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What’s the Future for the South Street Seaport?

The Municipal Art Society’s Preservation Committee yesterday urged the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) to reconsider the proposal by General Growth Properties to redevelop the South Street Seaport properties. The project involves the construction of a 495-foot-high hotel/condo tower in the Seaport just outside of the historic district; the demolition of the Pier 17 building built in the 1980s; the construction of 120′ high boutique hotels on Pier 17; the relocation the 1903 “Tin Building,” part of the Fulton Fish Market; and the demolition of the 1939 Fulton Fish Market (or “New Market”) building.

Although the MAS Committee recognizes that some sort of revitalization is needed in the district, they do not think this project is the right solution. In its testimony yesterday, the Committee described concerns about the scale and height of the new development, the impact it will have on the Brooklyn Bridge and its views, and the historic integrity of the two Fulton Fish Market buildings. No decision was made on the project, but the LPC will consider it again at a future hearing.

Testimony of the MAS Preservation Committee Before the Landmarks Preservation Commission on the General Growth Properties Proposal for the South Street Seaport Properties, Tuesday, October 21, 2008

MAS urges that the project before the LPC today be firmly rejected. The overall concept behind the General Growth Properties (GGP) project is flawed and needs to be revisited.

This is not an instance where the new structures are merely too large or the design, materials, and details need to be tweaked in order to be considered appropriate for a historic district. The major interventions into the district and just outside its edges have little to do with preservation. We fear that this project will not improve the Seaport, and worse, will only further sever it from its history. MAS recognizes that some sort of revitalization is needed for the Seaport properties, formerly-operated by the Rouse Company, in order for the area to be a draw for more than just tourists. However, re-configured retail spaces and hotels do not seem to be the right solution. So much of the history of the Seaport would be sacrificed by this development.

Clearly the architects involved in this project are well-respected and have put a great deal of thought into the design of the new structures and the public space. Yet the proposed design does not meet its stated goals of urbanism and preservation. We believe that the new buildings, both inside and outside the historic district, are out-of-scale and will detract from the Seaport’s historic structures and ships. The design does not engage the existing historic buildings: It relocates and reconstructs the Tin Building, diminishing its in situ integrity, and isolating it in a non-historic context at the end of a pier. Furthermore, the New Market building is proposed to be demolished rather than reused; we believe the LPC should extend the boundaries of the historic district to include this structure. The aim should not be to regularize and sanitize the site, but to work with the odd juxtapositions of the extant buildings and structures.

Our final and very significant concern relates to the project’s impact on the Brooklyn Bridge and associated views. The proximity of the 495-foot-high proposed building to the Brooklyn Bridge’s 277 foot high towers, diminishes the Bridge’s monumentality, visibility, and connection to the Seaport and Brooklyn Heights Promenade.

Given our substantial concerns, we have divided up our statement into several parts, which will be read by different speakers.

Background – MAS, like many others, has been concerned over the years with protecting the Seaport’s authentic and unique maritime characteristics, and we have shared many concerns that the area was not always as vital as it could and should be. To help address the issue, in 2006, we 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. Unfortunately, the results of this charrette do not seem to be represented in this General Growth Properties (GGP) proposal for the Seaport. In fact, this project in many ways is the antithesis of the Seaport Speaks’ goal of putting the “SEA back in the Seaport.”

Proposed New Development – The LPC must review this development with the same level of rigor as it does other applications in the South Street Seaport Historic District. The creation of the South Street Seaport Historic District in the 1970s ensured that the area, already walled in on three sides by large-scale structures, would retain its low-scale character. The LPC over the past 30 years has carefully and successfully regulated this district to ensure that its low-rise nature would be retained even as new developments have been built within the boundaries of the historic district. There have been some real success-stories in the Seaport for new development approved by the LPC, including James Polshek’s Seaman’s Institute and the recently-completed Front Street development by Cook + Fox Architects. These projects have shown how new architecture in the district can enhance the neighborhood’s character and its vitality. Redevelopment of the GGP property should engage the existing architecture in an equally creative way.

Clearly one of the most problematic aspects of the GGP plan is the 495-foot-high tower on the eastern side of the FDR Drive. Although technically outside of the historic district, the new tower will have a huge negative impact on the historic district. The Seaport is an island hemmed in on all but one side, the water side, by larger structures. The new construction proposed for the Seaport would close the Seaport’s fourth side with a 42-story skyscraper. This building will be higher than the looming One Seaport Plaza building just outside of the district on Fulton and Water Streets, a building that clearly shows what happens on an edge of a district when there is no LPC regulation.

