Volume 17, Number 43 | March 18 - 24, 2005


Firm dips its toes in Seaport waters


By Ronda Kaysen

South Street Seaport may soon get some serious attention. General Growth Properties, the retail giant that acquired the property last year, has been making the rounds with various city and community officials and may unveil plans for the area as early as this summer.

“General Growth is ecstatic about the prospect of owning the South Street Seaport, they’re very excited about having a presence in Lower Manhattan,” said Michael Piazzola, whom General Growth retained as general manager of the Seaport Marketplace when it took over last November.

When Maryland-based General Growth acquired the Rouse Company last year for $12.6 billion, it also took ownership of the Seaport Marketplace, Pier 17 and first refusal rights to the city-owned Tin Building and Fulton Fish Market stalls, once the Fish Market leaves.

General Growth has remained decidedly tight-lipped about its plans for the area, but recent informal discussions with officials from the Downtown Alliance, Community Board 1 and the Economic Development Corporation indicate that the company plans to focus its attention on the area, which has long been characterized by a noted lack of appeal.

The company recently hired Beyer Blinder Belle, the large architectural and planning firm known for its preservation work, as a design consultant, said Paul Goldstein, C.B. 1’s district manager.

General Growth “thinks some major changes are due and so do we,” Goldstein said. General Growth, says Goldstein, hopes to present concept plans to C.B. 1 by the summer, and has its eyes on the Tin Building and Market stalls. “They are definitely interested in utilizing that space,” Goldstein said.

The Seaport area suffers from a profound lack of neighborhood-appropriate retail, said Goldstein. The prospect of General Growth — the second largest publicly traded retail investment firm in the country with 217 shopping centers nationwide — taking the helm is heartening, he added. “That’s what they do, they run shopping malls,” he said. “There is some feeling to let them do what they do best.”

“General Growth has centers that appeal to every demographic,” said Piazzola, who anticipates a mixture of national and local retailers to fill the area. However, “It is too early to publicly discuss or reveal what those plans or discussions have entailed to date.” Piazzola and Michael McNaughton of General Growth, who is spearheading the Seaport redevelopment project, have met with Downtown leaders and city officials in recent weeks.

Frank Sciame, a prominent Seaport developer, hopes to see a cultural center added to the area. “I’d like to see things that enhance the 24-7 neighborhood and that really make it a New York experience rather than a tourist destination,” he said in a telephone interview. “Something that would be cultural and attract New Yorkers.”

Sciame is currently at work on two residential projects in the area — a luxury condo tower designed by Santiago Calatrava at 80 South St., which is awaiting approval from the state Attorney General’s office this spring, and Historic Front Street, a 95-unit rental project, which includes the restoration of historic buildings and should be complete by May.

General Growth will unveil its plans for the area at the International Council of Shopping Centers international convention in Las Vegas this May, according to Faith Hope Consolo, chairperson of the retail leasing and sales division for Prudential Douglas Elliman.

The area needs a variety of retail, added Consolo. “Now that New Yorkers are much more sophisticated, they need a wonderful cultural experience, a wonderful home furnishings store, a Whole Foods, an IKEA.”

So long as General Growth respects the architectural character of the neighborhood — mainly low-lying historic buildings — Goldstein expects the community to respond favorably to their plans.

“Downtown Alliance is enthusiastic about their plans for the area,” said Tom Nardacci, a spokesperson for the Alliance, of a recent meeting with General Growth and Downtown Alliance president Carl Weisbrod. “We look forward to this moving forward.”

Some of the tenants of Pier 17, one of General Growth’s newly acquired properties, are wary of their landlord’s intentions, however. Several tenants lodged a lawsuit against Rouse shortly before General Growth purchased the company, alleging Rouse engaged in “fraud, breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, bad faith and unfair dealing.” A court date is scheduled for March 31.

“We have heard all this before,” said Mike Flanagan, a co-owner of MacMenamin’s Irish Pub at Pier 17 and a plaintiff in the lawsuit against Rouse. “The good times are always two or three years away.”

A source close to the project that requested anonymity thinks details are less than forthcoming from General Growth specifically because of the ongoing litigation by Pier 17 tenants. Any ideas General Growth fields, said the source, may be stymied by disgruntled tenants.

Consolo sees no reason why the lawsuit would have any effect whatsoever on a company of General Growth’s size and scope. “This lawsuit is nothing to [General Growth.] This is a few disgruntled shopkeepers,” she said. “Whether [the tenants] are justified or not, they’ve had hell to deal with. I don’t blame them” for filing suit.

The tenants’ chief grievance has been a steady decline in traffic to Pier 17 and a slow exodus of retailers from the four-story structure.

General Growth’s measured pace is not a hindrance for everyone, however. The city has its own plans for the seaport area, including a $150 million redevelopment project for the East River waterfront. “In some ways it works to our advantage” that General Growth does not have a plan yet, Michael Samuelian, director of Lower Manhattan special projects, said at a recent C.B. 1 meeting. “If we have a concept already developed, General Growth needs to fold into our concept.”

Ronda@DowntownExpress.com


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