Community groups opposed to the Howard Hughes Corp.’s vision for the South Street Seaport accused the developer of exceeding the bounds of a federally issued permit to renovate and reconstruct Pier 17 by driving piles into the East River.
In issuing the permit to the South Street Seaport Limited Partnership (a subsidiary of Howard Hughes) to renovate and reconstruct the pier into an indoor mall, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined that an individual construction permit was not needed. But to make that determination, Friends of South Street Seaport said, the Army relied heavily on a city environmental review ruling issued by the Economic Development Corporation that said the work on Pier 17 would not involve pile driving and would not affect nearby buildings in the South Street Seaport Historic District.
“The major end scope of the work that was already permitted has been greatly expanded,” said Maureen Koetz, an environmental lawyer representing Friends of South Street Seaport, in an interview.
Another central argument of Friends of South Street Seaport, laid out in a recent letter to the Army Corps of Engineers, is that Pier 17 is part of the South Street Seaport Historic District, and any construction on the pier is bound to negatively affect nearby historic buildings that depend on the same infrastructure as the pier.
Koetz said the Pier 17 project, and Howard Hughes’ related proposal to build a 494-foot tower on the site of the New Market Building, which is adjacent to the pier, along with other environmental factors such as traffic flow, air pollution and sight lines, must be considered as a whole and undergo a single, comprehensive environmental review.
“I find it hard to believe that people don’t understand why driving piles on a pier that holds historic property might be a problem,” said Koetz. “All of these things have to be understood and taken together.”
But the Army Corps of Engineers said that their permit process for work on Pier 17 ran independent of any city review, and that their jurisdiction does not extend to buildings on land or nearby historic districts.
“It appears there is confusion regarding the permit that has been issued for the construction at Pier 17,” said Army Corps of Engineer spokesperson Christopher Gardner in a statement. “The permit does authorize the driving of piles. Perhaps the confusion may be in that it authorizes mostly the driving of piles to replace previously existing piles, but to be clear the construction activities that were authorized involve the driving of piles.”
In a subsequent interview, Gardner said, “basically the issuing of this permit is based upon the description of the work they provided us. And in there, there are all sorts of drawings and schematics, which include driving piles.”
In a statement regarding Friends of South Street Seaport’s letter, Chris Currey, senior executive vice president of development for Howard Hughes, said Friends of South Street Seaport is simply wrong on the facts and that the New Market and Tin building are not located on the same integrated piling infrastructure.
“The Howard Hughes Corporation is currently constructing its [Uniform Land Use Review Procedure] approved Pier 17 project and all of its construction activities are being conducted with the necessary permits from the appropriate governmental agencies,” said Curry. “The FOSSS letter is incorrect when it says the Pier 17 Project is co-located on integrated piling infrastructure that supports the Tin Building and the New Market Building. In fact they are not on the same structure and there is not an integrated piling infrastructure. There has been no impact on those structures from the Pier 17 work.”
When notified of the Army’s response, Koetz maintained that a full environmental review and historic preservation consultation should be carried out before construction activity continues. She also said that the group has not yet received a formal response to their letter from the Army Corps of Engineers.
The letter was sent to Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army in the civil works division, and copies were sent to virtually every elected official with interests in Lower Manhattan on the local, state and federal level, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the heads of several city and state agencies.
In the letter, Friends of South Street Seaport claim to represent the concerns of “many and varied community and leadership interests in Lower Manhattan.” But where these community groups see malfeasance, Howard Hughes sees a distraction. A spokesperson for the company said the letter is merely the latest in a series of toothless attempts to prevent Howard Hughes from building on the Seaport. The company has a 60-year lease on the Seaport with the NYC EDC, and has already received the necessary approvals to rebuild Pier 17 into an indoor shopping mall. However, they’re locked in a bitter land use fight with local preservation groups over what to do with the rest of the Seaport.
Howard Hughes says their proposed tower on the New Market Building site will provide the necessary revenue for $300 million in community benefits, which will include a new public school and affordable housing, among other considerations. But that proposal represents the main point of contention in the community, including for elected officials and the local community board, who want the company to consider alternate locations for the tower outside of the Seaport.