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Tracing 50 Years of the South Street Seaport's Struggles

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James M. Lindgren is a professor of history at SUNY/Plattsburgh and author of Preserving South Street Seaport: The Dream and Reality of a New York Urban Renewal District. He gave a talk on the Seaport at the Center for Architecture in February.

The fate of South Street Seaport is up in the air. The 11-block historic district is Manhattan's oldest neighborhood. It's unique, precious, and endangered. Centered around Schermerhorn Row, built between 1811 and 1812—which the New York Times called "the city's original world trade center"—the Seaport is loved for its rich heritage, human scale, and beautiful vistas of the Brooklyn Bridge and East River.

It wasn't always so special. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, city leaders across the nation, including Gotham, were increasingly worried as federal road and housing policies encouraged (and subsidized) a middle-class exodus. Pollyannas called suburbia "the American dream," but it was a nightmare for mayors with plummeting tax bases.

In the 1950s, Lower Manhattan was still a hub for small manufacturing and shipping. But David Rockefeller, whose Chase Manhattan Bank (completed in 1961) was the first skyscraper built downtown in decades, instigated a major shift to white-collar jobs. In 1960, he proposed leveling a large expanse on the East River, including the Fulton Fish Market, and empowering the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to build a World Trade Center. Though New Jersey forced the WTC complex to move to the Hudson River, Rockefeller, along with newly elected Mayor John Lindsay, pushed for the clear-cutting of all but a few structures ​in a southern section of Manhattan Island, in the so-called Brooklyn Bridge Southeast and Southwest Urban Renewal Zones.

Meanwhile, the demolition of Penn Station from 1963 to 66 prompted a backlash: critics like Ada Louise Huxtable found an increasingly receptive audience; the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) was strengthened in 1965; national preservation legislation was passed in 1966; and, also in 1966, State Senator Whitney North Seymour Jr. persuaded Albany to place a New York State Maritime Museum in Schermerhorn Row.

Shortly after, greenhorn preservationists Peter and Norma Stanford formed a private group, the South Street Seaport Museum, and, in 1967, it was chartered by Albany. The Stanfords wanted to copy a state-private partnership that existed in San Francisco, where a fleet and museum melded with the popular Ghirardelli Square. Governor Nelson Rockefeller refused, however, to fund the state museum, which never took off.

Realizing that federal coffers for urban renewal were running dry, Lindsay, with David Rockefeller's okay, took the remarkable step of designating the Seaport Museum as the unassisted sponsor of the southeast zone (the southwest had been leveled). No U.S. museum had ever attempted such a task. As the city's proxy, the Seaport Museum was expected to raise its own money and it agreed, in 1969, to preserve a few blocks and develop the others as a mix of high-rise residences and commercial buildings.

The plan seemed possible when shipping baron Jakob Isbrandtsen stepped in. Leveraging his fortune, he quietly bought 56 buildings. He planned to lease some to pay off his loans, but give most to the museum, which would in turn preserve or lease the structures—but also sell their air rights and thereby fund its operations. Thus by 1972, Lower Manhattan was being remade by the WTC's construction and South Street's preservation; like yin and yang, they represented complimentary but contrary forces.

Once World Trade Center office space became available, however, a surplus of supply caused the real estate bubble burst, and the market for Seaport's air rights evaporated. So Isbrandtsen's strategy failed, threatening his fortune and the museum's future.

Lindsay and the Rockefellers devised a bailout, in 1972-73, whereby the city bought the buildings, including Schermerhorn Row, which was transferred to the state. A consortium of banks settled Isbrandtsen's IOUs and obtained the air rights. (Isbrandtsen lost perhaps $15 million.) Then, City Hall leased its Seaport holdings to the museum, which was expected to sublease them to developers. But that largely failed as stagflation hit the economy and investment dried up.

By 1976, the Seaport Museum had fulfilled its dream of berthing the nation's largest historic fleet and enrolling the largest membership of any history museum in the state, but it faced the harsh reality of being broke. The state and city were financially strained as well, and they all turned to the idea of building a festival marketplace, which the James Rouse Company had just introduced at Boston's Quincy Market. Secret negotiations followed, but when leaked in 1977, many New Yorkers were aghast, equating it with suburban homogeneity.

