The South Street Seaport has been added to the list of “America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
In adding the Seaport to its annual list, the trust cited “development” as the primary threat facing the district.
“While the Seaport is a locally designated historic district, and is separately listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it is currently under threat due to a series of development proposals that would disrupt the look, feel and low-scale historic character of the Seaport,” said the trust in declaring it endangered.
Since late 2013, the Howard Hughes Corp., which has a 60-year lease on the Seaport with the city’s Economic Development Corporation, has been pushing a development proposal that includes a residential high-rise at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. Local elected officials and preservationist groups have criticized the plan as being out of sync with the low-scale, 19th century buildings that define the district.
In a separate development proposal, Howard Hughes has begun construction to turn Pier 17 into a shopping and dining destination.
City officials have said the Seaport is in need of extensive repair. As first reported in Our Town Downtown, workers have begun demolishing the cooler areas behind the New Market and Tin buildings as officials with the EDC said they’re in danger of “imminent collapse.”
Howard Hughes contends that the luxury tower it wants to build on the site of the New Market Building will pay for the $300 million in community benefits it’s also offering, which will include rehabilitating the piers and certain buildings, saving the financially ailing Seaport Museum, creating 70 units of affordable housing and building a new school.
Yet pushback from the community on the tower proposal, including from the local community board and elected officials, led Howard Hughes last year to downsize the tower proposal from 50 stories to 43. That proposal was also rejected by the community. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Councilmember Margaret Chin, along with several preservation groups, maintained that any tower in the district would disrupt its character and ruin the Seaport, and urged Howard Hughes to find a site outside of the Seaport for their tower proposal.
Despite that criticism, late last year Howard Hughes forged ahead with the landmarks review process for much of what it wants to do on the Seaport. (Because the New Market Building is not part of the Seaport Historic District, the Landmarks Preservation Commission does not have review authority over the developer’s tower proposal.)
But a recent announcement by Chris Curry, Howard Hughes’ senior vice president of development, indicated that the company is beginning to bend on its tower proposal. “In response to community concerns, we are exploring a significant reduction to the height of the proposed building on the New Market site,” said Curry in a statement. “As we’ve stated from the beginning of this process, our long-term vision for the seaport celebrates the area’s rich history by creating a vibrant Seaport District while also preserving its historic fabric and architecture, puts the South Street Seaport Museum on sound financial footing and reestablishes New York’s cherished connection to the working waterfront.”
A spokesperson for Howard Hughes declined to comment on whether the National Trust’s decision to declare the Seaport endangered due to development would have any impact on the developer’s new proposal.
Brewer applauded the Seaport Historic District’s inclusion on the National Trust’s endangered historic places list.
“The National Trust’s designation only confirms what we in Manhattan already know: the Seaport area is at risk - and very much worth preserving,” said Brewer in a statement.
Brewer credited the Seaport as sparking New York City’s economic development, and said the neighborhood should be enhanced for current New Yorkers while maintaining its link to the past for future generations.
“To dominate the area with a tower is the wrong choice, and I’m glad that the Howard Hughes Corporation is drafting a new proposal,” said Brewer.
Victor Papa, president of the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, who is also spearheading a new conservancy-type organization for the East River waterfront called the South Street Initiative, indicated it was the community’s effort that led to the Seaport being named as endangered by the National Trust.
“Without a doubt, this is the result of a larger collaborative effort, involving many of the South Street Initiative’s members and supporters. We are thrilled that our work has achieved national attention,” said Papa in a statement. “More than ever, this accomplishment highlights the urgency of the South Street Initiative and the importance of the South Street Seaport to the neighborhood-at-large. The potential for equitable infrastructural and economic development, as it relates to the preservation of this precious landmark, must not be wasted in disservice to the residents, businesses, and stakeholders of the Lower Manhattan East River Waterfront.”