Howard Hughes Starts Landmark Approval Process
Developer meets with community to discuss plans for Seaport Historic District
Financial District Last week, Community Board 1 held the first of two meetings to discuss the historical implications of a plan by the Howard Hughes Corporation to redevelop the South Street Seaport. Several members objected to the company’s vision while many in the community came out in support of it.
CB 1 will meet again on Jan. 5 to discuss and issue a resolution on Howard Hughes’ plan, after which the proposal will go before the Landmarks Preservation Commission for consideration.
The most controversial piece of the project is a 500-foot luxury tower that Howard Hughes wants to build on Pier 17. But that topic was off agenda, according to CB 1 chair Catherine McVay Hughes, because the site of the proposed tower falls outside of the South Street Seaport Historic District.
The company has maintained since last November, when they announced their Seaport plans, that revenue generated by the tower will pay for everything else they want to do on the Seaport.
Howard Hughes plans to build a middle school into their luxury tower, and offer 70 units of affordable housing on Schermerhorn Row. They also want to establish a green market, build a five-story building on John Street, save the ailing Seaport Museum, construct a public esplanade, and restore and relocate out of the flood plain the landmark Tin Building. (It’s unclear what purpose the John Street building would serve).
Most in the community don’t object to the $300 million public benefit investment Howard Hughes wants to make, but rather take issue with what those initiatives bring with them: a 150-unit luxury tower on the south side of the Brooklyn Bridge. That piece of the proposal, said Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, is akin to “building a tower at colonial Williamsburg.”
“When I look at this, I really get the feeling of Las Vegas,” said Paul Hovitz, a member of CB 1’s Seaport Committee. “I don’t get a lot of feeling of the old Seaport.”
Fellow Seaport Committee member Una Perkins agreed.
“To me it seems as though you want to build a whole different city,” she said. “It’s not indicative of the Seaport as far as I’m concerned.”
But Hovitz and Perkins were offering commentary based on a rendering that had elements either not under CB 1’s purview concerning landmarks (the luxury tower), or that have already been approved (the glass-encased shopping and dining structure on Pier 17 that already passed the city’s review process).
The exchange illustrated how fraught the discussion surrounding the future of the Seaport is, and how inextricably tied the luxury tower and the rest of Pier 17 is to the historic district that Howard Hughes wants to redevelop for public use. CB 1’s meeting made clear, based on the number of times the off-agenda tower came up in comments both by board members and those presenting Howard Hughes’ proposal, that it’s unrealistic to discuss one without discussing the other.
Support in the community for the plan was organized by a pro-Howard Hughes group called Friends of the Seaport, who distributed t-shirts in favor of the proposal to union members or those who live in the community and support the plan – as well as anyone who wanted to partake in the free food and drink they were offering after the meeting.
“There are certainly people here who have been given inducements,” said Michael Kramer, a member of both the pro-preservation group Save Our Seaport and the Seaport Working Group, a coalition of local elected officials and community stakeholders that was organized to work with Howard Hughes on their proposal.
Two people approached by Our Town Downtown who were wearing the pro-Howard Hughes t-shirt said they work in the Seaport. When asked why they were attending the meeting, one woman simply said, “Because we support good design.”
There was real support for the plan among the 80-plus people and groups that testified, including many who were sporting the shirts. They pointed out that the Seaport is derelict and only getting worse, and that the city seems unwilling or unable to rehabilitate it. Pier 17 is crumbling into the East River and the area is dark and foreboding at night, teeming with rats, they said. The schools in that area of Lower Manhattan are overcrowded and a new middle school is sorely needed.
Leadership at the Seaport Museum have admitted during past community meetings that they’re in dire straits financially, and will have issues maintaining programming and their fleet of historic tall ships.
Howard Hughes, said supporters, has a solution to all of these problems.
“There’s still work to be done, but we’ve been encouraged by Howard Hughes’ recent efforts to engage and invigorate our community, particularly the return of a food market,” said Whitney Barrett, a member of the Old Seaport Alliance. “We’re happy about their commitment to the Seaport Museum and its ships. We look forward to continuing to work with Howard Hughes, the [NYC Economic Development Corporation] and other city agencies, as well as our community board, residential stakeholders and our elected officials, on a plan that both respects our unique neighborhood and assets while looking forward to years ahead.”
The plan’s ultimate fate will likely be determined during the Uniform Land Use Review Process, in which Howard Hughes formally presents their proposal to the city’s planning commission while the public and borough president get to weigh in.
And to a certain degree, the Seaport Working Group - of which Brewer, Council Member Margaret Chin, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver are members – and Howard Hughes seem to have diverged on their respective visions.
The group issued a set of guidelines after Howard Hughes initially proposed last year a 600-foot luxury tower on the site of the defunct New Market Building on Pier 17. One of the major tenets in their guidelines was that “alternatives to the proposed 50-story tower should be sought and any building on the New Market site should be contextual with the buildings within the South Street Historic District.”
Despite that guideline, the company seems to have doubled down on their Pier 17 tower idea. This past November they revealed a revised tower plan that was just 10 stories shorter on the same site, prompting some in the Seaport Working Group to feel as if their time and energy were wasted.
“Unfortunately, it’s clear that the Howard Hughes Corporation has not fully considered all of the guidelines put forth by the Seaport Working Group,” said Chin last month after Howard Hughes’ new proposal was unveiled. “I can’t support the proposed tower in its current form, and I can’t support the development proposal overall in its current form.”
A representative of Chin’s office urged members of Community Board 1 to consider alternative sites for the tower at a seaport committee meeting last month. Yet Howard Hughes representatives, who attended that meeting, have forged ahead with their proposal for the tower on Pier 17.
CB 1 will meet again on Jan. 5 to discuss and issue a resolution on Howard Hughes’ proposal to redevelop the South Street Seaport Historic District. Afterward the proposal will be heard by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, followed by the initiation of the planning commission’s review process.
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