Preservationists plan strategy after developer buys Seaport lot

More than 100 people showed up for an impromptu meeting that Save Our Seaport convened on June 27 to discuss concerns about the fate of a one-acre lot that Howard Hughes Corporation just agreed to purchase.
Photo by Janel Bladow

BY JANEL BLADOW

Just days after the announcement that Howard Hughes Corporation was buying the block-size parking lot across from Peck Slip School, the South Street Seaport community rallied to voice its concern. More than 100 people turned up for an impromptu meeting of Save Our Seaport that convened on June 27.

The overwhelming concern was renewed fear that the developer will again try to build a supertall skyscraper to loom over a community where most buildings are just four, five or six stories high.

But HHC’s plans are, as always, a mystery.

“’We don’t know what’s coming next’ is the only answer I can give you now,” said David Sheldon, a SOS steering committee member, who chaired the meeting.

Community Board 1 has requested a marketing plan for the 250 Water St. lot and other sites that HHC own in the Seaport area, but board members are not optimistic that the notoriously secretive developer will be any more forthcoming about its plans now than in the past.

“We’ve been trying to get that from Howard Hughes Corporation since I had a full head of hair,” said Paul Goldstein, co-chairman of CB1 Waterfront and Parks Committee.

Given the price HHC paid for the lot, however, many suspect that building a supertall residential tower would be the only way the developer could make the investment pay off.

HHC bought the parking lot last month from a shell company controlled by the Milstein family – which also manages parts of Battery Park City – for $180 million. Milstein purchased the property in 1979 for less than $6 million, and after repeated attempts to build a high-rise were blocked, the owners just left the site as a parking lot, because smaller-scale projects weren’t economical.

“HHC overspent on this property,” said SOS volunteer Michael Kramer, who expects the developer to try and push through a large-scale project

HHC may try to transfer the air rights from its other Seaport properties, which combined would allow for a 70-story tower or two 35-story buildings at the Water Street site.

The meeting was held in the community room of the Southbridge Towers complex and most of the people there were residents there, whose views of the Seaport, Brooklyn Bridge and East River could be blocked by a high rise on the one-acre lot bordered by Peck Slip and Pearl, Beekman and Water Streets.

Many residents from elsewhere in the Seaport neighborhood also turned out to seek answers and share concerns, as well as local business owners and parents with children at the two schools near the site — Peck Slip School and Blue School, across Water Street — who feared that extensive construction of a major development would disrupt and even endanger students’ lives.

One attendee even raised the issue of sewage capacity in light of the tall buildings already going up north of the Brooklyn Bridge by Pike Slip at the old Pathmark location.

“Sewage is going to Newtown Creek which is already working at 110-percent capacity,” he said. “Where’s it all going to go?”

Over the nearly four decades when the lot was under Milstein control, nine building projects have been proposed and defeated by community opposition.

Following the last battle in 2003, the area was rezoned to a historic district, with new construction capped at 120 feet or 12 stories, and locals are determined to hold the line.

“We fought hard for that zoning,” Sheldon said. “We shouldn’t have to give it back.”

To erect a structure any taller than the zoning allows, the developer would need to seek special permission through a process that the community board can influence.

“That’s where CB1 comes in,” said Goldstein, adding that Saul Scherl, who oversees HHC’s Seaport developments, is scheduled to speak at the next CB1 executive meeting in July.

Kramer said that if HHC plans a project within the zoning limits — say, two 10-story buildings — it would possibly take up to a year to design and two years to build, but anything larger would take considerably longer due to the approval process.

“If they want to go taller, there are more challenges,” he said. “Worst case would be it could be built in four to five years.”

At the end of the Save Our Seaport meeting, the group dedicated to preserving the neighborhood’s nautical history announced it would hold another community meeting in September to discuss the project further, and organize opposition if necessary.

“Community involvement is how we defeated Millstein,” said Sheldon. “We have to keep pressure on. If SOS didn’t exist, this situation would be much worse.”

Howard Hughes Corporation is buying this parking lot at 250 Water St. for $180 million, and locals fear that the only way the purchase price makes sense if the developer plans to build a supertall tower on the site.
Photo by Janel Bladow

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