Let’s make a deal! HHC pitches community amenities in bid for local support for Water Street tower

Seaport Developer Howard Hughes Corporation purchased this Water Street parking lot last month, and has already started wooing locals in a bid to head-off grassroots opposition to its as-yet-undisclosed plans for the site.
Photo by Colin Mixson

BY COLIN MIXSON

The Howard Hughes Corporation will have to find a way to buy community support for any big development on a Water Street lot it recently bought, according to a local civic leader, who said the company is already floating offers public ball fields, community centers, and parks in exchange for a green light to build high.

The parking lot at 250 Water St. was downzoned in 2003 to prevent oversized construction, and any attempt to transfer air rights to build a highrise on the site will require an extensive approval process that community opposition could easily derail, so the Seaport developer is looking for ways win locals’ backing.

“The question is, ‘Why would the city allow them to transfer air rights after the community worked so hard to keep [the lot] downzoned?’ And their answer is, ‘What do you want us to give you,?’” said Paul Hovitz, vice-chairman of Community Board 1.

High-ranking reps for the developer — including Executive Vice President Saul Scherl — sat down with members of CB1’s Executive Committee on July 18, and while the Howard Hughes honcho refused to make a commitment to keep the development below the 120-foot height cap, he did signal that the company was eager negotiate an accommodation.

“I’m not going to say ‘absolutely no way’ .” Scherl told the board. “It’s going to have to be a give-and-take about what we think is workable for the district and the community.”

Howard Hughes is already in talks with the city about several community-oriented building projects — including an auditorium for space-strapped Peck Slip School, affordable housing, and an extension of the East River Esplanade up to the Brooklyn Bridge, according to Scherl.

But there sticks as well as carrots on offer. The executive also suggested that Howard Hughes’s continued support for the aging South Street Seaport Museum would be contingent on some sort of deal being reached with the city on the Water Street property.

“I believe the Seaport District — forgetting Howard Hughes for a second — it needs the museum, it needs that connection and it needs vision, but it also needs to be brought into this day and era of technology,” said Scherl.

The developer is also reaching out to local schools, including the nearby Blue and Peck Slip schools, where Howard Hughes has scheduled meetings in the coming weeks with faculty and parents to discuss their concerns with the project, Scherl said.

The developer has sought to downplay the potential for a massive construction project on the lot, but there’s no doubt among locals that Howard Hughes will seek City Council approval to transfer as much as 627,000 square feet of air rights to the the 50,000 square-foot lot between Beekman Street and Peck Slip.

Some die-hard preservationists see the developer’s efforts to court local community groups as underhanded, and are already strategizing ways to defeat this new threat to the historic district.

“We will not be bribed by Howard Hughes,” said Michael Kramer, a preservationist with Save Our Seaport, which hosted a meeting at Southbridge Towers earlier this month that attracted more than 100 concerned locals. “Our air and light is too precious to sell.”

But other community members are pleased to see Howard Hughes at least offering locals a seat at the table, according to a member of CB1’s Land Use Committee.

“One has to assume it’s not going to be a 12-story building. There has to be some sort of community exchange, and I think they’re aware of it, and I think they’re starting off on the right foot in engaging with the community,” said architect Alice Blank.

The property was formerly owned by the Milstein Family, which purchased the lot for $5.9 million in 1979 and then engaged in a decades-long duel with local preservationists as it sought approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission to erect a new structure within the historic district.

Throughout the contest, the Milsteins adopted a top-down approach to acquire the approvals it needed, focusing mainly on revising its building designs, which the landmarks commission routinely denied for being to large for the low-rise district, according to a former district manager for CB1

“They mainly made adjustments to the building, hired different architects, and modified their applications to try to, I guess, put together something that would satisfy the landmarks commission,” said Paul Goldstein.

But the former owners made little effort to win over community members, according to Goldstein, who suggested Howard Hughes may be taking a que from history by approaching the locals before the city.

“[The Milsteins] were more intent on satisfying landmarks than the community and the community board,” he said. “[Howard Hughes is] going to have to make an offer that people cannot refuse. But I’m sure there’s going to be quite a bit of opposition as well. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.”

Community board members, local preservationists, and Downtown politicians eventually rallied to secure a rare downzoning amendment that capped building heights on the lot at 120-feet, effectively settling the issue until Howard Hughes purchased the property last month for an eyebrow-raising $182.7 million.

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2 Responses to Let’s make a deal! HHC pitches community amenities in bid for local support for Water Street tower

  1. To the Editor:

    Chutzpah…It is not surprising to Seaport denizens that the Dallas-based Howard
    Hughes Corporation (HHC) fully understands the meaning of this word. HHC finally
    showed its hand at last month’s Manhattan Community Board 1 Executive Committee
    meeting: they want to line their pockets by bending the rules and asked the community
    to name its price.

    HHC hires the smartest real estate professionals, lawyers and lobbyists. They do their
    homework and know full well that 250 Water Street is not a “receiving” site for Air Rights
    transfers within the South Street Seaport Historic District. Milstein holds their mortgage,
    prompting some to speculate that this is a contingency deal that still might never
    happen. This is where their Texas-sized chutzpah comes in.

    The Save Our Seaport Coalition (SOS) called a standing-room-only public meeting on
    June 28th and the verdict was clear: this community’s air, light, history and purpose are
    NOT for sale.

    SOS succeeded the Seaport Community Coalition which united the community two
    decades ago and defeated ten proposals by the Milstein family to overdevelop this
    historic site. In 2003, the City downzoned to preserve the character of the South Street
    Seaport Historic District, a move that was later upheld in court.

    SOS is not some collection of old NIMBY’s, but rather a citywide group of people
    fighting to preserve and respect the South Street Seaport Historic District and its
    maritime traditions. We will continue to give a voice to this community (another public
    meeting will be scheduled shortly), and to engage with our elected officials to ensure
    that HHC plays by the rules.

    SAVE OUR SEAPORT

  2. The Seaport today has small condos that mesh perfectly with the surrounding community. They have been there for years. Tourist and residents can shop and dine in sunny and historical neighborhood filled with charm and character. The feel of the neighborhood and open space is what made me decide to live there in the first place. It’s what visitors want and businesses crave. Scherl’s statement of “[the neighborhood] also needs to be brought into this day and era of technology,” is absurd. The neighborhood has come a long way, and his statement shows little respect for the unique flavor and needs of the Seaport.

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