Council unanimously backs Seaport height limit

By Albert Amateau

The City Council voted unanimously last week to limit the height of buildings in the South St. Seaport District to 120 ft., despite recommendations by the City Planning Commission to allow taller buildings.

The Council’s Wed. April 30 vote affirmed the proposal supported by Community Board 1 and a broad range of Downtown civic and business groups for the height limit for new buildings in a 10-block area, rejecting a City Planning Commission recommendation in mid April to allow buildings up to 145 ft. tall.

Prior to that recommendation, City Planning had called for new zoning to allow buildings as tall as 170 ft.

“It’s a great victory for the community,” said City Councilmember Alan Gerson, an active supporter of the lower height limit, “and very unusual for the council to reject a City Planning recommendation.”

The new zoning, which permits residential development in the 10-block area bounded by Dover, Pearl, Fulton and South Sts., is the culmination of community efforts that go back two decades to preserve the low-rise character of the historic district, where most buildings are less than 60 ft. tall and the tallest is 96 feet.

“We’re tremendously thrilled and gratified that the City Council voted to support the proposed zoning. We had a coalition of residential and business groups that don’t always see eye-to-eye on development supporting the zoning,” said Paul Goldstein, district manager of Community Board 1.

“It means that the Seaport has a bright future and will be able to attract new residents and businesses and at the same time preserve the character of one of the oldest parts of New York City,” he added.

Goldstein recalled that the Seaport zoning issue had recurred off and on over the past 20 years that he has worked for Community Board 1.

The new zoning went into effect immediately, subject to a mayoral veto within five days. A veto, however, was highly unlikely, especially since the unanimous Council vote indicates that a two-thirds override by the Council would be probable.

While Downtown community groups rejoiced at the vote, a spokesperson for Milstein Properties, owners of a 50,000 sq. ft. parking lot at 250 Water St., the largest undeveloped site in the area, criticized the vote.

Milstein wanted zoning that would have allowed buildings 250 ft. tall and had testified on April 9th that it would not develop the parking lot at either the 120 ft. or the 170 ft. height limit. The developer was seeking approval of a residential building with two towers, one 23 stories tall and the other 13 stories.

“There was an opportunity to bring vibrancy and new life to the area,” said George Arzt, spokesperson for Milstein. In response to a question about whether the developer would go to court to block the zoning, Arzt said, “They’ll be looking at all options.”

Goldstein, however, said that supporters of the zoning had submitted analyses by the architect Richard Cook that indicated that profitable development was possible within the 120 ft. “We also have the example of Frank Sciame who is about to restore 11 buildings on Front St. at far lower than the 120-ft.,” Goldstein said.

The Downtown Alliance, the business improvement district adjacent to the Seaport, supported the 120-ft. limit along with the South St. Seaport Museum and Seamen’s Church Institute. The Real Estate Board of New York supported Milstein’s proposal for a higher floor-to-area ratio that would allow 250-ft. buildings.

The rezoning sponsored by the community board after consultations with City Planning staff originally called for the 120-ft. height limit. But the City Planning Commissioners substituted the 170-ft. limit. After the Council land use subcommittee chose on April 9 to stand by the original 120-ft. limit, City Planning came up with the 145-ft. recommendation.

At the same time, the office of Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff began talking with Milstein executives about swapping Milstein’s 250 Water St. property for a city site Downtown that would allow denser and taller development. But neither Milstein nor Doctoroff’s office would comment on those talks.

The Council land use committee rejected the 145-ft. compromise on April 29 and the full Council clinched the decision the following day.



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