Volume 16 • Issue 33 | January 16 - 22, 2004

Seaport in flux, worrying neighbors

By Elizabeth O’Brien

As an increasing number of stores jump ship, operators of the South Street Seaport mall at Pier 17 have considered bringing in Home Depot or even reconfiguring the property once the Fulton Fish Market leaves the neighborhood.

At least nine storefronts are currently empty in the three-floor, 130,000 square foot mall, visibly more than before the holidays. The vacancies have fueled talk among merchants and others that the Rouse Company, the mall operator, might be trying to clear out the property for another use.

“It looks like Rouse is warehousing that,” said Arthur Gregory, a member of Community Board 1 and restaurant consultant who briefly ran a food kiosk in the mall last year. Gregory said he was surprised to see so many empty storefronts during a recent walk through the mall.

“Places in here are just leaving,” said a longtime merchant who requested anonymity.

The Seaport has long struggled to live up to the expectations that greeted its opening in 1983. Over the years, Rouse has experimented with different merchandising strategies, and stores like Disney never materialized after being pegged as the next great hope.

But with the Fulton Fish Market set to move to the Bronx around the end of this year, the pace of change at the South Street Seaport has accelerated. The Rouse Company has first dibs on the Tin Building and the New Market Building, two city-owned buildings that the fish market now occupies.

The company is currently creating a master plan that will incorporate the New Market Building and Pier 17, according to Michael Piazzola, the general manager of the Seaport Marketplace. To that end, the company is keeping its options for Pier 17 open, he said.

“In order to maintain flexibility, we’d like to have the ability to reconfigure the building,” Piazzola said in a telephone interview.

Rouse might want to alter the space physically, to add new tenants, or both, Piazzola said. An example of the latter might be Target or Home Depot, Piazzola said. Rouse has talked to both stores about a possible move to the Seaport, he added.

Gregory said a beer distributor told him that Rouse had talked about building a hotel at the Seaport. Piazzola declined to confirm this but also did not rule out the possibility of a hotel, saying that a hypothetical location could be a new pier.

“Do I think it’s a bad idea? No,” Piazzola said. “In fact, it might be a good idea.”

Seaport management has also considered entertainment-driven options such as Cirque du Soleil and Ripley’s Believe it or not, according to Faith Hope Consolo, vice chairperson of Garrick-Aug Associates Store Leasing, Inc. Consolo said that Rouse could be clearing stores out of the Seaport for these types of uses.

“If they do entertainment or theater use, they’ll create a destination all year round, not just in the summer,” Consolo said. The weather-dependent Seaport has more trouble attracting visitors in the colder months.

Piazzola confirmed that options such as Target and Home Depot were “still in play,” but he denied any plans to empty Pier 17.

“Reconfigure doesn’t mean kicking every tenant out of the building,” Piazzola said. Some stores recently left due to problems paying rent, he said, noting that Pier 17 was nonetheless only 10 percent vacant.

New York City owns the Seaport piers as well as much of the surrounding area, and the city would have to approve any plans that Rouse proposes. Janel Patterson, a spokesperson for the city’s Economic Development Corporation, declined to comment on any plans the city might be evaluating for the area. Patterson said that Rouse’s lease runs until 2031 with two extension options until 2072.

The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission would have to okay any changes to the exteriors of the buildings in the South Street Seaport Historic District, 38 acres that includes Pier 17 but does not include the New Market Building.

Residents voiced impatience that Rouse and the city wouldn’t reveal more of what might be in store for the area.

“It’s not long-term planning now, it’s right around the corner,” said Gary Fagin, a Seaport resident and former member of C.B. 1.

Kit White, also a former C.B. 1 member and a resident of the Seaport since 1974, took part in the negotiations when Pier 17 was first conceived. He said Rouse promised at the beginning that the area would feature local merchants and would not be dominated by chains stores as it is now.

He expressed dismay at the idea of a Target or Home Depot coming to the neighborhood.

“If they do this, it’s completely contrary to their initial philosophy of the project,” White said. “It’s been 20 years—they’re counting on memories being short.”



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