Volume 17 • Issue 30 | Dec. 17 - 23, 2004

Downtown Homes
and Lofts

Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert

Constructing luxury homes in the Seaport’s historic buildings

By Alison Gregor

South Street Seaport was once the rakish portal to New York City commerce but never recovered from a 19th-century decline, even with the advent in recent decades of a touristy theme mall.

But a renaissance may be in the offing with efforts by the city and real estate developers to make the historic marine neighborhood more amenable to potential residents.

Several developments are in the works or planned along with large-scale renovation of the East River waterfront and changes to the Seaport itself. The once dynamic but now decaying Seaport is becoming a full-fledged residential neighborhood.

“In 1997, people talked about the people living down here, and there was almost a pioneering mentality to it,” said John Evans, vice president of Sciame Development, one of the Seaport’s developers. “It’s not that way any more. It’s an increasingly stable and residential community.”

According to data from Community Board 1, as of a year ago, about 575 residential units had been added to the 12-block Seaport area since the 2000 census, and at least 95 units were under construction. In the neighboring Financial District, about 5,800 units were created or under construction.

Developers speculated that all of those new residents of Lower Manhattan could either head west or east for their weekend and evening leisure.

Denizens of the Seaport hope they’ll go east.

“Where do these people go to have a cup of coffee?” Evans asked. “To get some peace and quiet? To not be part of the business world?

“These people are going to walk to the Seaport neighborhood and the East River waterfront to the extent that it is an inviting destination.”

Downtown Express photos by Elisabeth Robert

Developers of 14 properties on Front St. and Peck Slip (L-r): Tony Zunino and Richard S. Berry of Zuberry Development Corp. and Frank Sciame and John Evans of Sciame Development.

Sciame Development aims to make it one. A Seaport denizen, Frank Sciame bought 247 Water St. in 1990, made it his headquarters for many years and then converted it to condominiums. The company’s new headquarters are at 80 South St., another Seaport location that will soon harbor an architecturally unique skyscraper.

Though construction on that tower designed by renowned architect Santiago Calatrava hasn’t yet begun, Sciame Development is close to completing a project called Historic Front Street, which will bring 95 rental units to market and create about 25,000 square feet of retail space by March.

The site was one that passed through at least two developers’ hands over the course of decades but will finally go to market in early March.

Sciame Development, which is working with Zuberry Associates L.L.C. and the Durst Organization, has gone to great lengths to preserve the 18th-century architecture of Front St.

“We made a conscious effort to keep as much of the historic fabric in place and as exposed as possible,” Evans said.

Eleven historic buildings were renovated and three new ones built. The development has many facets that might interest potential buyers.

The exteriors of buildings were maintained and look like they’ve survived two centuries.

“We tried to reflect the reality of the block as one originally built when the South Street Seaport was the center of world commerce and then went through a century of decline,” Evans said. “Buildings were beat up and had a lot of different lives to them, so we chose to grout-inject the façades, rather than tear them down and rebuild.”

The buildings were former warehouses and, as much as possible, the interiors were preserved. The timber framing is exposed, as are masonry walls wherever practical. There are even industrial hoists remaining in some units.

Yet interiors also received an upscale finish befitting luxury apartments, including wood floors, stone counters, marble baths and stainless steel appliances.

“In the interior, we tried to bring out the history in a very refined way,” Evans said.

The three new buildings constructed were not made to look like 18th-century buildings, but were designed to fit into the context of nautical Front St. There are only four penthouses in the entire development.

And the building at Front St. and Peck Slip was designed by architect Richard Cook to give the impression of a ship moored against a warehouse.

That’s because all the streets called “slips” in the Seaport area were once water, and later, inlets where ships could harbor. The original coast of Manhattan lay at Pearl St. but was extended by ambitious Dutch and English settlers.

The Seaman’s Church Institute at 241 Water St., also built by Sciame, has a similar ocean liner design.

Principals in the Historic Front Street project hope this blend of historic preservation and innovative architecture will draw the masses back to New York’s eastern waterfront.

“These are designed to bring the New York community down to the water,” said Richard S. Berry, managing member of Zuberry Associates.

Another reason the project has been closely watched is its “green” design, Berry said. The use of a geothermal heating system on rather small, historic buildings is new. It’s also perfect for historic buildings that would be otherwise marred by cooling and heating towers and other bulky rooftop equipment.

Berry said that unlike the green buildings being built in Battery Park City, which is close to the Hudson River, developers at Historic Front Street had to carve 10 wells about 1,500 feet into the ground to provide enough surface area for cooling and heating. The project is breaking new ground.

“We have our fingers crossed,” Berry said. “It’s just never been done to this extent.”

And that’s not everything that’s green about the project. The Historic Front Street buildings also use photovoltaics, which are solar cells. They will have green roofs in five years, a time restriction mandated by the federal government, which regulates historic buildings.

Those types of limiting rules also guide building size.

“Scale was very important to us,” Evans said.

Building heights in the South Street Seaport Historic District, which stretches from the Brooklyn Bridge to Fulton Street and from South to Pearl Sts., were limited to 120 feet by zoning regulations passed in 2003. That’s a 25 percent increase over the tallest building in the Seaport, which is 91 feet.

