Friend of Seaport tower foes to join Landmarks

Downtown Express file photo Wellington Chen

Downtown Express file photo Wellington Chen

BY JOSH ROGERS    |  A local leader who has lent a sympathetic ear to South Street Seaport preservationists fighting the proposed development project there, has just been tapped to join the city Landmarks Preservation Commission — the same commission which is about to begin reviewing the proposal.

Mayor Bill de Blasio last week nominated Wellington Chen, executive director of the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corp., to the 11-seat commission.

Chen, 62, said he has a lifelong love of the sea, and has taken a particular interest in the South Street Seaport Historic District.

“My father was a seaman who died at sea,” Chen told Downtown Express Jan. 21, the day his appointment was announced. “I believe in the [South Street] Seaport…. That’s the quintessential — our local [development corporation] points to the sea. This is the essence of the area.”

Chen attended a Save Our Seaport rally against the Howard Hughes Corp.’s project in October, 2013, and said he was pleased to learn there that another attendee, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, has a deep connection to the South Street Seaport Museum since her grandfather was involved in its creation.

“I was there not to protest, just to listen,” Chen added.

Similarly, Chen attended Community Board 1’s public hearing on the landmarks application for the proposal last month at St. Paul’s Chapel, but did not speak. That standing room only hearing drew hundreds, and it appeared there were more supporters than opponents of the project, so he got to hear both sides.

Chen said he had not decided if he should recuse himself from voting on the Seaport proposal, and he wanted to check with Landmarks Chairperson Meenakshi Srinivasan to see if she thought he should. The commission is expected to begin reviewing the application sometime soon. Feb. 17 is the earliest possible date.

It’s not clear if Chen has taken any public positions against the Hughes proposal, and any statements he may have made about the need to preserve the Seaport Historic District would essentially amount to the commission’s mandate for all of the city’s historic districts.

Last week, he did not offer an opinion as to whether he thought the Seaport’s district should be extended to include the New Market Building, site of Hughes’ proposed 500-foot tower, which has been the center of much of the opposition.

The 1939 building was used a part of the Fulton Fish Market and is included in the non-binding national and state historic districts, but the Landmarks Commission has rejected previous attempts to include it in the city historic district, and appears to have no interest in revisiting the issue.

But C.B.1 is poised to pass a new Seaport resolution, which includes a renewed call to landmark the New Market.  (The board was to take the matter up Jan. 26, but the meeting was canceled because of an expected blizzard. The tentative date is now Feb. 5)

The community board resolution will be sent to the commission, which is likely to soon include Chen and Kim Lee Vauss, an architect with Outsource Consultants who was also appointed last week.

Their appointments to the unpaid positions are subject to City Council confirmation and its Rules Committee will consider the nominations on Feb. 4. But there is no reason to think there’ll be any hitches there. City Council fights over landmarks appointments are unusual to say the least, and in Chen’s case, he has a long-standing and friendly working relationship with Councilmember Margaret Chin, a tower opponent whose district includes Chinatown and the Seaport.

With the Chinatown Partnership, Chen has pushed to keep the streets clean as one of many efforts to help the neighborhood’s small businesses.

Though he will occupy the only “lay member” seat on the commission, meaning he has no professional landmarks expertise on landmarks, he is experienced on the issue.

He said he was proud to have help lead the effort to landmark Flushing Town Hall as chairperson of Community Board 7’s Landmarks Committee. He was on the Queens board from 1977-90 and was the first Chinese-American ever appointed to the board.

As a veteran of 18 years of public hearings, “I have a very good sense of who’s lying and who’s not, who’s making up things and who’s not,” he said.

Chen looks forward to working with the commission and the public to get the best result on every proposal.

“The thing is, it’s not really a simple up or down vote,” he said. “It requires a dialogue.”

The appointment came as a surprise.

“I had no idea this was going to happen,” Chen said. “Every opportunity I was ever given in this great country I was presented with it. I never asked for it.”

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