.

“We have to see what it is,” she said. “We have to see how tall it is, how big it is.”

Last year, facing community criticism for supporting the Pier 17 without getting concessions on Hughes’ New Market plans, Chin cited the new zoning as an important way to limit development.

Her spokesperson at the time said the new zoning would likely limit the building to six to ten stories, but did not mention the 350-foot limit, which is typically about 35 stories.

Pasquarelli’s 600-foot tower is actually less than the 3.4 floor to area ratio that Chin championed, although it does exceed the height limit.

The architect told Downtown Express this week that the tower “is the only way to get enough revenue to get all of the goodies they want.”

Hughes estimates it will invest about $125 million to open up the waterfront, improve the esplanade, restore the historic Tin Building and build a marina.

Image courtesy of the Howard Hughes Corp. Schematic of the projects areas including the New Market Building, pictured at bottom, and the Tin Building.

Image courtesy of the Howard Hughes Corp.
Schematic of the projects areas including the New Market Building, pictured at bottom, and the Tin Building.

The firm’s executives believe they are meeting the preservation plank of the guidelines because they think it’s impractical to preserve the New Market Building. Demolishing it would also help meet another guideline to open the waterfront more since the building blocks access.

Preservationists counter that the building was used by the old fish market and is an important contributor to the historic district regardless of its  exclusion.    

Last week before the guidelines were made public, Pasquarelli told the Express that he and his team have been busy working on revisions to the plan based on the draft document.

The revisions will be presented first to the Seaport Working Group in a private meeting, but no date has been set yet for that. 

Chin hopes the firm will come up with a plan that will generate community support.

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“Hopefully with Howard Hughes participating in this whole process, they will see what the community feels they want,” she said, “and hopefully…they will come forward with something people will be happy about….

“I’m really just hopeful about this process — we have put in so much time and effort.”

At the public presentation, attendees were invited to put Post-it comments on each of the guidelines.

Perhaps the biggest surprise, was that the tower did not receive the overwhelming opposition that it usually generates at Seaport meetings.

A large minority of the posts supported the tower including one which said, “I live at 8 Spruce St. and in C.B. 1 and I want the tall tower.”

Another person wrote, “I understand that the height of the building will allow for additional amenities that ultimately benefit the community.”

“Like what,” was a posted reply. “Not worth the sacrifice — no tradeoff to destroy history.”

Downtown Express photo by Josh Rogers Architect Gregg Pasquarelli last week with the Pier 17 demolition in the background.

Downtown Express photo by Josh Rogers
Architect Gregg Pasquarelli last week with the Pier 17 demolition in the background.

John Fratta, a working group member who is also chairperson of C.B. 1’s Seaport Committee, said he and other group members made it clear to Hughes that the intent was not to engage in negotiations over amenities which typically fuel the ULURP discussions.

He said the firm reps never explicitly said how they felt about any of the guidelines, but it was clear they favored most of them, and the tower discussion was by far “the toughest.”

The draft guidelines are posted on Community Board 1’s website and the public has until Friday, June 6 to comment. The Seaport Working Group plans to revise its Guidelines and Principles based on the public comments.

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11 Responses to Hughes reacts to Seaport guidelines; Brewer & Chin differ on possible smaller building

  1. SaveOurSeaport

    SHoP Architects and HHC Lobbyists brought in ringers to post positive notes about the Tower…please don't just take things at face value.

  2. Sorry SOS, but many of us Support the Tower! I don't want the city to spend $120MM to fix a pier that a private developer is offering to do. I want them to spend that money on desperately needed schools for the Financial District. FiDi is a neighborhood of skyscrapers. This tower is not in the historic district. This plan results in a brand new Tin Building, which by the way completely burned down in the 80's and what is there now is a cheap replica that is falling apart. Who else is going to fox this if HHC doesn't? Most of my neighbors are in full support of what HHC is doing to revitalize the seaport and make it more welcoming to the people who live here. I applaud their efforts.

  3. p.s. It doesn't mean HHC gets free reign to do what it wants. We need more open space, a community center, better restaurants and retail, and lots of other things and we should fight for that but at the end of the day, they have to be given something to in return for investing $125MM to repair and replace a rotting pier and two condemned structures that no one else will touch.