Yet the move still irks at least one property owner in the Seaport area, the Milstein family, which owns the historic district’s largest vacant lot at 250 Water St. The family would like to build a 23-story residential tower there.

The Milsteins sued to block the 120-foot zoning rule, but they have not yet decided to appeal a decision issued against them in September.

Evans said Sciame and partners bought the historic Front St. lots with the height restrictions in place, and they have no regrets. The project was financed with $46 million in tax-free Liberty Bonds, a post-9/11 fund that requires the units to be rentals.

Some residents have criticized what they see as the creation of a potentially transient block due to its rental nature, but most have supported the development.

“These units are really designed for people we think will stay around for quite a long time,” Berry said. “They have washer-dryers; they have home-office type uses; they’re multi-bedroom; they’re really meant to be homes.”

Paul Goldstein, district manager of Community Board 1, said residents would have chosen co-ops or condominiums had they the opportunity, but the federal Liberty Bond legislation was prohibitive.

“We would have preferred that the legislation was more flexible,” he said. “That was a mistake, probably, in the drafting of the legislation.”

Units at Historic Front Street range in size from 600 to 1,400 square feet and are mostly one- and two-bedroom apartments. Developers believe one bedroom apartments may cost $2,400 to $3,000 a month, while two bedroom units may pull in $3,500 to $5,500 a month.

“Some of the units have just tremendous outdoor space which is really what sets off the high end,” Evans said. “There’s 500 to 700 square feet of outdoor space for some of these penthouses.”

Even as Sciame and its partners are preparing to sell these apartments, they have questions about the fate of the South Street Seaport. The Fulton Fish Market, a mainstay, will soon vacate the Seaport, leaving the future of two large buildings undetermined. The Rouse Company, which has operated the Seaport since the 1970s, was recently bought out by General Growth Properties, a company that manages malls nationwide.

A rumored collaboration among the city, Rouse and one of Manhattan’s largest developers, The Related Companies, which proposed bringing the Cirque du Soleil to the Seaport, may be dead. Neither Rouse nor General Growth Properties returned phone calls regarding the future of the South Street Seaport.

“There’s a huge chunk of the waterfront that’s going to become available, and that’s very sensitive in terms of whose needs this will meet,” Evans said. “Will it be a tourist need? A residential need? A commercial need? Or perhaps something that blends all three.”

The city appears to be committed to preserving what’s left of a commercial center that thrived starting in the 16th century and continued to fire the imaginations of New Yorkers even a century after its decline in the late 19th century. The revitalization of the Seaport is only one small part of monumental plans to rebuild all of Lower Manhattan since the 9/11 attacks.

Included in that vision are plans to overhaul the East River waterfront, including possibly creating a wading pool among the cobblestones of Peck Slip. Tearing down the biggest obstacle to the river, the F.D.R. drive, has been notably absent from the city’s plan, though some design-minded residents of the Seaport have lobbied for it.

Sciame Development expects to begin construction on the Calatrava “Townhouses in the Sky” project in 2005 at 80 South St., Sciame’s latest headquarters.

The upscale tower, designed by Calatrava, may well be a barometer of just what the real estate market will bear in the South Street Seaport area.

It’s the Seaport’s first attempt at a luxury residence.

“The Calatrava project says, look, Downtown is one of New York’s most dynamic neighborhoods, and because of that, projects like this are justified,” Evans said.

Developers hope to rake in $35 million for each of 10 cube-shaped townhouses stacked in the 835-foot high-rise, which also includes two retail spaces. They hope to capitalize on lovely views and spaces that can be tailored down to the smallest detail to suit any buyer’s tastes.

“We’re not actually selling real estate,” broker Ayesha Kahn said. “When you look at the building, you realize you’re buying a piece of art.”

Not all current residents of the Seaport are thrilled with the changes that are taking place in the neighborhood.

Joe Bradshaw moved into Southbridge Towers, a Mitchell-Lama rental building on the edge of the Seaport, in 1973 after he was released from his tour of duty in Vietnam.

Bradshaw, whose wife is a painter who documents historic New York, said many of his neighbors want to cash in on the skyrocketing appreciation rates on Seaport properties by taking the 1,651-unit co-op private.

But that doesn’t sit well with him.

“A lot of things change, I guess for the better, but you lose a piece of history,” Bradshaw said. “I think the older residents feel a little scared that they may be pushed out.”

Buildings like the proposed tower at 80 South St. alarm residents, Bradshaw said.

“I think people feel like [the Seaport] has become a little too cosmopolitan, a little too mall-ish, a little too suburban,” Bradshaw said. “A lot of them are the Jewish, Italian, Irish older immigrants who grew up in the area, looking out for each others backs, and they feel like a lot of the camaraderie is lost.”

But Bradshaw is also an owner of PJ Kelly’s, a popular pub at 90 Fulton St., so he can’t be too down on plans to rejuvenate Lower Manhattan. He supports a currently unfunded city-Lower Manhatan Deveolopment Corporation initiative to upgrade Fulton St., the primary artery into the Seaport, into a major east-west corridor in Lower Manhattan.

“I think it’s good for the area,” he said.

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