Volume 21, Number 6 | THE NEWSPAPER OF LOWER MANHATTAN | June 20 - 26, 2008

Downtown Express schematic of General Growth Properties’ plans for the Seaport, above. The firm plans to set up a fresh food market in August and hopes to build two hotels and move the Tin Building to the east end of the pier near a new amphitheater. New retail spaces would be built on a rebuilt Pier 17. General Growth’s image, below, shows a restored Tin Building and the hotel tower.

Seaport promises fresh food now, hopes for hotel tower later

By Julie Shapiro

A permament 16-stall, fresh food market will open this summer on South St., General Growth Properties executives said Wednesday after unveiling longterm redevelopment plans for Pier 17 and the rest of the Seaport mall.

The market is the first piece of General Growth’s plans, which include a 495-foot tower the developer hopes to build north of Pier 17.

Vendors for the market will sell locally grown produce and prepared food from the same stalls where fishmongers once hawked their wares, on South St. between Beekman and Fulton Sts., in the base of the building that now contains the Bodies exhibit. The market, which General Growth is building now, will be open seven days a week, year-round, starting sometime in August.

The market is just one small piece of General Growth’s larger plans, which include a 42-story condo and hotel tower; a separate boutique hotel; half a dozen low-rise retail buildings; and the relocation of the landmark-protected Tin Building to the tip of the pier. To draw residents to a waterfront now dominated by tourists, and perhaps to win local support, General Growth also plans to build a community center and a public plaza the size of Bryant Park.

General Growth hopes to start construction in 2010 and finish by 2014, although the 32,000-square-foot community center could open as soon as 2011 on the second floor of the building containing the Bodies exhibit.

Julie Menin, chairperson of C.B. 1, praised the fresh foods market as a good first step for the project, but she said the market does not detract from the serious questions she has about how General Growth will mitigate the impact of the rest of their plans.

She is suspending judgment on the project until General Growth makes a presentation to the Seaport/Civic Center Committee on July 8, but she did not sound happy about the height of the tower.

“We’re going to take a very critical look in terms of what we think is acceptable and not acceptable,” Menin said.

In addition to the proffered park space and community center, Menin also wants to see General Growth add a school to the plan to help alleviate the overcrowding Downtown.

“We need to make sure we have something contextual for the Seaport area that takes into account some of these infrastructure needs,” Menin said.

For now, a large mall blankets Pier 17, an outdated relic of the 1980s, said Michael McNaughton, a vice president at General Growth. The firm acquired Pier 17 when purchasing The Rouse Company in 2004.

“That project has just lost its relevance in the local neighborhood,” McNaughton said during a presentation to Downtown Express Wednesday. “An enclosed mall isn’t right for these times and for the future.”

Lower Manhattan’s exploding residential growth means a whole new potential market for the Seaport, but only if General Growth switches the pier’s focus.

“We want to get the community to think the Seaport is for them,” McNaughton said.

In contrast to the mall, General Growth would break the retail into smaller blocks with outdoor connections, more like the cobblestone shopping district on the west side of F.D.R. Drive.

The most controversial aspect of the plan is a new condo and hotel tower on the site of the New Market building just north of Pier 17, which would be demolished and rebuilt under the plan. The tower would house retail on lower levels and then a 25-story hotel topped with 12 stories containing 78 condos.

The proposed tower sits just outside the historic district that covers the rest of the Seaport. That omission gives the developers more license, but since zoning regulations cap the height of a new building at 350 feet, General Growth will have to apply for a variance and prove financial hardship in order to build the additional150 feet.

General Growth chose to build a taller building so they could make the tower slimmer and less obtrusive, McNaughton said. If the city does not agree to the tower’s height, the whole project could be in jeopardy, he added.

Robert Lieber, deputy mayor for economic development, expressed strong support for the project, but he also noted in a statement that the public review process still lies ahead and could alter the project to make sure it fits in with the community.

To the south of the tower, a smaller boutique hotel would rise four to six stories on top of two stories of retail. The boutique hotel would have a rooftop pool but would not have the meeting rooms and ballroom that are slated for the larger hotel in the tower.

Moving toward the water, several more low-rise retail buildings would dot the new Pier 17 and then will open up into a large plaza. Renderings show trees, benches and space for events and performances. Including smaller pieces of open space between the buildings and along the water, the project will create 4.2 acres of public space, McNaughton said.

