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Seaport Supporters Lambaste Howard Hughes' Makeover Plans

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If some New Yorker had been living under a giant rock or in some illegal basement and thought that neighborhood opposition to the Howard Hughes Corporation's plans to remake the South Street Seaport in its own image was ebbing, she would be sorely mistaken.

Last night, local preservationist group Save Our Seaport held the second in a series of what it is calling town meetings. Over a dozen people met at Titanic Memorial Park, a memorial lighthouse off Fulton Street between Water and Front streets, and proceeded discuss various Seaport sites and their uncertain future with testimony from residents, business owners, and activists. (The first tour was held on Saturday, and organizer David Sheldon told Curbed that about 30 people attended.) The group is worried about how the Hughes plans, which currently include proposals for a high-rise condo tower near Pier 17 and a renovated Fulton Market Building that would include a dine-in multiplex (a proposal rejected by the Landmarks Preservation Commission last week), would change the character of the neighborhood.

"The South Street Seaport Historic District is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and it would be a shame to let it become 're-merchandised' as another mall with luxury housing towers," Save Our Seaport organizer Julie Finch said in a statement. "People come from around the world to see the unobstructed view of the Brooklyn Bridge and the museum's tall ships."

Finch brought with her an admittedly sketchy rendering of the size of the much-reviled tower in comparison to existing structures. You can see the tower (about 700 feet tall), the Brooklyn Bridge (276 feet tall), and the schooner Pioneer (77 feet tall), along with a tree, a dog, and two people.

Among the speakers last night was Captain Brian McAllister, who owns McAllister Towing, which has been tugging vessels around New York harbor since 1864. "The waterfront and the Seaport Museum are important to this city not only from a historical perspective, but also an economic one," he said. "The leaders of our city need to negotiate a deal with Howard Hughes Corporation, or whomever they choose, which must include support for the museum as well as the waterfront."

"Don't let the history of the maritime industry, which built New York, and the history of the beginnings of my fifth-generation company, vanish from future generations," he added. "I'm asking Mayor de Blasio on behalf of my great-grandfather and all the immigrants who started life in America on South Street to please help." (He also briefly told a story of having once been "drunk dry" by a group of Scottish bagpipers. It elicited a good chuckle from the crowd.)

Also on hand was Robert LaValva, founder of the New Amsterdam Market, which returns for its season opening in front of the old Fulton Fish Market (on South Street between Peck Slip and Beekman Street) on May 31. He said one of the great things about the old market was that everyone—rich and poor—went there to shop.

Both Save the Seaport's Sheldon and LaValva emphasized that the spirit of the South Street Seaport is not the same as, say, Colonial Williamsburg. "One of the things that I always admired about the South Street Seaport Museum and the founders was they did not want people walking around in costumes. They were not interested in creating historical re-enactments, not that there's anything bad with that, but they felt this was a different kind of place," LaValva said. "It was a place where new things could happen in old buildings and that's the spirit of the South Street Seaport and I think it's something worthy of preserving."

Bridget Schuy, a local real estate agent, resident, and volunteer at the museum whose family connection to the area goes back to the 1800s, rattled off a list of residential developments in the Financial District over the past several years—and to come—along with each building's number of units. Along with issues of the area's character and accusations of corporate greed, she questioned the sheer ability of the city's infrastructure, particularly the school system, to keep up with all of the development.

After the speakers, 11 people, led by Sheldon and Finch, marched up Front Street, down Peck Slip, and then along South Street, ending in front of the tall ship Peking. The next meeting of the Save Our Seaport group is Thursday, May 15 at 6:30 p.m. at 49 Fulton Street.

UPDATE: Howard Hughes Corporation has the following statement: "We are collaborating with the community right now as part of the Seaport Working Group to identify guidelines for the district that protect its historic fabric, support a vibrant future and address the infrastructure crisis on the piers. We have committed to make a significant investment to protect the Seaport's heritage, including plans to raise the historic Tin Building out of the floodplain and restore it to its former glory. Save our Seaport is part of the working group process and we look forward to continuing that productive dialogue."
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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