Volume 18 • Issue 15 | September 01 - 08, 2005

Downtown Express photos by Elisabeth Robert

The one-block-long Historic Front Street high-end rental redevelopment project lines both sides of Front St. between Beekman St. and Peck Slip.

Living with the fishes, and a feeling of history

By Ronda Kaysen

The first residents of a new South Street Seaport development unpacked their boxes this July, marking the beginning of a new era for one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods.

Historic Front Street, a 17-building development on a cobblestone swath of Front St. between Beekman St. and Peck Slip, began leasing the first 57 rent-stabilized apartments this summer (45 have been rented so far) and will begin leasing the remaining units in this 96-unit complex this autumn.

The one-block-long strip that dates back to the late 18th century lay mostly vacant for close to 30 years, with several structures on the block reduced to empty lots. The buildings that remained had long since fallen into disrepair, their facades shrouded in black netting and their interiors dilapidated, although some of the lower floors were occupied by fish merchants until just before the structures were purchased.

In June 2003, Yarrow LLC, a partnership of Sciame Development, Zuberry Development Corporation and the Durst Organization, purchased the city-owned property, bringing years of failed attempts to revive the district to a close.

With an infusion of $46.3 million in Liberty Bonds — bonds created in the wake of 9/11 to revive Downtown —Yarrow enlisted architect Richard Cook of Cook + Fox for the $50 million project to restore the 11 surviving structures, integrating modern architecture with the historic remnants and building three new buildings to fill the empty lots. Working within the constraints of a 120-foot height limit imposed by the city, the new low-rise development harks back to a time when the area was dominated by the fishing industry.

“It’s important that a city has a connection with it’s past,” said Craig Dykers, a partner at Snohetta, the Norwegian architectural firm entrusted with building a cultural center at the new World Trade Center.

Dykers was among the first tenants to move into the Front St. development, snatching up a one-bedroom apartment in one of the older buildings. “It was interesting to me that there was a part of town that was being rescued from the wrecking ball,” he said, adding that his other home, in Oslo, Norway, is also in the city’s fish market area.

With 38 different floor plans, many of the units in the older, landmark buildings have exposed brick, wood beamed ceilings — the wood, harvested from the Adirondacks and Catskills, dates back 500 years — and original cast-iron support beams. (“I sometimes feel there are some ghosts in here,” said Dykers of his apartment.)

The new buildings evoke a maritime theme with porthole windows and seafaring design. Each building is named in a nod to the area’s past — Barwick’s Barway, Mott Dry Goods, Shotwell Arches — with Moby Dick inscriptions incorporated into the facade. The original cobblestone street has been re-laid and the streetlamps are being replaced with bishop’s crook-style light fixtures.

The ground floor includes 13 retail spaces, ranging in size from 550 square feet to 2,200 square feet, which might entice retailers interested in appealing to a residential clientele. The South Street Seaport area has long been criticized for an abundance of shops geared exclusively to tourists with the cobblestone promenade peppered with national chains. “I prefer the local shops of which there’s quite a few in Lower Manhattan,” said Dykers. “In this particular case it would be nice if there were more of those kinds of shops.”

Restoring the past, however, comes with a hefty price tag. The units are rather small — they range in size from 600 square feet to 1,400 square feet, and one-bedrooms start at $2,600 a month. Two-bedrooms range from $4,100 to $5,500 a month, and two-bedroom penthouses cost as much as $8,500 a month. (A Western European nation’s delegation to the United Nations recently claimed two of the penthouses.) Of the 95 units, only five have been set aside for moderate-income tenants.

Liberty Bonds for residential use are relegated to rental apartments, so it was never an option for the buildings to be co-ops or condos.

For the tenants who fell in love with the historic character of the buildings, the cost was a worthwhile trade off. “This was the nicest place I looked at, but absolutely the most expensive,” said Lori Vincent, a new Front St. resident. Vincent, who works for Imago Relationships International, a nonprofit organization on Maiden Lane, is spending $2,800 a month for her one-bedroom apartment, $800 more a month than she intended to spend. Her unit, on the lower end of the price scale, does not enjoy the East River and Brooklyn Bridge views that higher-end apartments enjoy, and as one of the newer units, it lacks the exposed brick and wood beams. “I’m hoping that by next year I’ll be able to move into those nice apartments across the hall,” she mused.

Terry Harlow wandered into Historic Front Street’s rental office the day it opened and immediately “fell in love” with one of the studio apartments. A resident of nearby Southbridge Towers for the past 12 years, Harlow and her husband, Robert Schoen, were accustomed to paying $700 a month for a one-bedroom apartment with a terrace in the subsidized Mitchell-Lama complex. Switching to market-rate rent was a shock for the self-employed learning consultant.

“I’m an interesting example of what it’s like to look for market rate,” Harlow told Downtown Express, sitting on her new home’s shared rooftop deck on a recent breezy August afternoon. Despite the jump in price, Harlow signed a two-year lease and is thrilled to have found a new apartment a stone’s throw away from her old one. Southbridge, where her husband still lives, is visible from her new rooftop. The Brooklyn Bridge and the East River are visible, too. “I just love Downtown,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine living in any other neighborhood.”

Her new neighbors are not what Harlow expected — to her delight. “It’s not like when you go to John St. and everybody’s apartment is paid for by mommy and daddy,” she said, referring to young college graduates in the financial industry who often rent high-end apartments near Wall St.

“We thought we’d get a lot of shares,” said Brian Edwards, Yarrow’s director of leasing, referring to college graduates who often double-up in small apartments. To his surprise, 90 percent of the units have been rented to couples. The remaining 10 percent have been rented to singles. “We have been blown away by that,” he said.

Soon, the neighborhood will take another dramatic turn: the Fulton Fish Market, which has been selling fish to the city’s purveyors for 170 years, will relocate to a new facility in the South Bronx. Although the end of the fish market might revive a neighborhood dominated by tourism, many of the new residents are already pining for what will soon become history. “The fish market is the heart and soul of this neighborhood. It’s living history,” said Harlow.

On second thought, she added, “It’ll be nice not to ride my bike in fish guts.”

The end of the fish market also brings new growth. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation set aside $150 million this spring to redesign the East River waterfront, including an overhaul of the neglected area beneath the F.D.R. Drive and the addition of a reflecting pool in the middle of Peck Slip, the street to the east of the Front St. development. And General Growth Properties, the real estate investment trust that owns the Seaport Mall, indicated earlier this summer that it intends to exercise the option in its lease to take over several brick fish market stalls on South St. and the Tin Building, a landmark structure on Pier 17. Although the company has yet to unveil its plans for the properties, its interest in the area beckons the beginning of a new era.

Vincent is looking forward to the coming months — when the tourists dwindle in the winter months and the fish market will pack up for good. “It’s very enchanting there’s so much history that I haven’t even touched yet,” she said. “When it quiets down, that’s when you’ll start feeling the history.”


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