  4. You cannot put a price on a Historic District ! The HHC.claim is that the tower is "technically" outside the historic district because it will be built on a platform, it most certainly is not in keeping with the nature of the structures in the area. This appears to be a construct of the HHC Lawyers to subvert the actual intention of the City when it created the historic District. __ The HHC. has already gotten a exceptional value at being able to develop the area and only pay the City $3.50 a square foot, but the don't appear to be satisfied with the deal they had by right, and now want to expand that right to demolish a Federally designated historic area and build a luxury tower in its place.__ How greedy is our Texas- based developer, who it its letter to its shareholders boasts of the fact that it plans to exceed the profit return on investment to a figure significantly higher then what it typically earns on this type of investment.__It is asked by a previous commenter who is going to fix this if not HHC. What about opening the process up to all developers, and see what plans could be solicited more in keeping with the character of the area and at a rate above $3.50 a square foot?

  5. __Even more in keeping with the history and character of the area as a public market place would be to create a permanent home for the New Amsterdam Market. This proven, popular, and successful market would be an engine for economic development. It already draws crowds in the thousands who appreciate New York's agricultural abundance — something HHC has failed to do. __Posterity and the public deserve a truly vital historic Seaport, not some tacky low-rent 'modernized' development.__

  6. Doris on Fulton

    I live on Fulton Street and hope this project continues as planned! It would bring welcome new amenities to a completely under served area and boost the local economy. I'm not sure what is so precious to save as the old buildings are falling into the water and have never been open to the public. Lets see some progress over on this side of the island!!

  7. We would all welcome the amenities promised, but that does not mean that the public has to give the developer this particular site, for this particular (gargantuan) tower to get them. There are lovely build-able sites one and two pier-heads down, for a tower, and other sites in and immediately adjacent to the District for lower-rise, profitable development. Pier 14, for instance is lovely for this purpose and is in the middle of a huge commercial high rise district rather than in the middle of a low rise public amenity like the Seaport District.
    The entire reason the Seaport District was established and some real estate holdings and rights kept by the City or granted to the Museum was to fund and improve the Seaport Museum and its Historic District. To now introduce a development so huge and situated so destructively in order to cash in those real estate rights would be to cancel out the foundational legal and cultural reasons there even is a special District here.
    It will not cost $120 million, by the way, to 'save' the pier. It is not true, either, that the site Hughes wants is the only site that can take development. It is also not true that there has been much community support at all for the tower–one has to scratch around for it and dig hard. And it is certainly not too late to consider alternatives, and to do so in public, in the full light of day.

  8. Members of the Seaport Working Group manning the section devoted to the HHC condo development stated that the zoning laws had been changed to a maximum of 12 stories. Your article states 35 stories. Which is correct?

    • Josh Rogers, Editor

      Thanks for your question, Ann. A Dept. of City Planning spokesperson just confirmed the 350-foot height limit at the New Market Building site. A general rule of thumb is 10 feet per story, but a 350-foot building could easily be a few less than 35 stories. Prior to posting this article, the 350-foot figure had been confirmed by the project's architect and one of Community Board 1's land use experts, and it was implicitly confirmed by Councilmember Margaret Chin and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.
      Josh Rogers
      Editor

  9. Robert Gedzelman

    No historic landmark anywhere else in the world has a structure nearby to "compete" with it. The Tower Bridge in London, Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, The Eiffel Tower in Paris, the list goes on, have ANY structure that overwhelms the presence of these historic landmarks. If we allow this six-hundred foot monstrosity, what is next? Perhaps Las-Vegasesque buildings with fountains and lighting visible from 40 miles away? No structure within 600 yards from the Brooklyn Bridge should overwhelm it. This is a shameful demonstration of ego and overt greed. Such a building will severely damage the seaport's historic tone and presence…not to mention begin to hide the Brooklyn Bridge from view…and cast it into the shadows.

    • Doris on Fulton

      And what do you think the Brooklyn Bridge did when it was completed in 1883? It was a precocious move that resulted in a striking piece of architecture disrupting the then quite petite City skyline in a way never before seen. And did you also know that when Schermerhorm Row was completed in 1812 it was for quite some time the largest and tallest structure in New York City? We live in a thriving metropolis that changes in order to remain successful and embraces catalytic transformations in order to remaining engaging and dynamic. If you look beyond the height of the Hughes building you will find a comprehensive and sweeping plan to bring life to a somewhat blighted section of the East River. The building being replaced has never allowed waterfront access nor anything else in the way of public amenities. To introduce a marina and increased open space is way more beneficial than what is there now.

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