New York’s next big land-use fight
The project would morph the South Street Seaport, one of the city’s earliest hotbeds of economic activity, from a faded industrial center to a booming attraction for tourists and a home to affluent and working-class New Yorkers alike.
It would come with affordable housing, a public middle school, an extension of the East River Esplanade, a new marina capable of berthing tall ships and a full restoration of the Tin Building, a remarkable relic of the city’s past. The Seaport Museum would get a new home. There would be a market. Aging and decrepit piers would be replaced. Lights would be strung below the F.D.R. Drive.
But one key component of this $305 million vision—commissioned by the Howard Hughes Corporation and dreamt up by SHoP Architects—serves both as its most significant source of funding and a sticking point that threatens to derail the project: A mixed-use tower with luxury apartments. It became clear on Thursday that the building, inspired by the architecture of sailboats and planned to rise above a yet-to-be built pier, will help decide the fate of this grand plan for Lower Manhattan.
For months now, the design for the tower has perturbed local officials and stakeholders who thought it out of proportion to the Seaport district's buildings. An unusual “working group” was formed to get input from the neighborhood, something billed as a model for future planning efforts. Howard Hughes redesigned the residential tower and other parts of the project as a result of the working group’s recommendations and presented its new plan on Wednesday evening. Reporters were briefed on Thursday.
The building was shrunk from 650 feet to 494 feet, or 42 stories. That did not satisfy Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer or local Councilwoman Margret Chin, both of whom said they could not support the project as currently planned.
“We’re not opposed to the tower—we’re just opposed to it in that location,” Brewer said in a phone interview. “I don’t think we would put a tower in the middle of Colonial Williamsburg. It’s a question of how do you preserve the Seaport?”
Either move it, she said, or make it smaller.
If constructed without special zoning, the tower could be 350 feet tall. At its currently proposed height, however, the tower would need to go through the city’s land-use review process. Brewer would hold a hearing and make recommendations. The City Council would get the final say, though, and would defer to Chin as the local member. She said in a statement that “it’s clear that the Howard Hughes Corporation has not fully considered all of the guidelines put forth by the Seaport Working Group.”
“I can’t support the proposed tower in its current form, and I can’t support the development proposal overall in its current form,” she said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done to make sure this plan truly serves the Seaport community, and we must strongly consider alternatives to the proposed tower.”
But there are no alternatives, said David R. Weinreb, the chief executive of the Howard Hughes Corporation. The tower subsidizes all the infrastructure and public improvements included in the project. It has been reduced to the smallest size possible without reducing the scope of its plan, he said. Asked if there was anything more he could offer to sweeten the pot, or if it he would need to walk away if more was demanded, he said he'd have to walk.
“I think we’re there,” Weinreb said, speaking at the offices of SHoP Architects in the Woolworth Building. “We’re going to need something more to give more. We’ve put everything on the table that we have.”
That isn’t to say he has not ruled out the possibility of transferring the development rights to another location, as Brewer and Chin have suggested. As this time, though, there are no viable alternative sites from engineering, zoning or ownership perspectives, company officials said. Even if there were, Weinreb argued, the vision for the Seaport would be diluted.
“We believe that people living here and needing services, et cetera, create a vibrancy that can’t exist if you don’t have housing,” he said, standing beside a three-dimensional model of the project. “With that said, we’re completely open to looking at other areas with the recognition that if this building was not built that it would diminish, at some level, the vibrancy that we believe the district deserves.”
Even if the tower did move, it’s unclear whether Chin would be satisfied. She wasn’t available on Thursday afternoon for an interview, but her spokesman said she wanted significant changes and hoped the company would find places to compromise when the land-use process moves forward.
“We have a long way to go here and a lot of work to do,” the spokesman, Sam Spokony, said. “I think that if and when they file ULURP and the wheels get turning on that, we’re extremely hopeful that a really serious dialogue can continue about potentially drastically reducing the height of the tower or exploring alternative locations.”
Howard Hughes will be before Community Board 1’s Landmarks Committee on Dec. 10 and hopes to have its application heard by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in January. The tower, which is slightly outside of the historic district boundary, will not be a part of that review. If all goes well, the company would be filing its land-use application some time in the spring. The reconstruction of Pier 17 and building of a large mixed-use building there was already approved and work is underway on that that project already.
The administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio has been relatively quiet on the subject. The mayor was asked recently about the project and said he was not philosophically opposed to a tall building rising there, and that he wanted to ensure the preservation of a Seaport Museum.
One issue that the administration will definitely be focused on is the affordable housing. Howard Hughes plans to have 30 percent of the total residential units reserved as below-market value, though exactly what that means has not been determined. Wiley Norvell, a spokesman for de Blasio, said that piece was indeed key.
"We have a very real need to upgrade the seaport’s infrastructure and make it more resilient, and at the same time we have an opportunity to add more housing and commercial activity," Norvell said in a statement. "We also want to support the maritime history at the museum. We’ll work with local leaders and stakeholders on ways we can achieve those objectives together.”
None of the affordable housing units Howard Hughes plans to set aside would be in in the controversial tower, all going in a building on Schermerhorn Row. Whether that would raise any issues of classism—in the way the so-called “poor doors” in other buildings have—was not clear on Thursday, with the criticism focused on the scale of the project. Weinreb said the housing there would be similar to luxury units included in other buildings they have restored in the Seaport. He said he felt the administration would not take issue with his characterization that all the buildings are part of one development.
“It’s one site, to us,” he said. “So we don’t see it as off-site. This is no poor door. This is an exquisite 18th century door, and really beautiful buildings, right on the site.”