Seaport Report, Week of Dec. 18, 2014: On Howard Hughes’ plans

Downtown Express file photo by Milo Hess Howard Hughes Corp.’s ice rink last month after it opened for the season at the Seaport. The author argues the rink, rather than Hughes’ plans to expand shopping, is one of the few good additions the firm has made. At right is the historic Schermerhorn Row block, currently leased by Hughes and the South Street Seaport Museum, which the corporation has proposed converting to affordable housing on the upper floors.

Downtown Express file photo by Milo Hess
Howard Hughes Corp.’s ice rink last month after it opened for the season at the Seaport. The author argues the rink, rather than Hughes’ plans to expand shopping, is one of the few good additions the firm has made. At right is the historic Schermerhorn Row block, currently leased by Hughes and the South Street Seaport Museum, which the corporation has proposed converting to affordable housing on the upper floors.

BY JANEL BLADOW   |  It’s the holiday season and bells should be ringing, people should be singing…instead around our neighborhood, everyone’s in the catfight that the Howard Hughes Corporation development has become!

It’s over Just go ahead and consider the South Street Seaport the new Meatpacking District, as one attendee at last week’s WWD & Seaport District NYC cocktail reception to celebrate the “Ten of Tomorrow” in retail and design innovation said to me. “There goes the neighborhood. Like Soho, Tribeca…it’s done.”

With every known media outlet in the city – TV, print and online – chiming in about the massive redevelopment plan, there’s little need for me put in my two cents. But as a Water St. resident for more than 30 years — I watched all the changes— I’m still going to share my thoughts, without rehashing the plans. If you want the details, just Google them, read the pros/cons and form your own opinions.

It’s interesting that a newly formed group —Friends of the Seaport, headed by three women/moms who love the area and want a great place to raise their families—has so slickly produced a website. Do a Google search of “South Street Seaport” theirs is the very first item to appear! You know how much that costs to be the top “ad” in a search….just wondering. And, I loved it too that following H.H.C.’s presentation of their plans, anyone wearing a “Friends of the Seaport” yellow t-shirt got refreshments at Ambrose Hall and a free ice skating party.

Plus, this newly formed “independent group” wants schools and soccer fields for their kids. That’s not what the Seaport is about. Families have lived here for as long as I can remember, and produced great kids who are now wonderful adults. They got to school, they played sports and lived interesting, creative childhoods. And they flourished in a neighborhood rich in our city and country’s history. A nabe that still felt like old New Amsterdam, not just another development.

I’m all for cleaning up the hood. Yes, South Street from the Brooklyn Bridge south is still an eyesore, though better than it was after the Fish Market was shipped out ten years ago. Something does need to be done. The city is wasting a valuable, beautiful resource, our waterfront. The esplanade is proof of what our public spaces can look like. However, the design by H.H.C., while it purports to have walkways and bike lanes under the upper roadway of F.D.R. Drive, it still doesn’t appear to be open, scenic or to end congestion.

In fact, the new Pier 17 under construction, their proposed nearly 500-foot high-rise apartment building and marina, would seem to add even more traffic by foot, bike, cars and trucks. I just don’t see how an apartment building with a school will make the waterfront a place for all New Yorkers and visitors to enjoy.

A school on a riverfront? Excuse me, but we’re going to have a school on Peck Slip and the Blue School says it plans to open a middle school in 2015. Why wouldn’t it be a better plan to put a school in a more convenient, central location than out on a landfill in the East River?

I want to preserve the historic elements of the neighborhood but I believe we also need to clean it up, make it vital and a fun place to work, shop and visit. We can go to Midtown for the H&Ms, Herald’s Square for Macy’s, and Madison Ave., Fifth Ave. and Soho for glitz and high end boutiques. You can even go to Wall St. for Pink’s and Tiffany’s. And, this is N.Y.C. people, hop a bus or a subway and you can shop anywhere! Why would we need miles of more Old Navy’s and Gap’s? What H.H.C. and the community need do is to come up with a plan  and define what kind of shopping is necessary. The idea for a green market was not only a compromise but taken from the people who started the New Amsterdam Market. Why weren’t they embraced?

What are all these people to do for entertainment? That brings me to something that H.H.C. has done very well — entertainment. The skating rink is wonderful, the summer concerts fun. More needs to be done to draw people down and keep neighbors around, more than just bars, restaurants and shopping.

There’s room for history and museums as well as commerce and development. But it should be done with a sense of pride and uniqueness — because our little neighborhood is something very special.

