Preservation Issues

Elected Officials Challenge HHC at South Street Seaport


A rendering of Howard Hughes Corporation’s 494-foot-tall tower at the South Street Seaport (Credit: SHoP)


Seaport Museum

UPDATE: August 27, 2015

Elected Officials Challenge HHC For Taking Over Public Space At The Seaport While Competing With The Seaport Museum With Its Own “Culture District”

The Howard Hughes Corporation (HHC) may be usurping public space for its own commercial uses and competing with the Seaport Museum, the designated “cultural anchor” of the historic district. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Council Member Margaret Chin raised these concerns in an August 19 letter (link) to Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen.

The electeds stated that certain Howard Hughes Corporation programming in the Seaport is in areas legally defined as public space. Additionally, they note that HHC recently announced a “Culture District” for the Seaport that ignored the Seaport Museum.

“While we agree with the need to enliven the Seaport, this is an effort that should be undertaken by the community, local businesses and the museum, “they wrote.

Brewer and Chin asked for a meeting “as soon as possible” to discuss programming of public space, how they can assist the museum in achieving and maintaining its role as cultural anchor and “specifically given the terms of the Seaport Museum lease how those, if a hindrance, should change.”

The letter also noted that HHC’s renegotiated lease does not require any financial support for the museum while the Seaport Museum lease retains original restrictions barring competition with HHC. “This therefore places the museum in an unfair and impossible financial situation,” the letter states. The Conservancy is part of a large coalition of groups challenging HHC’s approach to the Seaport and agreeing with Brewer and Chin that the Seaport Museum be freed from its current lease.

Despite its outdated and overly restrictive lease, the Museum is winning praise for its spirit and programming under new director Captain Jonathan Boulware (see Wall Street Journal story) and recently received $10.4 million in FEMA money to help with damage from Superstorm Sandy.

HHC has faced stiff opposition for everything from initial plans for a market rate high rise that would tower over the Seaport District, to recent revisions to its shopping center that would limit promised public access to the roof and block views of the Brooklyn Bridge, to its failure to present a comprehensive look at its plans for the area.
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July 29, 2015
Seaport Coalition Discusses Issues with Deputy Mayor

The Conservancy, along with colleague organizations, met with Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen to discuss the future of the South Street Seaport. The groups are concerned that the large-scale plans of the developer Howard Hughes Corporation will not serve the Seaport or the City well. Representatives of the City Club of New York, Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, and Waterfront Alliance all spoke of the need for a plan that respects the character of the Historic District, South Street Seaport Museum, and the waterfront.

Howard Hughes is rebuilding the shopping mall at Pier 17 and has indicated that it has plans for the entire Seaport, but has not presented a comprehensive and detailed proposal to the public. In May, the coalition, which includes Friends of South Street Seaport, Historic Districts Council, Manhattan Community Board 1, and Save Our Seaport, wrote to Mayor de Blasio, requesting clarification on the status of leases and obligations between the City and Howard Hughes, a need for greater public review, and support for the Seaport Museum.

The Deputy Mayor noted that she had inherited the Howard Hughes plans from the prior administration but that, as a life-long New Yorker, she understood how important the Seaport is to the City. She also said City Cultural Affairs officials have been working with the Seaport Museum and had offered specific funding for Museum projects, including the restoration of The Wavertree, one of the Museum’s ships.

At the site, the City’s Economic Development Corporation has begun plans to dismantle sections of the historic Tin Building and New Market Building; the agency has stated that this is due to structural failures at the pier, but advocates are concerned that these steps will lead to further demolition at the New Market which is within the historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but not within the City’ district, and therefore not under the purview of the Landmarks Commission. In light of these threats, the National Trust for Historic Preservation included the Seaport as one of its Eleven Most Endangered Sites.

Despite its significant role in New York’s history, the blocks of 19th buildings, and the waterfront, the Seaport has never received appropriate support from the City. Instead, successive administrations have imported developers to oversee this distinct and picturesque district. The buildings, historic ships, and the singular Museum could be a lure for New Yorkers and tourists if the Seaport was given room to thrive. The Conservancy and its colleagues are pleased to have opened a dialogue with the appropriate City offices to suggest other approaches and encourage them to rethink plans for the Seaport.

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June 26, 2015
South Street Seaport, One of America’s Most Endangered Sites

The South Street Seaport Historic District is one of “America’s Eleven Most Endangered Places” according to The National Trust for Historic Preservation. The dubious honor was announced by the Trust on June 24.

Describing the Seaport as” the largest concentration of restored 19th century commercial buildings in New York,” the Trust said current development plans would “disrupt the look, feel and low scale character” of the district.

