Seaport Deal Passes, But Hidden Issues Remain

| 17 Feb 2015 | 04:29

Some are cheering a decision that will keep local businesses at Pier 17 over the summer, but others are cautious to celebrate the benefits By Helaina Hovitz Dallas-based mall developer Howard Hughes Corporation (HHC), along with Council Members Christine Quinn and Margaret Chin, have encouraged the community to celebrate Wednesday's City Council Vote to put through HHC's rezoning plans - but New Yorkers might have reason to be wary. On March 20, the City Council approved the rezoning of the area surrounding the South Street Seaport by the Howard Hughes Corporation. The new deal allows the Seaport's vendors to remain in Pier 17 and in the surrounding areas until October 1st, so that they can make the most out of the summer season. It also "guarantees" that 10,000 sq. feet of the landmarked Tin Building will be delegated as a fresh sustainable food market under HHC's Mixed Use Project for the area, as stated in HHC's letter of intent. However, they don't have to go forward with the Mixed Use Project at all, and there's no guarantee of a market. While for Pier 17, and the businesses in the uplands that have reopened, the vendors' extended stay is a victory, the story still smacks of the classic corporate giant vs. small businesses trope. And now HHC is keeping everyone in the dark about what they're going to do with the area surrounding Pier 17 itself, including Schermerhorn Row, Peck Slip and The Fulton Fish Market area, which includes the landmarked Tin Building and unprotected New Market Building. Out of the City Council hearing came two documents: The re-zoning ULURP, and a Letter of Intent about Pier 17 and the Fish Market. The City Council approved this new deal without knowing exactly what HHC plans to do with it - this means they could turn the whole historic, cobblestoned complex into hotels, condos, and upscale chain stores, taking one of the most unique historic districts in America and turning it into another generic mall complex. The whole ULURP process started when HHC decided that they wanted to renovate the mall at Pier 17, which City zoning didn't allow. They went to a ULURP process to change the zoning of City owned property, which includes the Tin and New Market Buildings, along with the Fish Market. "People wrote me to congratulate me when the release came out, but it has nothing to do with the New Amsterdam Market, and a market might not even happen," said Robert LaValva, president and founder of the New Amsterdam Market, which has operated from May-December outside of the buildings in question since 2007. Now, local business owners in the uplands of the Seaport, also now under HHC's control, are being told that they might as well look elsewhere for space. A week before the vote was made on the 20th, the City Council hearing held on March 14th received such a large turnout that it had to be moved from 250 Broadway to City Hall. "A dog grooming business in the neighborhood was told by Howard Hughes 'You can't afford what I'm going to charge,'" said Council Member Margaret Chin to Senior Executive Vice President Development Christopher Curry. Chin was referring to the Salty Paw, originally at 38 Peck Slip, which is still displaced since Hurricane Sandy, thanks to their current landlord, the Durst Corporation. If they were to look for space in the upland, from the Pier to Fulton Street and Front Street, they could pay up to $300 a square foot. "If I got $300 a square foot, I'd be very happy. We want to charge as much rent as we can," said Curry at the hearing. Speaking on behalf of the Save Our Seaport Coalition at the hearing was Michael Kramer, who demanded that somebody hold them accountable.( "The Howard Hughes Corporation's public presentations to the city and to Manhattan Community Board 1 are at best inconsistent with what they are saying in their Securities and Exchange Commission filings and investor solicitations," he said. "The scope of their ULURP includes both the Historic South Street Seaport District and Piers 15 and 16, and yet they cynically refuse to discuss any plans beyond Pier 17 for properties under their option or control. Their stance is dishonest, insulting, and contrary to a sound public process." LaValva also spoke at the hearing, just as he had at other meetings with staff from the Council Members' offices, urging them to advocate for the preservation of future uses of the spaces during Pier 17 ULURP process. They didn't. "We approved of a plan we don't even know the details of, and now we're one step closer to losing a valuable city asset," said LaValva. "If our next Mayor recognizes the iconic value of the Fulton Fish Market Tin Building, which is owned by the People of New York, to serve as a public market that is a platform for urban food policy, the City itself will not be able to create such a market without gaining approval from the Howard Hughes Corporation." Council Member Chin's representative Kelly Magee told LaValva that he was misinterpreting the amended lease, and that if HHC chooses to not develop its Mixed Use Project in Tin Building, the City will issue an RFEI (Request for Expressions of Interest) to create a market in this building. LaValva believes he is interpreting the amended lease correctly, and says he will "now have yet more lawyers look at it just to be sure." Matt Viggiano of Margaret Chin's office told LaValva that they could "have the parking lot" they've always occupied for the market, but even that space isn't guaranteed - that's up to the Economic Development Corporation and HHC. As it stands, the Market, which operates as a 501c3 nonprofit, doesn't know where they'll be for their May season. Assuming that they are even approved for the space, if HHC takes over, LaValva may decline. "We aren't interested in being a tenant of Howard Hughes," he said. "The main issue is that the City Council had the opportunity to ensure that two historic, market buildings would be preserved and restored for use as public markets so it could become a world class destination, like La Boqueria in Barcelona, and they didn't," said LaValva. "I think the New Amsterdam Market can attract as many as 2 million visitors per year and generate at least $75 million" in economic impact, he said. "It's like saying, let's tear down the Statue of Liberty or cut it in half because we don't need it. Just because people don't understand right now that this is an incredibly valuable piece of real estate, just because it's old now, doesn't mean it's not valuable." Go to the Pier now, and you'll see a small sign that says "Welcome to the Seaport" taped to single metal barricade, flagged by a fence that goes beyond where the eye can see, with materials in piles and scattered around. Many of the seaport's businesses have in fact reopened after Sandy. The current tenants of Pier 17 are certainly happy to be able to operate until October, but the question is, does HHC want them back? The bigger question is, what's going to happen to a historic district, protected by special laws under a ULURP, once Hughes overhauls the property? "We want something unique, not another nest of high priced chain stores," said Save Our Seaport spokesperson David Sheldon.