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The Future of the South Street Seaport

south and water streetThe City Council’s Waterfront and Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Committees held an oversight hearing today regarding the present and future of the South Street Seaport. Coming down the pipeline in the Seaport is a new development proposed by General Growth Properties. Much of the development falls within the South Street Seaport Historic District, designated in 1977. The proposal involves the reconfiguration of Pier 17, the construction of a new 495-foot-high hotel and residential building, additional 120-foot-high structures, the relocation of the 1907 Tin Building (within the historic district and formerly part of the Fulton Fish Market), and the demolition of the 1930s Fulton Fish Market Building (which is not protected with landmark status).

MAS will be reviewing General Growth’s proposal later this month, and will be testifying at the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s hearing on the project later this fall.

MAS Testimony on South Street Seaport Before The City Council’s Waterfront and Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Committees
Monday, September 15, 2008

MAS thanks Council Members Gerson and Nelson for holding this hearing today. MAS has a long history of involvement in the South Street Seaport and working to preserve its history, architecture, and sense of place. As far back as 1965, we were looking for ways to save the Seaport’s authentic and unique maritime characteristics. Over 40 years later, concern about the vitality and authenticity of the Seaport has again emerged, and MAS looks forward to being involved in the discussions and debates that will certainly materialize as new developments are proposed.

General Growth Properties’ proposal has obviously been a major impetus for this hearing. MAS will not be reviewing General Growth’s proposal for the South Street Seaport until later this week, and therefore we cannot yet speak to the specifics of the proposal. We do intend, however, to comment on the proposal when the Landmarks Preservation Commission reviews it later this fall, and we will make sure the Council receives copies or our statement.

In March 2006, MAS co-sponsored and participated in the Seaport Speaks charrette that examined ways to preserve the history of the Seaport while giving it an exciting future. In other words, the charrette looked at putting “the SEA back in the Seaport.” We feel that many of the guiding principles and ideas that emerged from the charrette should be reiterated today.

Some of the ideas that came out of the Seaport Speaks include creating a dynamic and welcoming waterfront and making the area a place where residents, workers, and New Yorkers will want to return again and again. Another key guide was that maritime-related businesses and organizations should be encouraged in new development and that other ways to develop the commercial space to reflect the Seaport’s historic and maritime character should be examined. Also important is considering the role that cultural institutions can play in the vitality of the Seaport neighborhood. In sum, in planning for the future of the Seaport, it is essential that the area’s distinctive niche in Lower Manhattan be based on its maritime past.

Historic preservation has long played an integral role in the South Street Seaport, and the South Street Seaport Historic District is unique in many ways in the city. Because of the view from the Brooklyn Bridge, a public thoroughfare, the historic district has always been regulated in three dimensions. This means that the distinctive steeply-pitched rooflines that are a defining feature of the buildings are protected from the rooftop intrusions that are common in other historic districts like Greenwich Village and Brooklyn Heights. In addition, the neighborhood has a rich history of allowing distinctive, yet contextual new buildings. Examples of this are James Polshek’s Seaman’s Church Institute on Water Street from 1992, and the more recent Cook + Fox Architects development on Front Street and Peck Slip. These two buildings are excellent examples of new design within the scale of the Seaport’s historic buildings.

Going beyond the buildings themselves, MAS believes that the treatment of the waterfront should reinforce the character of the historic area. MAS has long been and continues to be particularly concerned about the future of the historic ships, like the Peking and the Ambrose, in the Seaport. Tying the historic ships in the water to the streetscapes, buildings, establishments, and institutions in the Seaport needs to be done better in the future. The commercial development of the Seaport has become unhooked from the preservation of the ships and the buildings. In the future, a better job of linking the commercial with the area’s historic fabric needs to be done.

The writer is Kress/RFR Fellow for Historic Preservation and Public Policy.