The Landmarks Preservation Commission is facing litigation that claims it violated the city’s Landmarks Law when it approved a 324-foot tower in the Seaport Historic District earlier this month – becoming the latest development in a long struggle between neighborhood preservationists and the Howard Hughes Corporation, who are developing the site at 250 Water Street.
The Seaport Coalition, a grassroots organization comprised of community groups such as Save Our Seaport and Children First, filed a lawsuit Monday against the LPC, challenging the commission’s decision to grant the project a certification of appropriateness, noting that the proposed building is 200 feet taller than what’s allowed under the district’s zoning law.
“The Coalition believes that the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) ignored its mandate May 4th when it found this zone-busting building ‘appropriate’ in the Historic District, despite being more than three times the height of any existing building in the district,” the group said in a statement Monday, adding that the project was “grossly inappropriate” for the district. The coalition has hired land-use attorney Michael S. Gruen, who in the past served as a chair of the Historic Districts Council and as president of the City Club of New York, to head up the lawsuit.
The project has bitterly divided the community since the original design was introduced in November of last year. The coalition has maintained that the project is out of context with the rest of the district, which is made up low-rise brick buildings, and has expressed skepticism over HHC’s decision to tie the approval of the 250 Water Street project with a monetary gift of up to $50 million to the struggling South Street Seaport Museum. Supporters of the project believe HHC will hold true to its pledge to the museum, allowing them to open for the first time since Hurricane Sandy, and are pleased that the project promises badly-needed affordable housing for the neighborhood.
The LPC made their 6-2 ruling in favor of HHC earlier this month after three presentations given to the commission. Height and bulk of the proposed designs had been the primary concern at each previous meeting, but the LPC found the final design “appropriate” – the standard by which the commission judges a project in a historic district. In determining appropriateness, the LPC typically considers whether the aesthetic, architecture, materiality, as well as size are consistent with the rest of the district.
And while size is a considered factor, LPC Chair Sarah Carroll said several times throughout the hours of public hearings that she believes the Landmarks Law does not prevent a developer from building something taller than what’s currently in the district.
In the suit, the coalition made several claims in hopes of discrediting the LPC’s decision. They argue that the LPC failed to establish that plan is appropriate and consistent to the historic district and that the commission did not follow its own past precedent. In the past, the LPC has rejected proposals for 250 Water Street based on height of the projects, some of which were not as tall as the HHC design.
The coalition also alleged that the LPC illegally considered factors outside of its mandate in making its decision.
“The Developer freely emphasized that it would provide affordable housing and a $50 million grant to the South Street Seaport Museum,” the group stated in the suit. “The Commissioners are not permitted to consider such factors. Yet, it is inevitable that, presented with such prospects, they will in fact factor them into the decision-making process.”
Lastly, the coalition claims that the commissioners were unduly influenced by other city officials, namely Mayor Bill de Blasio. The suit tries to reason that the mayor’s support for affordable housing in general would have been enough to sway the minds of the commissioners in this specific case.
“In this instance, it is not even essential that a direct request would have been made; it would suffice that anybody who reads the news or receives it on radio or television knows that Mayor de Blasio is a strong proponent of what is called affordable housing and has committed to provide it in quantities that may not be realistic,” the suit reads. “Thus, it is virtually inevitable that Landmarks Commissioners will pay a great deal of attention to the concern that taking a position contrary to the Mayor’s is extremely risky if one values holding the position.”
When asked for comment, spokesperson for the LPC said the commission could not speak on pending litigation.
A spokesperson for HHC called the lawsuit a stunt.
“We are confident the Commission’s decision to approve this project was made in full accordance with the Landmark Law and that the court will dismiss this deeply out of touch lawsuit, which is nothing more than a desperate stunt on behalf of a handful of project opponents, many of whom are more worried about protecting their views than historic preservation - and some who even think a large tow pound is appropriate for the site in order to protect their views,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
Also on Monday, the city planning commission certified HHC’s application, and thus initiating the Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP), which is required when a developer is seeking exceptions to build outside of the zoning law. It’s not yet clear if the coalition’s suit will hinder the project’s progression through ULRUP.