Community Board 1’s Landmarks Committee is now mulling over suggestions sent by residents and other before voting on the plans Jan. 5. After the full board votes, the proposal heads to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission for review.

Let’s hope saner heads rule than those who gave H.H.C. the waterfront for pennies. I loved the quote about the proposal from C.B.  1 member Paul Hovitz that has been widely circulated this week: “When I look at this, I really get the feeling of Las Vegas. I don’t get a lot of feeling of the old seaport.” Casinos or Mississippi River Steamboats with slot machines anyone?

Old diehards… Save Our Seaport, the group that wants save the historic elements of the ‘hood, is hosting a short meeting Thursday night, Dec. 18, 6:30 p.m. It’s in the library at St. Margaret’s House, 49 Fulton St. The group wants take stock and discuss future strategy.

Look to the past… Since April 2013 the South Street Seaport Museum galleries have been closed due to damage from Hurricane Sandy. But the lobby at 12 Fulton St. opened last weekend with a show of historic photos of the old Fulton Fish Market, artifacts of the seaport’s role as a major shipping center and artworks including sailor style tattoos, ship models and scrimshaw. Stop by and check it out.

Happy feet… The Gelsey Kirkland Ballet performs The Nutcracker set to Tchaikovsky’s moving score this weekend, Thursday, Dec. 18 – Sunday, Dec. 21, at Pace’s University’s Schimmel Center, 3 Spruce St. Ballerina’s take you on a girl’s journey “through fear and darkness to the light of love.” For times and tickets: schimmel.pace.edu/events/the-nutcracker.

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7 Responses to Seaport Report, Week of Dec. 18, 2014: On Howard Hughes’ plans

  1. Diane Harris Brown

    Three cheers for saying so clearly what many of us have been struggling to express for so long. As a long-time resident of the neighborhood. and participant in the Seaport Working Group, I feel we have a precious historic legacy to protect. The Guidelines and Principles developed by the SWG spell out many of these issues. The HHC and NYCEDC seem determined to ignore the guidelines, especially those respecting the size and contextuality of any new development.

    Both Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Sity Council Member Margaret Chin have both stated that the proposed tower does not belong on the New Fish Market Site or anywhere in the historic district. To quote Ms. Chin, "Move the tower south".

    Future generations will thank us if we can create a sensible master plan to preserve the antique buildings, support the South Street Seaport Museum, and provide access to the noble ships. These treasures belong to all Americans, not just the Howard Hughes Corporation.

  2. If we let HHC build a tower right by the Brooklyn Bridge, that will say to all that New Yorkers have no pride and probably not much sense. HHC has failed, but why do we and future generations of New Yorkers have to pay the price?

  3. What makes this a Seaport is the ships, and what keeps the ships here is the South Street Seaport Museum.
    Howard Hughes Corp. is VERY confused. They are actually trying to do a hostile takeover of the neighborhood.
    A corporation from Dallas that thinks it can plunk a mall and a luxury condo tower on top of a historic neighborhood.
    They have very little taste, they put fake grass, astro turf, over the historic cobblestones on Fulton St. They threaten to evict the South Street Seaport Museum, who operate the historic schooners and ships with the devoted help of professional staff and volunteers, and put them in a tiny building on the pier instead. What worries me is the alleged relationship between Brookfield Properties, and Howard Hughes. Are they trying to take over both waterfronts at once; the sailing school and marina at the North Cove, on the Hudson; and the South Street Seaport Historic District, with its NY Harbor School, schooners, Ship Wavertree, & the Ambrose.? A nightmare. To help us, go to Save Our Seaport, and http://friendsofsouthstreetseaport.com FOSSS, and like both of us on Facebook.

  4. The South Street Seaport Museum, chartered by NY State in 1967 as a maritime museum, is the marrow of the historic district. Its creation established a foothold that preserved the surrounding area and buildings. Shortly after it was founded, the museum began the arduous process of saving a number of historically significant vessels from America and abroad.

    In its first decade, the South Street Seaport Museum was developing as a repository for artifacts and a center for the study of things maritime. It was a place where ship restoration and the meticulous research and skilled workmanship that such tasks required were widely respected. The museum’s library became notable as a place where general maritime information and details about various ships could be found. It also became a serious research venue that was the go-to place for national and international queries on hard-to-find answers to maritime questions. During this time, the museum had other commendable features including an active book and chart shop, a ship model room and an art gallery with rotating exhibits. Regularly scheduled lectures and book readings were held in the exhibit spaces. The museum also offered boat-building courses to the public in a small temporary structure located in what is now the corner lot on John & South St. An active membership and volunteer corps rounded out public participation while the surrounding tightly-knit community, composed of various professionals, artists and tradesmen, took a keen interest in the fledgling museum and its future success.

