An environmental lawyer for Save Our Seaport and the City Club of New York recently sent a cease-and-desist letter to the city’s Economic Development Corporation following indications that the agency was preparing to demolish portions of the Tin and New Market buildings on the South Street Seaport.
The letter, dated May 13, was sent the same day Our Town Downtown published a story about the EDC’s plans: the dismantlement of the rear “cooler areas” on both buildings. The agency said these areas, which stored fish when the Seaport was an active market, are supported by deteriorating pilings and in danger of imminent collapse. The EDC said they assessed the site in April and that the demolition, characterized as emergency work, should begin in July or August.
Michael Gerrard, a lawyer with Arnold and Porter LLP, said the letter was sent while there was still some confusion over what exactly the EDC planned to do.
“At the time we wrote this, there was ambiguity,” he said.
Rumors swirled earlier this month after local residents noticed jersey barriers being pushed back and other activity on the Seaport, including the relocation of a bike lane. One resident said parking attendants on South Street had heard that the New Market Building was set to be demolished.
The preservation apparatus at the Seaport, led mainly by Save Our Seaport and other groups fighting a comprehensive redevelopment plan by the Howard Hughes Corporation, kicked into gear. The developer wants to build a 494-foot luxury residential tower on a swath of land occupied by the New Market Building.
Bringing down the New Market Building would essentially remove a rallying point for those opposed to the tower, which is the most contentious piece of Howard Hughes’ proposal.
The letter claims the demolition would be in violation of city and state environmental review laws that require all components of a proposed project to be looked at collectively during an environmental impact review. Separating them is known as “segmentation” in development parlance, and is not permissible.
In the letter, Gerrard wrote that because Howard Hughes’ development project would require the demolition of the building, “any effort to demolish the New Market Building now constitutes an impermissible segmentation of the [state and city] review process, and an attempt to segregate the demolition of the New Market Building from the proposal to replace it without undergoing the full environmental review that the entire [Howard Hughes project] requires.”
Save Our Seaport and the City Club of New York will be revaluating their position now that EDC’s plan concerning the cooler areas is known, said Gerrard, who used freedom of information laws to request the engineering report that serves as the basis for demolishing the cooler areas.
“We want to take a look at the engineering reports, and we’re going to withhold judgement until we see them,” he said. “We certainly do not want to stand in the way of anything that is necessary to protect public safety.”
But EDC did not rule out fully demolishing the Tin and New Market buildings after removing the cooler areas this summer.
“The demolition of the cooler area is a first step and will allow EDC and the other agencies to more fully evaluate the remaining portions of the structure and determine if additional measures are needed, which may include full or partial demolition,” said an EDC spokesperson on May 13.
Gerrard said he has not yet received a response from the EDC. An EDC spokesperson said the agency had received the letter and that it is “under review.”
Opponents of Howard Hughes’ plan are uncomfortable with how the EDC has allowed the Tin and New Market buildings to fall so far into disrepair that their dismatlement is necessary. The EDC, as stewards of the South Street Seaport Historic District, is responsible for maintaining historic sites regardless of future development plans, they say.
“It’s primarily that we see demolition as a prerequisite to construction,” said Gerrard. “The City Club and Save Our Seaport are extremely concerned about Howard Hughes’ plan, and want to make sure it undergoes a full environmental land-use review. We want to make sure nothing happens prematurely without that review.”
The New Market Building falls just outside the city’s historic district but is considered a historic site by state and federal agencies. The Tin Building is included within the South Street Seaport Historic District. Changes to either site, including Howard Hughes’ redevelopment proposal, are subject to state and city environmental review, as well as the city’s public review known as ULURP. Howard Hughes holds a 60-year lease on the Seaport with the EDC and has already received approval to develop Pier 17 into a shopping and dining destination.
Gerrard said emergency work, such as demolition of the cooler areas behind the Tin and New Market buildings, is not subject to public review.
On May 20, Save Our Seaport sent a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio on behalf of eight community groups criticizing the city’s partnership with Howard Hughes as it relates to preservation of the Seaport. The letter cited “an egregious absence of transparency and public review of the plans for the Seaport.”
“Stewardship is being entrusted to a developer who has not adequately demonstrated capacity, experience or desire to create a sustainable plan linking the interests of preservation to the economic vitality of the area,” the letter reads. “Plans for a skyscraper in the heart of the district will irreparably compromise the integrity of this treasure.”
The letter was sent on behalf of Save Our Seaport, the City Club of New York, Friends of South Street Seaport, Historic Districts Council, Community Board 1, Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, The New York Landmarks Conservancy and Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, and claimed to represent thousands of New Yorkers concerned about Howard Hughes’ plan.
The organizations urged the de Blasio administration to pause all activity at the Seaport and provide “material insights” into Howard Hughes’ full plans for the Seaport, the current status of all ownership and leases on Seaport buildings and sites, and rationale for continuing the South Street Seaport Museum’s dependency on developer revenue instead of funding from the city.
It concluded by saying, “Past developers have not delivered promised revenues or district-wide revitalization. We fear that the current absence of comprehensive planning allows development to head in the wrong direction again and squanders the potential of this remarkable resource. We demand an opportunity to get this right.”