“The listing underscores the local concerns that the Seaport is being overshadowed by a shopping mall and a potential luxury tower,” said Conservancy President Peg Breen. (see The New York Times story)

The Conservancy is part of a coalition of groups concerned about development proposals by The Howard Hughes Corporation, which has leased a major part of the seaport from the City.

The coalition believes that the City is failing to recognize and protect the historic character of the seaport. The City has relied on developer promises in the past that failed to provide promised improvements in the area or support for the Seaport Museum, which connects the area directly to its past.

Borough President Gale Brewer and Councilmember Margaret Chin have also expressed concerns with the proposals, especially initial plans for a 50-story condominium tower adjacent to the historic district. The Howard Hughes Corporation now says they are looking at a significantly lower building.

The coalition wrote Mayor de Blasio last month saying, among other issues, that there is little transparency and public review of the Seaport plans and asking for a full explanation of where the proposals stand. (see coalition letter).

The coalition includes the City Club of New York, Friends of South Street Seaport, Historic Districts Council, Manhattan Community Board 1, Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, Save our Seaport and Two Bridges Neighborhood Council.

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May 20, 2015
Coalition Asks Mayor to Halt Development at Seaport and Discuss its Future

A coalition of advocates has asked Mayor Bill de Blasio to halt a developer’s activities at the South Street Seaport and offer a complete explanation of where things stand at the historic site. The request came in a letter to de Blasio that outlined questions over transparency, public review, and the future of the South Street Seaport Museum, the heart of the historic district.

The City Club of New York, Friends of South Street Seaport, Historic Districts Council, Manhattan Community Board 1, Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, Save Our Seaport, Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, and a special Task Force of Landmarks Conservancy Board members met with representatives of Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer earlier this month to discuss the status of the Seaport. Following the meeting, the group authored the letter and requested an opportunity to sit down with key members of the administration.

The Howard Hughes Corporation (HHC) is redeveloping the Pier 17 shopping mall site and has a large-scale plan for the entire district. It has presented piecemeal components of the plan in public, but the full scope in all its complexity, and the extent of the City’s legal agreements with Howard Hughes have never been clear. The advocates requested that the City reveal HHC’s entire plan, and give a transparent accounting of all ownership and leases on the Seaport’s buildings and sites. We also requested that the administration explain the rationale for keeping the South Street Seaport Museum dependent on developer revenues, instead of providing the funding typical at other cultural institutions.

The City, for decades, has failed to recognize the Seaport as an asset, turning to developers to manage a unique area containing early 19th-century buildings. The advocates do not believe that the HHC proposal will serve the Seaport or the City well, as this developer has not adequately demonstrated the capacity, experience or desire to create a sustainable plan linking the interests of preservation to the economic vitality of the area.

The unique character of the historic buildings and the Museum itself are a natural magnet to attract New Yorkers and tourists to the Seaport. They should be supported. We are concerned that plans for a skyscraper in the heart of the District will irreparably compromise its integrity. And the City needs to recognize that the Museum, the last link to the New York’s commercial maritime history, should be the thriving center of a revitalized Seaport District.

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February 2015
Free the Seaport Museum from Depending on Developers

The Landmarks Conservancy opposes the current proposal to make the Seaport Museum dependent on revenue from the controversial Howard Hughes Corporation’s plan for a large residential tower on the East River, just north of the South Street Seaport Historic District.

In a February 19 letter to Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen, the Conservancy said: “We believe connecting the future of the Museum to yet another developer is priming it for failure.”

Instead, the Conservancy urged the City to free the Museum from its contract with the Economic Development Corporation and offer annual operating funding, as the City does to other museums in City-owned buildings. The Museum, the landmark buildings it occupies, and its ships, are the only authentic link to the Seaport’s storied past. The Conservancy believes they are essential to the area’s future viability.

The City, for decades, has failed to recognize the Seaport as an asset, turning to developers to manage a unique area containing early 19th-century buildings. The Rouse Corporation, which opened a shopping mall at the Seaport in 1983, failed to deliver on promises similar to those Howard Hughes is making today.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, City Councilmember Margaret Chin, Community Board 1 and numerous groups concerned about the Seaport’s future all oppose the proposed tower. The Howard Hughes Corporation maintains that the tower is essential for funding the Museum and making other improvements to the Seaport.

The Conservancy urges the Administration to protect the Museum and the rare look at early New York the buildings on Schermerhorn Row provide.

Click on the video link below for a quick look at the Seaport Museum and a glimpse into early 19th-century New York.

Tourist in Your Own Town #12 – South Street Seaport Museum from New York Landmarks Conservancy on Vimeo.