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Contested Seaport Redevelopment Plan Progresses, Sort Of

The epic community debate over the future of the South Street Seaport that began in December and concluded in January led to yet another heated discussion last night. Community Board 1's full board voted on the Howard Hughes Corporation's application to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which encompasses a ton of changes, including the redevelopment of Pier 17, a potential waterfront tower, affordable housing on Schermerhorn Row, and preserving the Seaport's museum. The upshot, after months of crowded meetings and back-and-forth, is that the board didn't strike down all of its facets—but it wasn't a ringing endorsement, either.

The Hughes plan calls for reconstructing the Tin Building 30 feet west of its current location, elevating it for flood protection. Two things worth noting: They can't elevate the building in its current location because it would literally hit the FDR Drive, and the current Tin Building is almost entirely unoriginal owing to a fire. Pieces of it would be used in the new building's construction. All of that was fine with the community board members, but the proposal also called for the one-story addition to be used for "cultural space." Members took issue with that.

There were two items relating to the Pier 17 mall already under construction. One was the removal of the headhouse, a bland (some might say ugly) building just west of the old, now-demolished mall there. It no longer actually serves any purpose, so members had no problem agreeing that it can go. The other issue was about putting a canopy, made of transparent material, over the new mall's roof deck. In its vote in early January, CB1's Special Landmarks Committee approved the canopy. But that vote was reversed by the full board. Many fear that the existence of a canopy translates into more private events and less public use for that space. Neighbors also worried that noisy crowds will become uncontrollable.

A pedestrian canopy had been proposed to connect the new Pier 17 mall and the new Tin Building. Again, that proved a no-go. What got a thumbs-up was the demolition of the Link Building, which is just south of the Tin Building. It stretches eastward, into space south of the old Pier 17 mall. Also met with no resistance were proposals to create view corridors down the East River Esplanade and to place way-finding signs around the area.

Hughes' design also includes pavilions in the admittedly "unsafe, unappealing and unacceptable" space under the FDR Drive, as well as the installation of lighting on the underside of the FDR Drive. The full board upheld the committee vote that that pavilions and lighting could happen, but that the design needs a significant overhaul.

The proposal also calls for a new building on Pier 16, which South Street Seaport Museum interim president Captain Jonathan Boulware said would be used for ticketing for the tall ships. The board could not support the building until a "solid design" is presented, along with the actual plan for the South Street Seaport Museum's future. Boulware said the museum is in the midst of a feasibility study to determine its future needs.

Speaking of that, the proposal calls for a new building on the vacant John Street corner of historic Schermerhorn Row, which Boulware has called New York City's "first world trade center." Hughes wants to use the row for affordable housing. While Hughes' Chris Curry has repeatedly stated that he would not evict the museum from its current space on the row, and Boulware says he expects to stay there, the board did not support the proposal. Members disapproved of both the idea for affordable housing in existing buildings and the design for the new building. Further, it called on the Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate Schermerhorn Row an interior landmark. The buildings are all individual landmarks, but that means the LPC can only govern what happens to their exteriors. Interior changes are currently permitted.

While not on the list of bullet points for the LPC to consider, the Hughes plan calls for an extension of Fulton and Beekman streets to wrap around in between the new Tin Building and the new Pier 17 mall building. The board reiterated its objection to that.

The board also reiterated its call for the LPC to extend the South Street Seaport Historic District to match the boundaries of the state and federal districts. The latter designations recognize historical significance, but don't protect areas within their jurisdiction from development or redevelopment—while the city designation does. The extension would include the site of the New Market Building, which is where the highly contentious proposed 494-foot-tall tower would be placed.

Finally—if you're still with us—the board agreed with elected officials that the it doesn't make sense for Landmarks to weigh in on the Hughes plan now, before it goes through the city's public review process, called ULURP. They are on board with Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer (who spoke last night) and City Councilwoman Margaret Chin, who wrote a joint letter to the LPC. It asks that—aside from Pier 17, which is already under construction—the rest of the plan should only be considered and decided upon when a final master plan for it has gone through ULURP.

"What makes this application particularly challenging to evaluate is the fact that a number of the application parts relate to a Uniform Land Use Reform Process (ULURP) application that has not yet been scoped, submitted and certified. Because of this, the community is being asked to evaluate elements that have not yet been decided upon with any degree of certainty or finality; negotiations throughout ULURP will presumably result in significant changes to the project that will have real implications for anything reviewed by LPC," the letter said. "We therefore feel it is premature to consider many of the parts of this landmarks application until a broader project plan has been certified and ask that you consider only those parts of the application that are not contingent on factors likely to change."

"We recognize the desire by the applicant to move quickly through necessary city approvals," the letter said. "However, we feel strongly that we and the public do not have adequate information with which to evaluate these precipitous applications to the Landmarks Commission." Hughes' proposal next goes before the Landmarks Preservation Commission, but it's not yet included on any agenda.

The more than three-hour-long meeting included public comment. About a dozen people who rose to speak against the Hughes proposal and about 20 rose to speak in support of it.

Where does all of this leave the South Street Seaport? It's hard to say for sure. Pier 17 construction is underway. And it could end up with that roof canopy. In fact, everything that Hughes has proposed could happen. While community board resolutions are considered by the LPC, they are not binding dictates; the LPC can disregard them as its commissioners see fit. Regardless of how the LPC votes on the Hughes application, a ULURP application for the redevelopment beyond Pier 17 is still many months away.
—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.
· All South Street Seaport coverage [Curbed]
· All Landmarks Preservation coverage [Curbed]

South Street Seaport Museum

12 Fulton Street, Manhattan, NY 10038 (212) 748-8600 Visit Website

Pier 17

89 South Street, Manhattan, NY 10038 Visit Website