Museum hopes for historic ships on Pier 15
By Julie Shapiro
In the city’s popular East River waterfront redevelopment project, Pier 15 has become a lightning rod of sorts.
The community complained that the pier was not maritime friendly and has sent the pier’s architects through multiple redesigns. The South Street Seaport Museum was a leading voice of criticism, and not just about the design of the pier. The museum, which has historically had rights to Pier 15, disagrees with the city about who will run the pier.
At the Community Board 1 Waterfront Committee March 24, the museum’s leaders gave a presentation on the museum’s new exhibits and expanding programs, but C.B. 1’s questions focused mainly on Pier 15, which needs to be rebuilt.
Given all that the museum has on its plate, Peter Glazier, C.B. 1 member and owner of Bridgewaters catering hall in the Seaport, had a fair question to ask: “Why bite off Pier 15?”
“Pier 15 is really essential to the museum’s mission,” executive director Mary Pelzer said. Frank Sciame, chairperson of the museum’s board, added that the museum doesn’t see the pier as a burden, but rather as an asset, both financially and in terms of the space it will provide for programming. In the museum’s vision, the pier would provide space for visiting ships and possibly commercial boats to dock, along with science labs for children’s programs.
The city Economic Development Corporation has said there will be a request for proposals before any operators are chosen on Pier 15, but Sciame balked at that idea.
“I can’t think of competing for something that’s ours,” he said. “The city has given us portions of Pier 15 it’s just a question of how much.”
When pressed by board members, Pelzer said the E.D.C. has promised the museum the north side of the pier for docking ships, but she did not say the city had promised any more of the pier. Sciame added that the museum still has to work out the details with the city, but he thinks the museum’s position is clear.
“We had the rights to Pier 15, and we still have the rights to Pier 15,” he said.
Pelzer later added that in the late 1990s through 2001, the museum had several plans to develop the pier, but whenever the museum had funding, the state didn’t approve the project, and whenever the state approved the project, the museum didn’t have funding. The museum sunk $400,000 into plans to develop the pier.
Pelzer wants historic vessels to be the pier’s priority.
“South St. was called the street of ships,” she said after the meeting, while giving a tour of the museum. “It was a forest of masts.” She pointed out a photograph from the 1890s that showed tall ships lining every pier along the East River.
As a bargaining chip for Pier 15, Sciame hopes to sell the city a corner lot of the museum’s property at John and South Sts., a vacant space that the museum had considered for an addition. The sale would create a financial reserve for the museum, and the city would like to see another cultural institution in the space, Sciame said.
The lot is 6,000 to 7,000 square feet and could hold a 30,000 to 40,000-square-foot building. But that deal is only on the table if the museum retains or regains, depending on who’s keeping track the rights to Pier 15, Sciame said.
The designs for Pier 15 have gone through several iterations, and most recently SHoP Architects presented renderings earlier this year for a double-decker pier that is more maritime-friendly than previous designs.
Aside from the programming concerns, Pelzer is worried that the double-decker pier will obstruct views of the Brooklyn Bridge.
“Being able to walk up from the Battery, seeing beautiful vistas of tall ships, with the bridge behind that, is really important,” Pelzer said. “It gives a sense of place.”
Pamela Hepburn, president of the Tug Pegasus Preservation Project, spoke at the C.B. 1 meeting on behalf of single-ship museums. She and other boat owners who run educational programs would benefit from joining forces with the Seaport Museum and being able to dock on Pier 15, she said.
Carolina Salguero, director PortSide NewYork, agreed that she wants to see a variety of organizations programming Pier 15. The Seaport’s fleet does not represent the last 50 to 60 years of shipping, she said. Salguero hosts educational and cultural events on a tanker in Red Hook, including an opera performance last year.
Ro Sheffe, a C.B.1 member, wanted to make sure Pier 15 served local residents and not just tourists. Sheffe said he understood the importance of maritime uses on the pier in fact, he has been sailing since he was 8 years old but community space is also important, he said.
Sciame replied that he agreed, and that the museum wants to attract more Lower Manhattan residents as members.
Sciame doesn’t think the city should finalize plans for Pier 15 until General Growth Properties announces its plans for Pier 17 and the rest of the mall. “It has to be viewed as a whole, not as a bifurcated or trifurcated process,” he said.