Proposed Seaport skyrise meets resistance

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A 495-foot hotel would diminish the tall ships and history of South Street Seaport, say opponents

Throughout history, the balance between preserving the past and paving for the future has been a constant challenge.

Some in the community worry that a proposed 495-foot waterfront hotel tower, as seen in this rendering from General Growth Properties, would overshadow the tall ships that once dominated the South Street Seaport.

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>> Click here to read the full South Street Seaport Historic District Designation Report from 1977.

The South Street Seaport community in New York City was first faced with that challenge when General Growth Properties unveiled a proposal last summer to renovate the seaport with various new buildings, including a 495-foot waterfront hotel tower that will overshadow the six historic tall ships at the neighboring South Street Seaport Museum; their masts top out at 170 feet.

“These lofty spars were the tallest things in town in the age of sail,” says Peter Stanford, 82 and founder of the museum in an e-mail to Soundings. “As green grass and trees are vital to Central Park, ships and the sea are vital to the seaport and should surely come first in considering any new development.”

GGP plans to partner with the City of New York to renew the seaport and the associated Pier 17 by reconnecting them physically and aesthetically to the city. The goal of the revitalization project is to maximize the potential of the area, says GGP spokesman Benjamin Brenham.

In addition to the hotel tower, improvements include the razing of the existing Pier 17 mall originally built in the 1980s, and the addition of 400,000 square feet of retail space, 175,000 square feet of residential space, 32,000 square feet of community space, and 280,000 square feet of hotel space. Brenham says most of that space is already available and the changes would have minimal impact to surrounding structures while adding more waterfront access.

“It’s more about reconfiguring the layout than taking buildings down,” says Brenham. “For instance, our new design includes adding five acres of waterfront access.”

The six tall ships at the museum are the largest fleet of privately maintained historic vessels. Built from 1885 to 1932, they represent a type of craft that would have dominated New York Harbor in the 19th and early 20th century. Stanford says while both the museum and the ships need some much-needed TLC, it should be up to the community to rise together and make that happen.

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“Under this proposal by GGP, the museum will become a tenant to them,” says Stanford. “Those ships are at the heart of the Seaport story, and the shoreside buildings, going back 200 years, were erected to serve the comings and goings of the tall wind-driven ships, which built a city from the sea.”

GGP began meeting with the community boards for South Street Seaport last summer. In late October, the boards collectively issued a nonbinding resolution supporting the development to the City of New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. However, members of the commission expressed concerns with the project at a meeting held in November, saying the size and scale of the new buildings were inconsistent with the character and history of the site, according to Elisabeth de Bourbon, director of communications.

“Our buildings in the historic district are low-rise with a brick face, built in the mid-19th century,” says de Bourbon. “There was a lot of glass and steel material proposed in the plan that was presented to us.”

Other concerns were the proposed relocation of The Tin Building onto a pier. The 1907 building was once the hub of the Fulton Fish Market, which is now located in the Bronx.

“It is such a historically important part of the historic district,” says de Bourbon. “We want to make sure whatever is done as part of the project [stays] in keeping with the existing structures.”

Brenham says GGP and the commission are in discussions at this time to refine the plan to fit the needs of the district. While there is no set timeline for the project at this point, the company hopes to see completion by 2014.

“At any point when there is a new development of this scale made in a historic district like this, we want to make sure the citizens are informed and know we take this process seriously,” says Brenham. “We are grateful for the attention and thoughtful dialogue the community has shown.”

Group members from an as-yet-unnamed grassroots organization representing the public interest for South Street are reaching out to local officials, residents of the area, historians and founders of the South Street Seaport Museum. The group hopes to halt the project and find alternatives to update the seaport, but still be in step with its rich history.

For information on the ships of the South Street Seaport Museum, visit

www.southstreetseaportmuseum.org.

This story originally appeared in the March 2009 issue.