Hughes’ Seaport Proposal



What color would you like for the Tin Building? Would you prefer bricks or terra cotta for a building on the John Street lot? What about a translucent canopy for the Pier 17 roof? Would that be OK or would it, in effect, turn a public space into a private space for mega-events?

These were the kinds of questions with which Community Board 1’s Landmarks Committee wrestled at its meeting on Jan. 5 to discuss and pass a draft resolution on The Howard Hughes Corporation’s proposals for South Street Seaport development as they affect the landmarked parts of the Seaport.

The news after more than two hours of discussion was that the committee did its duty by considering the minutiae in that Howard Hughes proposal and then undercut all that it had previously said with a few slashing strokes that came at the end of the resolution and at the end of the evening.

The major issues will be further discussed and undoubtedly amended at CB1’s full board meeting on Jan. 26. After that, a resolution will go to the City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, which has the final jurisdiction over landmarks-related South Street Seaport issues. In the meantime, the draft resolution passed by CB1’s Landmarks Committee on Jan. 5 may be regarded, in many respects, as a placeholder.

CB1 chair Catherine McVay Hughes chatting with Chris Curry, senior executive vice president of The Howard Hughes Corporation, before the start of CB1’s Landmarks Committee meeting on Jan. 5. With Curry was one of HHC’s lobbyists, Julie Greenberg, (with back to camera). CB1 Landmarks Committee chair, Roger Byrom, was not present for the Monday meeting, and his input is key. In his absence, Landmarks Committee co-chairman Bruce Ehrmann presided over the meeting along with Community Board 1 chairperson, Catherine McVay Hughes.

The topics on the table were those affecting landmarked parts of the South Street Seaport only, excluding the 494-foot-tall tower that Howard Hughes would like to erect on the present site of the New Market Building.

Nevertheless, that tower got the committee’s attention. The draft resolution opened with a request
to the Landmarks Preservation Commission to extend the South Street Seaport Historic District to be congruent with the Federal Historic District boundaries, which include the area of the proposed tower on the New Market Building site. If the New Market Building were within the City’s Seaport Historic District, the building would be protected and there could be no further discussion about constructing a massive tower on the South Street Seaport waterfront.

The request to extend the South Street Seaport Historic District boundaries is not new. As the resolution stated, Community Board 1 has been trying to get these boundaries extended for the last 15 years.

“We have tried to get this passed through three LPC chairs and two administrations, but have not succeeded in getting this request granted,” said Ehrmann. “It is highly unlikely at this point – at least within normal processes – that this will occur.”

But the committee had to ask.

The rest of the evening unspooled a series of pronouncements on the patchwork quilt of proposals that Howard Hughes had laid in front of the committee. The group approved the HHC plan to dismantle and move the landmarked Tin Building, but nixed a proposal to add an additional floor to the structure.

A canopy made of ethylene tetrafluoroethylene, (ETFE), a clear plastic, was approved for the roof of Pier 17, presumably to make the roof usable in all seasons, although its perch high above the East River, open on all sides to wind and weather, might make some of that use problematic. Some CB1 members opposed to the canopy said that they feared that its true purpose was as a rack from which to hang loudspeakers for mega-events that could, if Howard Hughes has its way, draw thousands of fans to Pier 17.

A proposal to dispatch the unattractive Link Building was approved without comment. Not so a small canopy linking the Tin Building and Pier 17 – designed to keep precipitation off the heads of pedestrians. This proposal was not considered “appropriate or contextual” in Bruce Ehrmann’s words. Said the draft resolution, it further removes “the sense of place and grittiness of the Historic District.”

Opponents of the Howard Hughes proposals have said that the little canopy was not the only thing removing the “sense of place and grittiness of the Historic District.” At Community Board 1’s Dec. 10 Landmarks Committee meeting, CB1 member Paul Hovitz famously remarked that the Howard Hughes proposals, including the glass pavilions and tubular lighting suggested by HHC for placement under the FDR Drive, reminded him of Las Vegas.

The draft resolution commented warmly on the idea of pavilions and lighting, but said they needed further work “to develop a more integrated solution.”

The proposal to create view corridors down the East River Esplanade “is appreciated in the application and much welcomed,” said the draft resolution.