Although the architects and developers have considered the views of the bridge from the South Street Historic District, we urge the LPC to remember the views of the Seaport from both the Brooklyn Bridge and from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge is one of the most iconic New York City walks. For countless people walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, whether they are visitors to New York or residents, the story of “Old New York” is told in the view of the Seaport’s steeply-sloped roofs and early-nineteenth-century warehouses. In many instances over the thirty years of the South Street Seaport Historic District, the LPC has regulated this district in three dimensions, carefully considering new intrusions on rooftops because of this iconic public view from the Brooklyn Bridge. The new tower will be the only tower on the eastern side of the FDR below the Brooklyn Bridge, and will forever dominate and mar the views of the Seaport from the bridge and from Brooklyn. Although the site of the current tower is outside of the boundaries of the historic district, it will, more than any other action in the Seaport in recent memory, have a huge impact on the Seaport’s sense of place. We urge the LPC to continue the tradition of regulating the views of the Seaport from the Brooklyn Bridge.

Even the proposed 120-feet-high buildings within the historic district are out-of-scale and inappropriate. They will be about 50 feet higher than other buildings approved in the Seaport by the LPC and will be more than twice the height of the existing Pier 17 structure. More importantly, they will also be approximately double the height of the Schermerhorn Row buildings, traditionally the most important buildings in the district.

The Relocation of the Tin Building – We oppose the relocation of the 1907 Tin Building on several grounds. First, in terms of generally accepted preservation policy, a historic building should be relocated from its original location only as a means of last resort, when there is no other way to save the building except to move it. In this instance, the proposed relocation is simply for the convenience of the developer who sees the historic building as a hindrance to the overall redevelopment plan. The developers’, preservation consultants’ and architects’ arguments that moving the Tin Building to the end of the pier is more in keeping with the sense of its original location does not hold water. The building, although on the water’s edge, was never at the end of a pier, isolated from the land, but was rather part of the street life and hustle and bustle of the city and the market. At the end of Pier 17, the historic structure will seem remote from both the life of the Seaport and its history. Moving the Tin Building is certainly not a necessity, and it will result in the building being in a non-historic and isolated location.

Second, the LPC has allowed the relocation of designated structures only in rare cases because of the severity of this type of preservation intervention. In addition, as far as we know, a significant building within a historic district has never been moved. The threshold for permitting the relocation of designated structures should be set fairly high, and the LPC should not allow a relocation just for the convenience of a development, as is the case in this project. Approving the relocation of the Tin Building could cause other developers throughout the City to propose similar inappropriate relocations of designated historic structures. Moreover, the new location proposed for the Tin Building is not even entirely within the historic district; approximately one-half of the site is outside the historic district. This makes the LPC’s approval of the relocation all the more troublesome and raises serious questions about the LPC’s future jurisdiction over the building.

Third, in terms of historic integrity, the site of the Tin Building is itself significant. As far back as the 1830s, this site housed a market dedicated to selling fish, and was therefore part of what made the Seaport into the unique area it is today. Although the piers around the Tin Building have changed over the years, the site of the market itself has not. Particularly in light of the 1995 fire which destroyed some original features of the Tin Building, the integrity the building derives from its original location is all the more important. Moving the Tin Building will take away from this precious resource one of it most significant remaining features – its site.

The developer has alluded to the fact that by relocating the Tin Building, the East River Esplanade can better flow through the Seaport. This is not necessarily true, as there are plenty of ways that the esplanade and Tin Building can co-exist. The Tin Building is largely open on the ground floor, and as such, perhaps there is a way that the building could be incorporated into the esplanade. Also, there’s a possibility that the esplanade could curve around the building, bringing people closer to the water’s edge.

The New Market Building – Looking back thirty years after the South Street Seaport Historic District was designated, it seems clear that the district should have included the New Market Building, built for the Fulton Fish Market in 1939. Located just to the north of the now-combined Piers 17 & 18, outside of the historic district, the New Market building is a historic resource that should not be overlooked and thrown away so easily. In the last decade, the LPC and the preservation field as a whole has developed a greater appreciation of both mid-twentieth century structures and market buildings, as evidenced in the 2003 designation of the Gansevoort Market Historic District. As part of the fish market, the New Market building helped the Seaport for over 65 years retain its maritime authenticity and industry, and is incredibly significant to the area’s history.

A redevelopment plan that reuses both the New Market building and the Tin Building in situ, perhaps for market use, could be a lynchpin for an exciting new development that would attract area residents, New Yorkers, and tourists alike and could offer a truly unique experience. This seems much more exciting than another retail district and the additional hotels that the current plan is offering.

In closing, the MAS Preservation Committee urges the LPC to reject this proposal and to push for a development that reuses the New Market building and the Tin Building in their original locations and that better ties the Seaport to its history.