Seaport tower will be downsized & city admits to mistake at historic buildings

BY JOSH ROGERS | You win some, you lose some, but when it comes to development plans at South Street Seaport, there’s always frustration.

That was the overriding feeling at two Community Board 1 meetings this month to talk about recent action on a project that has stalled on and off for 18 months. The delays tend to be welcomed — but never by opposing sides at the same time.

The news: The developer Howard Hughes Corp.

A rendering of an earlier version of the tower, which is now being revised. Image courtesy of SHoP Architects
A rendering of an earlier version of the tower, which is now being revised. Image courtesy of SHoP Architects

is reducing the proposed size of its much-criticized 500-foot tower by a “significant,” unknown amount.

And then on Tuesday, a city official gave little hope that the New Market Building — the 1939 Fulton Fish Market structure on the tower site — or its older landmark neighbor, the Tin Building, would be standing on their decaying pier much longer.

Demolition of the city-owned buildings’ non-back cooler areas — added later in the ‘50s — is expected to begin early in August and finish in September.

At that point, engineers hired by the city’s Economic Development Corp.  will “take a better look at the rest of the building and see what we have to do because this isn’t the end,” said the official, Rich Cote, senior vice president of asset management. “The piles are continuing to deteriorate. It’s just a matter of time. Mother Nature is gonna take its course.”

Cote, the agency’s construction manager, acknowledged there were plans in April to demolish both vacant buildings.

Crain’s reported in May about April’s demolition plans. City officials staunchly refused to confirm or deny the article’s accuracy until Cote’s remarks Tuesday.

“I considered both buildings to be in an emergency condition so I tried to get an emergency permit to do that [demolish the buildings],” he said.

He said E.D.C. colleagues told him, “‘Rich, probably we need to take a step back.’ I was very reluctant to do that for safety reasons.”

He said the current “compromise” plan to demolish only the cooler areas was agreed upon after consulting with city, state and federal environmental and preservation agencies.

Preservation groups and C.B. 1 have long

New Market Building. Downtown Express photo by Josh Rogers.
New Market Building. Downtown Express photo by Josh Rogers.

favored landmarking the New Market Building, and many saw the E.D.C. moves as a backdoor way of ending the debate about the building.

That skepticism, which has been fueled over the years by the agency’s history of withholding information regarding the Seaport, was in evidence Tuesday night.

Cote acknowledged that the E.D.C. decision to inject the pier piles with concrete protection in the late ‘90s has made it impossibly expensive to repair the pier now without taking down the buildings. Divers would have to manually chip away the concrete around each wooden pile, he said.

Paul Hovitz, a community board member, said the agency is not being held accountable for its mistakes.

“So it’s been 20 years that the responsibility for those supports have been with the Economic Development Corp., so is it your position that because it would have been a mammoth project, it was better to just let them deteriorate to the point at which we need to rely on a private corporation, Howard Hughes, to come in and pay for what the city should have taken care of in the first place,” Hovitz said.

Cote said the agency has been spending about a $1 million a year to stabilize the Tin and New Market, but it can’t spend much more given that they don’t generate revenue, and E.D.C. only has a tiny percentage of the money needed to protect about 65 miles of waterfront buildings.

“There are billions of dollars of immediate repairs [needed] on those waterfront structures, [and] E.D.C. over a 10-year period, gets about $150 million in the budget to make those repairs,” he said.

Although the Tin Building, which was badly damaged in a ’95 fire, is likely to be taken down, it was always in Hughes’ plans to dismantle and restore the building as best it could, so the E.D.C. announcement does not appear to change those plans, if the Hughes project ends up being approved.

Shorter building 

As for the Seaport tower, things had been in limbo all of this year, as observers continue to wait for the Hughes Corp. to proceed with its landmarks application.

On June 3, David Weinreb, Hughes C.E.O., sent Mayor Bill de Blasio a letter saying they were changing the design. A Hughes spokesperson said the decision to change was made shortly before the letter was sent.

Weinreb was reacting to a May 20 letter signed by Board 1 as well as non-profit preservation groups like the New York Landmarks Conservancy and Historic District Council criticizing the city’s deference to Hughes.

Last week, Chris Curry, the Hughes executive in charge of Seaport development, angered many C.B. 1 meeting attendees when he did not have any details about the revisions to come.

“We didn’t completely satisfy the height issue,” Curry said of the 500-foot tower plan being changed. “The height issue may never be completely satisfied to everyone’s satisfaction, but what I can tell you is we are looking at a significantly revised plan that I don’t even know what it looks like yet, so it’s not going to be shared.”

There were sarcastic chuckles when he said “we have been nothing but transparent.”

The reaction has clearly perplexed Hughes executives, who are privately wondering why they’re getting pushback for conceding

on the biggest sticking point, the building’s size.

Curry said they have been trying to meet the guidelines of the Seaport Working Group, which was run by E.D.C. mediators, and was made up of local politicians, community leaders and Hughes.

“Something that came up at the Seaport Working Group a lot was ‘let’s press pause, let’s just slow down,’” Curry said of last year’s discussions. “That’s what’s happened. That’s why we don’t have much happening…No one wants to move faster than I do.”

In response, Roger Byrom, chairperson of C.B. 1’s Landmarks Committee, said “yes, whilst we did ask for a pause, that pause was a long, long, time ago.”

Byrom said the historic buildings “are now exposed. We’re sitting here with all of this history, without a sense of how to move forward.”

Later in a phone interview he said “it’s hard to judge” whether the smaller building will be a positive development until the plans are revealed.

The leaders of the working group, Borough President Gale Brewer and Councilmember Margaret Chin, did not attend either recent meeting, but both were more bullish about a new design.

“H.H.C’s statement that they are ‘working on a significantly revised plan to address the height issue’ is welcome news,” the pair said in a statement June 4.  “We look forward to seeing how well their revised proposal meets the Seaport Working Group guidelines and preserves and enhances the vibrancy and historical significance that the Seaport deserves.”

Schematic of the project areas, including the current tower site, the New Market Building, and the Tin Building. Image courtesy of the Howard Hughes Corp.
Schematic of the project areas, including the current tower site, the New Market Building, and the Tin Building. Image courtesy of the Howard Hughes Corp.

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