There was a sea of Howard Hughes supporters at St. Paul's Chapel on Wednesday as Community Board 1's special Landmarks Committee heard from the developer about its controversial plan for the South Street Seaport. All aspects of the redevelopment were discussed, except for the new Pier 17, which is already under construction, and the much-maligned 42-story tower, which sits outside the historic district. The main discussions centered on a new building on Schermerhorn Row and the changes to the Tin Building.
The issues on the agenda Wednesday were those that will need approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission before they can go forward. Much of the presentation included what was previously presented to the press and the Seaport Working Group before Thanksgiving and presented to a pro-development group last Monday.
Elise Quasebarth of the preservation firm Higgins Quasebarth & Partners and Navid Maqami of S9 Architecture delivered the presentation about the plan for Schermerhorn Row. Hughes envisions 30 percent affordable housing, with all of it on Schermerhorn Row, home to the former hotels that date back to the 19th century. In addition to rehabilitating the existing structures, they would add a new building on the empty corner on the John Street side. The new building, featuring terra cotta with a metal and granite base, would rise four stories on South Street, with a setback fifth story. Maqami said there would be "minimal work to the existing fabric." New windows and skylights would be added.
Work is already underway on the new Pier 17 building, and the plan now includes a screen to cover the rooftop mechanicals as well as the rooftop field, which could be used for concerts. A pedestrian canopy would also be constructed for inclement weather. SHoP Architects' Partner Gregg Pasquarelli said the canopy would be made of a material called ETFE, which is a fluorine-based plastic.
Pasquarelli, architect Richard Piper, and engineer Mark Plachety talked about the plan for the relocated and rebuilt Tin Building. Little remains of the original Tin Building because of a huge fire in the 1990s. But even before that, its context had already been "inexorably changed" by the construction of the elevated FDR Drive on one side and the old Pier 17 building in the 1980s. They considered simply moving the Tin Building over, but conditions were so bad that was not possible. In addition, Piper said the current cornice is not tin, but fiberglass; there is a "false front" on the third floor; exterior stairways are not from the original building; and significant parts of it are rusting from the inside. The extant canopy supports and front columns are original and will be re-used in the new Tin Building, to be located about 30 feet east of its current footprint. The new Tin Building will feature a food hall on the ground level and room for a multi-level cultural space above that; Pasquarelli kept referencing the balcony at St. Paul's. The mechanicals would be sunk into the top floor, and therefore hidden. Pasquarelli contends that no matter what, the Tin Building can't stay where it is because of the floodplain. It can't be raised because part of it would literally hit the FDR Drive.
The rest of the presentation included the demolition of the Link Building, construction of pavilions under the FDR Drive as well as lighting, and wayfinding signage. On the subject of the South Street Seaport Museum, the team said they are waiting to hear from them about what they'd need and say they want to work with them.
There was a roaring applause at the end of the presentation. Some, including Save Our Seaport's Michael Kramer accused Hughes of stacking the room with the help of its union partners. We can't substantiate that, but he also said about 75 people had to wait outside before the fire department made sure they could get inside the church.
Roger Byrom, chair of the CB1 Landmarks Committee, said he wants a master plan and find the process confusing. He urged extreme care when it comes to the Tin Building and said the pieces are "very nice individually," but has doubts. Paul Hovitz, who sits on CB1's Youth and Education Committee and has been a vocal opponent of the Hughes plan said the renderings made it feel like Las Vegas and referred to "glaring" neon.
CB1 Landmarks Committee member Jason Friedman was concerned about the lighting and the newly proposed canopy while CB1 Executive Committee member Tricia Joyce preferred a brick treatment for the new Schemerhorn Row building and said the glass treatment for Pier 17 "looms" over the area.
When it came to public testimony, there were more than 45 speakers. Some were either neutral on the aspects before the committee or spoke about something having nothing to do with the project, if you count the others, 31 were supportive of it while 14 were against it.
Among those speaking against the proposal was Kelly Carroll of the Historic Districts Council, which represents over 500 community organizations in the city. Of the plan for Schermerhorn Row, which currently holds the South Street Seaport Museum, she said "this conversion would effectively divorce the museum from its history, including the time capsule gem: the Fulton Ferry Hotel spaces." She continued, "redevelopment and adaptive reuse of the Tin Building should preserve it in its original form, unadulterated."
A speaker named Michael Yamen said he'd see the proposal as "interesting and slick" if only it weren't a proposal for the South Street Seaport. Joanne Norman said it would become the "Howard Hughes Historic District." David Sheldon of Save Our Seaport lamented the design, saying, "We don't want New York City to look like the rest of the country." At least one speaker claimed the process of segmenting the project and presenting it as individual elements was illegal. David Brown, who is part of the Seaport Working Group, said there is a "big disconnect" and called Hughes "disingenuous." He questioned just how much access the general public would have to the green field atop Pier 17. Jared Brown complained about unruly crowds from the concerts already held in the area, asking "How can we trust Howard Hughes?"
Among those supporting the project was the Downtown Alliance's Dan Acherman, who said the project would "respect [the seaport's] historic integrity." Ann Kayman of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce called the proposal a "positive plan" and said the existing seaport "never really worked." The Real Estate Board of New York and the Association for a Better New York sent representatives to speak in support. Friends of the Seaport's Lisa Gorke said she was "excited" to have people talking. "Please don't hate me," said the group's Maria Ho. "Be respectful." Whitney Barrat, executive director of the Old Seaport Alliance, said she was "encouraged" by the impending arrival of food, arts, and shops. Several union representatives also spoke in support of the project and the jobs it would create. Luis Vasques of the FiDi Fan Page said the project would be "New York's newest 24/7 community." Several area restaurant owners also spoke in support, saying not much history is even left and saying they need this to combat homelessness and rats.
Chris Curry, senior executive vice president for development at Howard Hughes Corporation and one of the project's most public faces, told Curbed NY that he felt the evening "went very well." He said it was the first real chance for supporters to speak out.
Wednesday's event, which lasted about two hours and 45 minutes, was only part one of two. Part two, which will take place in January, will probably end with some sort of resolution from the committee.
—Evan Bindelglass is a local freelance journalist, photographer, cinephile, and foodie. You can e-mail him, follow him on Twitter @evabin, or check out his personal blog.
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· SHoP's Revised, Shorter South Street Seaport Tower, Revealed! [Curbed]
· All South Street Seaport coverage [Curbed]