The Landmark Preservation Commission declined to take action on the Howard Hughes Corporation’s applications for development in the Seaport this week after commissioners aired concerns regarding the height of the proposed high-rise.
The lack of a decision was a blow to HHC’s plans as it needs the commission to rubber stamp any proposal to build within the South Street Seaport Historic District. The developer will now likely need to go back to the drawing board to come up with a design the LPC deems appropriate for the district, lengthening an already arduous approval process.
The proposal in question includes two separate developments in the seaport: a pair of 470-foot towers consisting of a mix of affordable housing units and market-rate condos at 250 Water Street and a new building for the South Street Seaport Museum at nearby 173-69 John Street. The pairing of these two projects by HHC has been a point of contention for seaport residents, which came to a head the previous week when the public testified in a lengthy public hearing.
Opponents say the developer has created a false choice that the HHC project is the only way to save the long-suffering museum, and they have doubts that the designs for the museum would ever materialize in physical brick and mortar since the $50 million HHC said it would invest in the museum would not necessarily fund constructing the new headquarters – $10 million would be used to renovate the existing building and the rest would be put in an endowment. Plus, they find the proposed high-rise to be too tall and out of context with the low-rise historic district, where zoning rules say buildings cannot rise above 120 feet.
Supporters of the project, however, have faith that HHC will follow through with their plans for the museum, saying the money will allow for the organization to open its doors for the first time since Hurricane Sandy. They also say the project would bring to the neighborhood much-needed housing, more business and prosperity while making use of a parcel that currently functions as a parking lot.
The LPC, though, were instructed not to consider community benefits or issues of zoning in their review of the applications. Chair Sarah Carroll reminded her fellow commissioners that their role is to protect and safeguard the district’s historic aesthetic, stabilize and improve property value, foster civic pride in accomplishments of the past, enhance tourism, improve the city’s economy, and promote the use of historic districts for education, pleasure and welfare of the people of the city.
In the discussion that followed, there seemed to be a clear consensus that while the commissioners were for the most part pleased with the design for the museum, they were not sold on the design for 250 Water Street and had serious concerns regarding the proposed height.
Commissioner Jeanne Lutfy called the museum design a “terrific piece of architecture,” but said she was not impressed with the high-rise.
“SOM is a very talented firm, and I don’t think that that this project is one that measures up to what they could do here,” Lutfy said of SOM Designs, which drew up the plans for both proposals. “I think there’s something very – and I hate to use this word – it’s just almost standardized about how this project looks. And for a project to have such an incredible presence in this streetscape, I feel like they need to they need to take another look at that.”
Lutfy also talked about the importance of preserving the feeling of walking into the seaport from the “dark canyon” of Lower Manhattan.
“When you cross Pearl Street, and you walk into the district, you have a completely different sensation,” said Lutfy. “It’s almost like the weight of the world is being taken off your shoulders. It’s something that when we look at this proposal that we need to keep in mind.”
Commissioner Adi Shamir-Baron said she believed it was important to consider the zoning rules of the district and past precedent, as the LPC did not approve four previous proposals for 250 Water Street that were of significant height before a 2003 zoning rule outlawed high-rise development in the district.
“I’m finding it really difficult to come up with a good reason to depart from their assessments,” said Shamir-Baron of previous LPC decisions. “So I really can’t see or understand what might have us approve such a tall, 400-plus-foot development at this site.”
Open to Development
Several commissioners said that they are open to development at this site, and even open to the prospect of development that’s taller than the existing buildings, but the question would be how much height and how it would be configured.
The Seaport Coalition, which is a grassroots organization made up of various community groups, thanked the LPC for its “no action” decision.
“The Seaport Coalition thanks the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission for their endurance and their thoughtful consideration of last week’s public hearing where we presented 7,000 petition signatories, about 100 speakers and 200 letters in opposition, in nine hours of testimony to defend the neighborhood ‘where New York began,’” the coalition said in a statement.
A HHC spokesperson also in a statement thanked the LPC for the commissioners’ feedback on the company’s proposal. The spokesperson did not directly respond to the question of whether the developer would be open to revising the height of its proposal, but said HHC looks forward to returning to the commission.
“An appropriate building on the site of the parking lot at 250 Water Street can save the Seaport Museum - the soul of the Historic District and reason for its creation - and provide Lower Manhattan’s most significant affordable housing in decades,” said a spokesperson. “Now more than ever, it’s important to continue our efforts to make this $1.4 billion investment in the Historic Seaport, Lower Manhattan and the city.”
It’s not yet clear when HHC will return to present to the LPC, but the developer will need the commission’s approval before moving forward. Additionally, the Economic Development Corporation will review before the proposal ultimately goes through the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure.
“When you ... walk into the district, you have a completely different sensation. It’s almost like the weight of the world is being taken off your shoulders. It’s something that when we look at this proposal that we need to keep in mind.” Commissioner Jeanne Lutfy