As the city's review boards considered putting a market in this 10-block historic district (enacted in 1977, it was later extended by a block in 1989), the Rouse Company and Mayor Ed Koch faced a barrage of criticism. The proposal's defenders promised that (1) the city would win increased sales, income, and property taxes; (2) the museum would reap a windfall to ensure its operations; (3) residents and leaseholders (such as the fish market) would not be adversely affected; and (4) the seaport's ambience would not be compromised. Many critics blasted the museum because it held the leases. In 1981, it created a subsidiary, the South Street Seaport Corporation, to manage its leases. After a deal was signed in 1982, Rouse opened its New Fulton Mall in 1983 and Pier 17 in 1985. But after a relatively brief surge, when the district became New York City's No. 1 tourist destination, Rouse's mall flamed out.

Every promise but the first evaporated. The city's income increased, but the museum didn't get a nickel. Its nationally recognized historic district seemed degraded when Rouse introduced features intended to draw crowds to the areas: bars; chains; stores selling kitsch; and midway-style entertainment. Meanwhile, residents and businesses faced higher rents, and, in the case of the fish market, threats of removal (which ultimately came true in 2005). They blamed the Seaport Corporation, which failed in the mid-1990s.

A succession of mayors did nothing to force Rouse or, after its bankruptcy, its successor, General Growth Properties (GGP), to keep those promises. To handle its leases, City Hall created the nonprofit New York City Economic Development Corporation in 1991; it has since consistently sided with the Seaport's various developers. Though the Daily News praised the "energetic, little" Seaport Museum after it rebounded in the 1990s, its energy was exhausted by a triple whammy: 9/11; its own financial and administrative disintegration; and Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Today, those leases are central to the story. While the Seaport Museum rents the top floors of Schermerhorn Row for its exhibits, Pier 16 for its ships, and a few other buildings, the Howard Hughes Corporation holds the rights to the commercial properties after GGP's bankruptcy.

And then a superstorm called Sandy changed the landscape. The district's small businesses suffered; meanwhile, Hughes demolished, and is now in the process of rebuilding, Pier 17. Yet, the NYCEDC has thus far spurned the museum, which needs Schermerhorn Row's electrical and HVAC systems repaired and safeguarded. As a result, its main exhibit area is closed. Rumors circulated that Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration secretly agreed to evict the museum from the Row. But, after an outcry, Hughes has promised to dedicate some space for the museum.

The current Hughes plan centers around an exceedingly controversial 494-foot tower of pricey condominiums. Proposed for the site of the New Market Building, which dates back to 1939, that slice of waterfront currently protects the visual integrity of the Brooklyn Bridge, which upon its opening was dubbed "The Eighth Wonder of the World." Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer has said that "building a tower at the South Street Seaport is like building a tower at Colonial Williamsburg." For the past 15 years, Community Board 1 proposed including the New Market site in the Seaport's historic district, but past mayors have refused. Without its landmarking, the LPC's oversight is limited. Some international context: in England, UNESCO went so far as to threaten to place the Tower of London on its list of endangered sites because it was being overwhelmed by skyscrapers.

Because of public opposition, Hughes has been coaxing fence-sitters by promising benefits for the community, including a food market and middle school. Pier 17's previous developer promised both, but backed out of the first and failed to deliver the second. To tempt City Hall, Hughes has proposed converting part of the Row's historic space and an empty lot into affordable housing. The whole package is promoted by a hefty marketing budget.

As a first step in the city's review, a Seaport Working Group formed last year to develop guidelines for assessing the development. It included Borough President Brewer, City Councilmember Margaret Chin, Assemblyman Sheldon Silver, State Senator Daniel Squadron, Congressman Jerrold Nadler, members of CB1, and various stakeholders (but, surprisingly, not the museum). The SWG emphasized the following: (1) that the Seaport Museum was the area's cultural anchor, that its ships defined the waterfront, and that both needed support; (2) that any new buildings adjoining the historic district must "not adversely affect the neighborhood's scale and character"; (3) that besides maintaining the area's vitality, development should respect the historical context and building heights; and (4) finally, higher-ups should consider shifting control of the district's city-owned properties from the NYCEDC to an organization that better includes the community.

But the SWG's worthwhile recommendations are non-binding, nor are those of CB1. The real decisions will be in the hands of designated municipal organizations, including the Landmarks Preservation Commission, before it embarks along the city's approval process for new buildings that exceed standard zoning, which ends with the City Council, and, finally, the mayor's office. There's what's bound to be a contentious community board meeting tomorrow, which is just a harbinger for what's past and what's ahead.

For millions of New Yorkers and visitors from elsewhere who, for a half century, have supported the museum, visited its displays and ships, or walked the streets it helped to save, the dream of South Street Seaport is in the balance.
· All South Street Seaport coverage [Curbed]

South Street Seaport Museum

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