New captain at the Seaport mall’s helm

By Elizabeth O’Brien

Downtown Express photo by Brett C Vermilyea
Michael Piazzola, the Seaport Marketplace’s vice president and general manager, outside the mall overlooking the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges.

Michael Piazzola has dropped anchor. After holding five jobs in 10 years, from Florida to California and points in between, the new vice president and general manager of the Seaport Marketplace thinks he might just make New York home.

“I’ve done my wanderings,” Piazzola said. “I think I’ll stay for a while.”

Piazzola will undoubtedly draw on his work experience, which includes a two-year stint as a retail project manager at Disney World, as he tries to pump new life into the Seaport property. He also managed a Rouse mall in Minneapolis from 1996 to 1997.

Since the Seaport opened to great fanfare in 1983, it has struggled to establish itself as the prime shopping destination that the city envisioned when it leased the property to the Rouse Company, the mall operator.

Over the years, Rouse has experimented with different merchandising strategies, including a move from smaller, unique stores to national chain stores. This kind of tinkering has led the Seaport to a critical juncture in its young adulthood, Piazzola said.

“As a 20-year-old, it’s trying to figure out what it’s going to be when it grows up,” Piazzola said of the mall. “I think the biggest challenge will be evolving it into what it’s going to be.”

Whatever the Seaport becomes, Piazzola will have a personal as well as a professional vantage point on the project. He recently moved from San Diego into an apartment on Worth St. in Tribeca, in time to start his new job the first week of June.

Piazzola, 44 and single, has already discovered Bubby’s restaurant on Hudson St. and other local haunts. He likes the pace of life Downtown.

“When you think of New York, you think of that Midtown crush,” Piazzola said. “This is a livable neighborhood.”

Some Seaport merchants have already noticed that Piazzola seems more rooted in the area than his predecessors.

Ossama Bardissy, who runs the Broadway Beat store on Pier 17 and has been at the Seaport since 1989, said he was surprised to see Piazzola at the mall on a Saturday. Piazzola was dressed in jeans and seemed approachable, Bardissy said.

“This is good,” Bardissy said, noting that it was the first time he had ever seen a general manager at the Seaport on the weekend.

But many acknowledge that Piazzola could face rough waters ahead.

“Unless they dump a lot of money into this place, I don’t see it working out,” said a long-time Seaport tenant who requested anonymity.

The Pier 17 mall is currently 92 percent occupied, Piazzola said, with six or seven vacancies in its 125,000 sq. ft. of retail space. These include a 2,600-ft. former restaurant on the third floor and 1,500 sq. ft. of space that was a Champs sports store until recently.

Faith Hope Consolo, vice chairperson of Garrick-Aug Associates Store Leasing, Inc., said that the Seaport needs to add more interesting offerings than the likes of Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch.

“To get the kind of traffic they want, they really need to create something special,” Consolo said.

She recommended that the Seaport invest more in attracting New Yorkers with events like arts festivals. “New York is the market they’re in and they’ve forgotten us Manhattanites,” Consolo said.

Paul Goldstein, district manager of Community Board 1 and a Seaport resident, said: “I think people would like to see it geared more toward the local community.”

Goldstein said that the expected population boom in Lower Manhattan within the next few years would give the Seaport a good opportunity to reinvent itself to better serve the local population. The community has consistently voiced the need for improved retail services, he noted.

Rouse and city officials had hoped that the Seaport would have the same success as Fanueil Hall in Boston and Harborplace in Baltimore, both Rouse properties. But, Rouse’s “festival marketplace” concept never took off the way it did in those smaller cities.

“New York’s a much more sophisticated town and there are more options,” Consolo said.

Piazzola said that Rouse recognizes the need to develop a “big idea” for the Seaport. He declined to give specifics, but said the change will likely be rooted in the mix of merchandising and entertainment that he helped create at the Irvine Spectrum Center in California, a model now copied throughout the world, Piazzola said.

In addition, Piazzola said that Rouse is close to hiring a travel and tourism consultant who will try to position the Seaport as one of the top-five tourist destinations in New York City.

“We’d be happy to be in the top 20 right now,” said Gerard Nally, the owner of Seaport Watch Company at Pier 17 and a Seaport tenant since 1985.

This spring, Nally filed a $21 million lawsuit against Rouse and its affiliates, charging among other allegations that the mall operator siphoned money from the Seaport merchants association without fulfilling its marketing duties. Nally also charged that Rouse engaged in mail fraud by sending inflated utility bills from its corporate headquarters in Maryland to the Seaport tenants.

That claim allowed Nally to file the suit under the federal RICO racketeering statue. However, in early June a judge dismissed the case from federal court after ruling that the court did not have jurisdiction over its claims. Nally expects to re-file the case in state court in July, said John O’Kelly, his attorney.

Piazzola said that he had not read Nally’s complaint and thus could not comment on any details of the suit.

“We would like to avoid lawsuits at all costs,” Piazzola said. “That takes me, my staff, and the Rouse Company away from improving the company.”

Piazzola said that his job would be to make sure that the Seaport stays in the minds of the bigwigs at Rouse’s Maryland headquarters.

Tenants said they’d welcome an advocate.

“That’s all we ask,” said the long-term tenant who declined to be identified. “If he can just let them know what’s going on and try to do something to get this place kick-started.”


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