10:26 am Mar. 9, 2012
Last night, architect Gregg Pasquarelli was selling his vision for the South Street Seaport.
At a meeting overflowing with residents of nearby lower Manhattan neighborhoods, Pasquarelli presented renderings that suggested a complex at once modern and flowing, and evocative of the pier's history as part of lower Manhattan's working waterfront.
Open spaces connect the space to the city's streets, where now a litter-strewn and depressing blacktop road under the elevated highway separates the pier from the rest of the seaport attractions.
On the building's rooftop, a grassy concert venue is planned—a mini-Tanglewood on the edge of the East River, as Pasquarelli, a principal of the up-and-coming architectural firm SHoP, put it.
Layers of the proposed structure are encased only in glass. The visible metal skeleton of the design mimics the framework of a shipping pier structure, while staircases running up to the building's upper levels look much like those of a ship.
Their presentation was meant to wow members of the local community board, and it did.
"Clearly, the work is terrific," said Roger Byrom, chairman of the community board's Landmarks Committee, at the meeting.
"We applaud this, and we don't applaud a lot of things," said another.
It's true. Plans to revamp the area between the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Battery have attracted famous architects before, and they haven't always fared so well. More than a decade ago, a plan to locate a downtown branch of the Guggenheim Museum in the neighborhood, with a design by Frank Gehry, was memorably likened to a cherry bomb exploding in a Diet Coke can by a community board member.
This isn't the first bid to reinvent Pier 17. A push by General Growth Properties to redevelop the space in 2009 fell apart, amid community resistance to the erection of a several-dozen-story-high tower at South Street Seaport. SHoP's design, under the direction of the Howard Hughes Corporation, which operates South Street Seaport, is careful to precisely match the current height of the existing 1980s-built Pier 17, at 75 feet and nine inches.
SHoP, the architectural firm that took over the controversial Barclays Center project in downtown Brooklyn after two architects (including Frank Gehry) had been dismissed, detailed last night the steps it took to make the space both aesthetically striking and functional, in an area of the city where observers have called for more shopping options. Giant 32-by-20-foot glass doors, for example, would swing down to enclose the area's open passages in cases of rain, wind, or otherwise inclement weather.
"The company's vision for the renovated Pier 17 building at the South Street Seaport," said the Howard Hughes Corporation in a statement, "balances the pier's iconic waterfront location with its unique ability to provide a much needed community anchor for the rapidly growing residential population in Lower Manhattan."
That the revitalization of Pier 17 would create high-quality union construction jobs was presented as a selling point, and a handful of union representatives at the meeting were quick to praise the project on those grounds.
IUPAT District Council 9's Jack Kittle, though, celebrated what he said was the addition of an exciting public space to the Manhattan waterfront.
With construction projects that look this good, said Kittle, the first thing that the owners usually do is to "bring in an elaborate security system and keep us out."
One point of contention, though, was the lack of a master plan for the redevelopment of the entire South Street Seaport space, including the New Market Building and Tin Building. The resolutions adopted by the committees by a wide margin encouraged the creation of a broader vision for the seaport. Further city approvals are pending.
SHoP appears poised now to offer that more comprehensive approach. This week, the firm announced that it was bringing in Vishaan Chakrabarti as a partner. Chakrabarti has a long history in New York planning circles, having served for three years as Director of the Manhattan Office for the New York Department of City Planning. Chakrabarti is now in a chair at Columbia University's architecture school that's endowed by a laundry list of the city's big real-estate developers; he's worked for the Related Companies and for Vornado Realty on big projects (like the reinvention of the Farley Post Office building into a new Penn Station) with big urban planning challenges.
In an interview with Capital early this week, Chakrabarti emphasized that there are strict regulations to help sort out any potential conflicts of interest, but he didn't downplay his experience and contacts in urban planning and policy in the public and private sectors both in helping SHoP scale up its practice at large city projects.
"When it comes to a large- scale piece of architecture, say a skyscraper or a stadium, how those large-scale pieces meet the city is a form of urbanism that we're really interested," he said.
He pointed to firms that are "doing these huge skyscrapers all over the world but they're coming down and meeting an urban fabric that's pretty bleak. The buildings had to do more than just be icons. How do they build cities block by block, sidewalk by sidewalk? How do they meet the grid, public space, transportation architecture. Those are ... critical for doing large-scale projects responsibly. So that's one type of practice that we're very interested in."
SHoP representatives said that, if okayed, construction at Pier 17 would begin next year and wrap in 2015.
Additional reporting by Tom McGeveran.
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