By Skye H. McFarlane
For two years now, residents of the South Street Seaport area have been delivering commentary about the upcoming 75-story Beekman St. residential tower: too tall (the building’s size is permitted under current zoning), too ugly (the design is still being worked out by famed architect Frank Gehry), too out of context with the neighborhood (nearby Southbridge Towers is a federal middle-class housing co-op).
But when acclaimed landscape architect and author James Corner appeared before Community Board 1’s Seaport Committee to present plans for the site’s public plazas, he got an entirely different set of responses too nice, too open, too public.
The committee’s reactions to the plazas, which will cover 11,000 square feet in front of the building and 4,000 square feet on William St., were overwhelmingly positive. The long narrow plazas will double as pedestrian walkways and will contain 4,000 square feet of plantings, including 50 new trees. The larger plaza will have two fountains and both areas will offer ample seating for residents, passersby and parents waiting for their children at the site’s new K-8 school, whose entrance will be on Spruce St.
“It’s a beautiful plaza,” committee chairperson John Fratta told Corner after the meeting. “I’m not too crazy about the building, but the plaza’s beautiful.”
The major concern among committee members, upon seeing the design, was that the plaza would be too beautiful, and too attractive to populations of local college students, skateboarders and homeless individuals. Because the plazas will not be fenced and will be open 24 hours a day, residents urged developer Forest City Ratner to beef up its security plans for the area.
“These benches are lovely,” said C.B. 1 member Marc Donnenfeld, referring to the long, flat benches in Corner’s preliminary renderings. “But people will sleep on these benches.”
Clara Lipson, a Seaport resident, echoed Donnenfeld’s concerns, saying, “We have a big problem with homelessness down here and I am afraid that this design would be inviting more people to, er, take up residence here.”
Other committee members were concerned about the plan to put movable tables and chairs in the space as well as fixed benches. Noting the plazas’ proximity to a Pace University dormitory, Paul Hovitz said that theft could be a problem.
“You’re going to have to stock a warehouse of it,” Hovitz said of the moveable furniture.
When some board members suggested fencing off the plazas so they could be locked at night, the Ratner representatives bristled.
“There is then the implication that the space is only partly public,” Corner said, pointing out that the now-desolate block will be much busier once 75 floors of residents move in. “Really this is like a passageway. It is like a street.”
However, the Ratner group said that they were happy to consult with City Planning and come up with a comprehensive security plan, which might include brighter lighting and security guards to ward off theft, vandalism and vagrancy.