As part of an integrated plan to redevelop several sites in the South Street Seaport, the Howard Hughes Corporation aims to build an up to 990-foot tower on a contested lot that could bring hundreds of new apartments to the neighborhood’s historic district.
The mixed-use building would rise on the edge of the historically low-slung patch of Lower Manhattan under a scenario that would transfer more than 700,000 unused development rights, many from three high-profile properties, to alter the zoning at 250 Water Street, which is currently a parking lot that sits above the toxic remnants of a 19th-century thermometer factory, according to the urban planning firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) tasked with developing a master plan for the Seaport.
The current zoning for the Water Street lot caps development in a roughly 10-block historic district at 12 stories. But by modifying the zoning, Howard Hughes seeks to build a red brick podium that’s contextually appropriate with the neighboring Georgian and Federal-style brick buildings, and a tower that would soar above anywhere from 570 to 990 feet depending on how the high-rise is configured on that podium (a dual tower scenario is one of four options that’s being most seriously considered).
The base would feature some office and retail space, while the residential tower would bring between 550 and 700 overall units; it would be the district’s first project to utilize mandatory inclusionary housing—approximately 200 apartments could be set aside as affordable housing under the current proposal. The building would also bring with it a package of upgrades throughout the Seaport area tied to changing the Water Street site’s zoning, said a lead designer on the effort.
“We are trying to look at this to find a holistic solution to the district,” says Chris Cooper, a design partner at SOM, who worked on crafting the Seaport-wide master plan. “[By] moving the air rights upland to 250 Water that becomes the enabler—the economic engine, so to speak—for improvements for the whole district.”
Howard Hughes purchased the Water Street lot—bounded by Peck Slip and Beekman Street to the north and south, and Water and Pearl streets to the east and west—from Milstein Properties in 2018 for $180 million. But the developer also controls a sizable chunk of the historic Seaport under a lease with the city, including Pier 17 and the Tin Building. Among them are several hundred thousand of unused development rights, but because Howard Hughes doesn’t own those and the New Market building, it can not unilaterally transfer the rights to 250 Water Street without the city’s consent, according to the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), which is the city steward of the Seaport.
And even if Howard Hughes does manage to strike a deal with NYCEDC, it would still have to complete a series of onerous reviews, such as going to the Landmarks Preservation Commission and completing a lengthy Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) that culminates in a City Council vote. Councilmember Margaret Chin has yet to take a position on development at the site.
NYCEDC spokesperson Christopher Singleton said in a statement that the agency is aware of the proposal, and stresses that Howard Hughes would need to go through “a competitive, public procurement, as well as multiple land use approval processes” before securing its plans. Singleton would not say if NYCEDC is open to the idea, instead he noted that that agency will look to community input to help inform the area’s future.
“As stewards of the Historic South Street Seaport, we take the community’s priorities seriously and look forward to engaging further with local stakeholders on how to best equip the neighborhood for the future,” Singleton’s statement continued.
As part of its master plan, Howard Hughes says it would commit to making several Seaport improvements along with the zoning change that it calls “priority designated improvements.” Among those upgrades would include a new six-story, 30,000 square-foot building at John and South streets for the South Street Seaport Museum, which is still recovering from Hurricane Sandy, and a 75,000 square-foot, low-rise New Market building near Pier 17. (Howard Hughes tried to erect a 50-story tower there in 2013, but the plan fell apart after fierce community push back).
The new master plan also signals a move away from building high directly on the waterfront—the New Market Building is adjacent to the East River—and shifting that bulk inland a couple of blocks. It’s worth noting that the entire Seaport, which was devastated by Sandy, is in a flood zone. Cooper says the new buildings would “add to a more resilient Lower Manhattan” by including measures to flood proof the ground floors and moving electrical and other critical systems to higher levels. Currently, the Seaport waterfront is being studied for shoreline expansion as much as 500 feet into the East River as part of the city’s Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency project.
“Instead of just having those unused development rights sitting on the waterfront, we want to think about, ‘Is there a way to transfer them to unlock value?,’” says Keith O’Connor, the director of urban design and planning at SOM. “And to use that financial value to help support the rebuilding of a pier [and] the construction of a new building.”
The idea would be for Howard Hughes to deliver those other Seaport projects before a temporary certificate of occupancy could be obtained for the proposed tower at 250 Water Street. A “Seaport improvement fund” would also be created to make a variety of other enhancements throughout the area.
Some residents have staunchly advocated against high-rise development in the Seaport and argue that a tower at 250 Water Street would be the death knell for the neighborhood’s historic district by setting a precedent for major development far beyond the existing zoning. “If we give up the zoning here the remaining 10 blocks are up for grabs,” says Elaine Kennedy, a long-time resident at the Southbridge Towers co-op complex across from the Water Street site and a member of the nonprofit Save Our Seaport. “It’s just unacceptable.”
But while 250 Water Street is in a historic district, it’s also just blocks away from several residential towers and would be far from an uncommon site in Lower Manhattan, Cooper stressed. “A tower in Lower Manhattan is not an oddity,” he said.