At that point, the draft resolution devolved into something resembling dyspepsia. HHC’s proposal to extend Beekman and Fulton Streets to the piers will “introduce disruptive and dangerous vehicular traffic, undermine the historic character of the district and directly contradict the pedestrianization goals of the Seaport Working Group, ” said the draft resolution.

Opponents of that proposed street extension have said that its real and primary purpose would be to serve occupants of the Howard Hughes waterfront tower, should it be built. In any case, CB1’s Landmarks Committee was not a fan.

Then there was the matter of the South Street Seaport Museum and what space it might occupy and of Schermerhorn Row, and how it might be utilized. Howard Hughes has proposed turning 202-year-old Schermerhorn Row into affordable housing, while building a little pavilion for the South Street Seaport Museum on Pier 16, next to its historic ships.

Chris Curry and Jonathan Boulware
Jonathan Boulware, interim president of the South Street Seaport Museum, was invited to come to the front of the room so the committee could ask him some questions.

“I know it’s a placeholder,” said Catherine McVay Hughes to Boulware, referring to the Pier 16 pavilion, “but there is no way that the museum would move out onto the pier into that small space?”

Boulware paused slightly before answering, perhaps because he was stunned by the question. “I’m not sure how to respond to that with sufficient enthusiasm,” he said, eliciting laughter from the audience. “Absolutely not. We would fail to perform our essential function if we were situated only on Pier 16. Without the marriage of a square-rigged ship and the spaces on Schermerhorn Row, we would not be the South Street Seaport Museum.” The audience applauded.

Ehrmann said of the proposed pavilion on Pier 16, “We’re not here to judge placeholders that have no architectural presentation.”

The draft resolution deplored the fact that remnants of old, 19th-century hotels, currently extant within Schermerhorn Row and part of the South Street Seaport Museum, never received interior historic designation, which would have protected them.

Curry interjected that “the hotel space within Schermerhorn Row – we’ve always had earmarked for the museum.” He said that Howard Hughes was waiting for the museum to finish its current feasibility study “so they can tell us what they need on Schermerhorn Row.”

This remark seems to place Howard Hughes in the driver’s seat as the arbiter of the South Street Seaport Museum’s fate – and also of the fate of Schermerhorn Row. For many reasons, its suitability for affordable housing is questionable, and for additional reasons, undesirable.

It is, itself, a historic artifact, rescued from decay and demolition with millions of dollars in public funds. It contains historic artifacts in addition to the old hotels – walls covered with 19th-century graffiti, centuries-old industrial machinery, fire-charred ceiling beams and handmade bricks, the remnants of old fire doors, the tracery of staircases, long disappeared and other testaments to its colorful history as New York City’s first World Trade Center.

If Howard Hughes gets its way and transforms Schermerhorn Row into affordable housing, all of this history would be lost to the public.

While throwing The Howard Hughes Corporation some bones, on its last page, the draft resolution finally got down to some verbiage that cannot have made HHC execs too happy. That tower cropped up again.

Be it further resolved, said the resolution, “Community Board 1 is committed to work with the applicant to ensure the survival of the sense of place of the Historic District and the surrounding area, including the iconic views of one of the most important individual landmarks in the world, the Brooklyn Bridge.”  (Translation: No tower blocking those views.)

Next: “Community Board 1 again appeals to the Landmarks Preservation Commission to provide leadership and support the community in this process by immediately calendaring the extension of the New York City South Street Seaport Historic District to reflect the same boundary as the Federal Historic District to help ensure the sense of place remains within the Historic District and to preserve the vitally important link between the Historic District and the iconic Brooklyn Bridge Individual New York City and Federal Landmark.” (As Bruce Ehrmann remarked, Howard Hughes probably doesn’t have to worry too much about this, but you never know.)

Finally, said the draft resolution, “Community Board 1 does not support the segmentation of the proposed plan and appeals to Landmarks Preservation Commission, the City Planning Commission, the Economic Development Corporation, all elected officials and the Mayor to require the postponement of any further consideration of the application until the entire plan is resolved in accordance with the Seaport Working Group guidelines (attached).”

And that was the zinger – the really important clause that will undoubtedly be discussed further on Jan. 26 at Community Board 1’s full board meeting, and if passed by the full board, would place The Howard Hughes Corporation on formal notice that without a master plan that conforms to Seaport Working Group guidelines, there is no deal that Community Board 1 can support.


Therese Loeb Kreuzer, Editor

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