Last week, the Landmarks Preservation Commission once again declined to take action on a divisive proposal from the Howard Hughes Corporation for a pair of projects in the South Street Seaport Historic District – though, based on discussion among the commission, the applications could be inching closer to an approval.
HHC’s original proposal in January for 250 Water Street – a pair of towers-on-a-base topping out at 470 feet – proved to be too tall and too bulky for the low-rise district, according to the LPC, which must approve the project before it can move forward. The developer and its design partners at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) came back with a new design that’s done away with the two towers. Instead, HHC is opting for a shorter bar building at 345 feet. The design for the proposed new building for the South Street Seaport Museum at nearby 173-69 John Street has been refined slightly as well.
The revised design of the tower has done little to change the minds of those in the community, however, which was evident during the eight hours of public testimony given at the hearing. Those who oppose the project at 250 Water Street – including the Seaport Coalition, Community Board 1 and Assembly Member Yuh-Line Niou – still oppose the project, and those who support it – including the district’s City Council Member Margaret Chin, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and the board of the South Street Seaport museum – still support it. (Though, the revision did win over New York Landmarks Conservancy.)
No new arguments were made over the course of the public hearing, either. Opponents remain convinced that 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. 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, haven’t wavered in their belief 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 badly-needed affordable housing, more business and prosperity while making use of a parcel that currently functions as a parking lot and many feel is a blight to the community.
While all of the discourse remained the same, the view of the commission seemed to move slightly more in favor of HHC’s revised plan. Several commissioners said with this new revision, the project is heading in the right direction and praised HHC and SOM for taking their feedback and applying it to the new design. In particular, the commissioners like that new design shifted the bulk of the tower toward Pearl Street, where more modern buildings start to make up the cityscape.
Chair Sarah Carroll spoke favorably of the new design, and said she believed a tall building could be built on this site as long as it fits into the character of the district in other ways.
“For 250 Water Street, with a site this big, given it’s a site on the edge of the district, across the street from tall buildings, a tall building can be appropriate here,” said Carroll. “Construction on this site represents a real opportunity to restore the street wall and construct something that supports the fabric of the historic district.”
Carroll, and others who said they were keeping an open mind in regards to how tall a building could be built here, said they did think that the base upon which the tower sits needed to be reduced in height so that it would more resemble the surrounding low-rise historical buildings.
Two commissioners said they were outright opposed to approving any project significantly taller than what is allowed by the district’s zoning law – something around 120 feet.
“Scale can vary in a historic district, but not in this one,” said Commissioner John Gustafsson. “Scale can vary in a historic district, but not when it’s one of its defining elements.”
Commissioner Michael Goldblum felt similarly, adding that he, like others who spoke during the hearing, did not like that the museum has been linked with the 250 Water Street project.
“Tying the life of the Seaport museum to this application is deeply unfair. It’s a devil’s bargain,” said Goldblum. “It’s awful to me that the museum is in such dire straits, and the museum’s fate should not depend on the LPC’s approval of an inappropriate proposal.”
Following the commissioner’s discussion, Carroll said the LPC would not take action, but felt there was enough of an openness among the commissioners that HHC could take their guidance and make refinements.
Following the public hearing, a spokesperson for HHC did not respond directly to a question of how the developer plans to move forward, but said they appreciated the LPC’s feedback.
“As the neighborhood and the city focus on post-pandemic recovery, we have a unique opportunity to transform a parking lot with no historic value into a nearly billion-dollar investment that supports the long-term viability of the Museum and creates Lower Manhattan’s most significant affordable housing in decades,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “We appreciate the Commission’s thoughtful consideration, along with the broad support we received yesterday from an array of community members, preservationists, elected officials, architects, local business owners and many more who believe the Seaport’s best days are ahead of us, and that this project will play a vital role in its recovery.”