To the east of the plaza, General Growth hopes to place the Tin Building, which now sits on the west end of the pier, partly wedged beneath the elevated F.D.R. McNaughton sees the Tin Building, which was part of the Fulton Fish Market, as a dark, hulking barrier to the city’s East River Waterfront project, which would create an esplanade running along the river. To maintain the style of the city’s plan for the East River waterfront, General Growth hired SHoP Architects, the same firm the city is using.

To the east of the relocated Tin Building, the pier would drop down amphitheater-style to the water, providing a quiet place for people to read or take in the views, or perhaps providing seating for a concert. McNaughton envisions the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra serenading the pier from a boat docked at its end.

Back on mainland, General Growth also plans to build 24 apartments above the buildings along Schermerhorn Row. McNaughton said General Growth has not decided whether the apartments and the condos in the tower will be market-rate.

General Growth presented a series of images to Downtown Express, including a schematic of the entire site, but would only release two renderings for publication. The rest of the images can be found at TheNewSeaport.com.

The project will go before the Landmarks Preservation Commission in September or October and then will go through the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) next March, McNaughton said. The project lies within six overlapping special zoning and historic districts, which complicates the city, state and federal approval process.

The biggest landmarking hurdle is the move of the Tin Building, which is in the city and national historic district. When it was built around the turn of the 20th century, the building was right on the water, unencumbered by the as-yet-unbuilt F.D.R. The Tin Building was heavily damaged in the mid-1990s by a fire, and the city only partly repaired it, McNaughton said.

General Growth wants to rebuild the building as originally designed, restoring its original three stories. In moving the Tin Building to the tip of the pier, McNaughton wants to put it back in the sunlight and at the water’s edge, as it was 100 years ago. General Growth developed this plan in consultation with the Landmarks Preservation Commission, so he is optimistic that they will approve it.

If the project gains all of the government approvals it needs, General Growth will vacate the pier in 2010 to demolish and rebuild it. Part of the pier was built from wood, and it is eroding and would have to be replaced eventually anyway. The Army Corps of Engineers, which withheld approval of the Hudson River Park for years, would have to sign off on the plan.

McNaughton would not say how much the project will cost.

General Growth has been working with a C.B. 1 taskforce for several months to flesh out plans for the community center space. Contrary to General Growth’s initial statements, McNaughton said this week that the community center is contingent on the rest of the project being approved by C.B. 1 and the city.

“It would be difficult for us to build the community center if the project is not approved,” McNaughton said.

John Fratta, chairperson of C.B. 1’s Seaport Committee, denounced the reversal and said the East Side needs a community center regardless of what happens with General Growth’s plans. Either way, he and the community are not sure the 32,000-square-foot space will be large enough.

While Fratta was not surprised by the content of General Growth’s plans, he was surprised that the board did not get the first look at them.

“It’s just unfortunate that they refused to meet with committee before they went public on the plans,” Fratta said. “It’s like they snubbed the community board and usurped our process.”

General Growth offered to present the plan to select C.B. 1 members in a private meeting, but Menin, chairperson of the board, refused, saying the meeting should be public.

Frank Sciame, a Seaport developer and chairperson of the South Street Seaport Museum, got a preview of the plans earlier this month and liked what he saw.

“We think it’ll be a great addition to the neighborhood,” said Sciame, who worked closely with C.B. 1 to help protect and restore the historic district. “Something different was needed.”

Sciame sees the tower as a way of anchoring the development and he said it will be the key piece that makes the rest of the project economically viable. Since the tower is not in a historic district, Sciame does not mind seeing it rise along the waterfront.

Liz Berger, president of the Downtown Alliance, likes that the configuration of the buildings would open up view corridors down Beekman St., extending the feeling of the waterfront westward. She also likes that the architectural designs, inspired by fishing nets and ship rigging, do not try to recreate a faux-historic 19th-century pier, but rather reinterpret the past for the future. Berger, a Downtown resident and former C.B.1 member, wants General Growth to restore “bustling vitality” to the Pier 17 section of the East River waterfront.

“What’s there now doesn’t work,” she said. “This is beginning of a very exciting idea…. I think it’s about time that we get it right at the Seaport.”

Julie@DowntownExpress.com





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