    All this is gone or vastly withered. The current plight of the museum is not solely the result of man-made or natural disasters, but rather the short-sighted actions of those who, over the years, led the museum astray with foolish, easy-money pipe dreams. In collusion with developers were city agencies who, rather than further the creation of a world-class maritime museum, sacrificed all else for pie-in-the-sky economic projections. It is perplexing why the city has never provided a portion of the museum’s operating funds as it does for other similar institutions. There is no rational argument against New York City boasting a first-rate maritime museum. It is not the South Street Seaport Museum of the past that should be lamented, but the loss of what the museum could be in the future.

    One needs to look no further for inspiration than the accomplished maritime museums that flourish in other great world ports. Anything but stodgy or quaint, they are dazzling jewels of education and history that provide their citizens with a tangible link to their maritime heritage. Examples of notable maritime museums abound in our country as well, but while our great port city should be at the forefront, we lag far behind.

    The current relationship between the developer, the city and the museum, and therefore the fates of Schermerhorn Row, the ships, the library, the art and the archeological collections, appear to be unknown. Perhaps, with an assertive plan, the museum could reverse its current decline and declare itself the trusted guardian of our city’s maritime history. And, perhaps, the city might recognize and embrace the need for such an institution. Clumsy and gullible leadership, the cryptic museum board and other obscure relationships do not, however, inspire confidence for success. It appears that the true mission of the South Street Seaport Museum has no champion.

    So the difficult question remains: can the museum be an independent, well-respected and robust institution firmly rooted in its subject, or must it be simply a mediocre appendage on the hip of the developer? And what of the museum’s 1967 NYS Charter? Does it remain valid or have the well-defined terms been disregarded?

    Those calling the tune are presenting the public with little more than over-advertised shopping, too-loud concerts and an embarrassment posing as a maritime museum. Indeed, it is quite clear that only the public’s purse is being mined, and not its curiosity.

    The Titanic Memorial Lighthouse, once perched on the parapets of The Seamen’s Church Institute at 25 South Street, now stands in a small park adjacent to the museum. In contrast to the surrounding ballyhoo and indifference, the lighthouse remains a silent tribute to those lost on the great ship. That the words South Street Seaport Museum are mounted on the lighthouse’s base gloomily suggests that the museum’s fate may parallel that of the 1912 tragedy.

  5. Lost in everyone's moaning is how YOU would pay for rebuilding the pier and reconstructing the Tin Building? It's OK to say you don't want Affordable Housing, the new school, the new pier, support for the museum (both physical and financial), a reconstructed Tin Building that would house a great Food Hall, etc. But just say that! In return for all of these things HHC needs a mechanism that allows it to pay for the other things that the community wants. I too would love if the tower could be build off site, but that becomes even more expensive for HHC as the site must be (presumably) a city owned site that it could perhaps donate to make feasible. That leaves the Heliport Pier or a new pier where Pier 13 used to be. A tower on one of these piers means HHC would need to build 2 piers and not one; vastly increasing its costs. Is it doable? I don't know but it must be looked at. If HHC doesn't build the tower, we don't get any of the things they are offering. Then what? The Tin Building gets demolished and the pier collapses into the river. Is that what the supposed preservationists want? If yes, then SAY IT. If not, what is your plan? I still haven't seen a rational alternative presented.

  6. This is a great perspective and in many ways, I agree. I am not sure where the divide was created and why we aren't working together rather than against each other. Your facts are not completely accurate so let me dispel a few myths here. Google adwords, in this instance, are not expensive. My seven year old knows how to do this thanks to the afterschool programs in our amazing PUBLIC schools. You mention the Blue School as a means to accommodate growth but fail to mention that it is a very expensive PRIVATE school that most families would not afford. To throw that out as a viable option is misleading . Yes, there are ball fields and open areas that we could go to in the city. BUT, if you haven't noticed, count how many pregnant women and strollers are walking through the Seaport. Look at how many residential buildings have been retro-fitted to accommodate the HUGE surge of young families. A good balance of historic preservation and development for the future to accommodate a changing demographic is in order. I feel that the vision of Friends of the Seaport supports this need.

  7. His inventory of design work is definitely impressive to say the least.

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