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Seaport sunshine: Downtowners want to revive stakeholder group for historic district

File photo by Janel Bladow Marco Pasanella, chairman of Community Board 1’s Seaport Committee, wants to revive the defunct Seaport Working Group, disbanded a year ago, which regularly brought together developers, city reps, elected officials, and local stakeholders to discus plans for the historic district.
File photo by Janel Bladow
Marco Pasanella, chairman of Community Board 1’s Seaport Committee, wants to revive the defunct Seaport Working Group, disbanded a year ago, which regularly brought together developers, city reps, elected officials, and local stakeholders to discus plans for the historic district.

BY COLIN MIXSON

Locals are saying that the Seaport needs more sunlight.

Downtowners are calling on the city’s Economic Development Corporation to reconvene a closed-door panel of developers, city reps, elected officials, and local stakeholders dedicated to mapping out the future of the South Street Seaport Historic District, which the city disbanded roughly a year ago.

In addition to giving residents a seat at the planning table, locals hope that the bi-weekly gathering, called the Seaport Working Group, will help shed light on the often opaque plans that the EDC, a city agency that acts as the area’s de-facto proprietor, holds for the beloved coastal destination.

“I don’t feel like we know enough about what the EDC wants and they’re the landlords,” said Marco Pasanella, chairman of Community Board 1’s Seaport Committee.  “So, one of the nice things about the Seaport Working Group was the EDC was front and center, and this would be an opportunity to say, ‘you’re the city, this is your turf, what do you want?’ ”

CB1 passed a resolution last month which called on the EDC, Borough President Gale Brewer, and Councilmember Margaret Chin to work towards reinstating the Seaport Working Group.

Pasanella, whose committee drafted the resolution, cited the near-completion of Howard Hughes Corporation’s massive retail development at Pier 17, along with the recent approval of its plans to relocate the landmarked Tin Building, in arguing that now was the time to meet up with the city and start talking about the future.

“We’ve got some resolution about Pier 17, we’ve got some resolution regarding the Tin Building, we’re interested in what has yet to be resolved,” he said. “Rather than be reactive and wait for something to come down the pipe, the idea of the Seaport Working Group is to be proactive. We feel like the work of the group isn’t done yet and it would be great to continue.”

Other members of the erstwhile panel want to revive it in the hopes of gleaming new insights into Howard Hughes’s plans for the New Market Building, a property owned by the EDC, where the developer had originally planned to build a 494-foot residential tower in response to a lease option proffered by the city.

That plan was canceled, in large part due to local opposition that was voiced by members of the first working group, where local electeds and residents made a priority of halting any attempt to erect a massive tower in the nominally low-rise Seaport District, according to a former Seaport Working Group member.

“I think the working group was very effective,” said John Fratter. “If we hadn’t done what we did, there would be a tower at the Seaport, and that’s something we won.”

With Howard Hughes having put the kibosh on that tower plan, locals are looking to get the scoop on whatever new designs the developer holds for the New Market Building site — which some community board members expect the developer will attempt to acquire outright from the city.

“As they have not presented an alternative plan as yet, and they keep giving us bits and pieces, it would be a good time to reinstate the group and make further suggestions as to what we want to see on that property,” said Paul Hovitz, a member of CB1’s Seaport Committee.

Representatives from the EDC don’t often attend CB1 meetings, even when invited, according to members. When they do show, they typically come equipped with a well-rehearsed presentation, providing basic information regarding ongoing projects. Candid conversations on the EDC’s vision for the seaport, however, are far less common at the community board’s public meetings, according to Pasanella, who admitted their reluctance to speak freely in an open venue is not surprising.

“The [community board] meetings are difficult for people. Often, you expect people to ask a million questions and assault you, so they don’t want to just show up,” said Pasanella. “They tend to speak on the operations side, not on the strategic planning side, so what we’re getting are nuts and bolds kind of things, rather than vision.”

The working group, on the other hand, is a different matter. Key members of the community board and certain residents are invited to attend, but the meetings themselves are not open to the public. As a result, reps from the EDC and Howard Hughes are able to speak more freely.

“The working group provides an ideal way to do that, to explore those things in a safe space,” he said. “You have these stakeholders, but you’re behind closed doors a little bit.”

Both Borough President Brewer and Councilmember Chin strongly endorsed the CB1 proposal, with Brewer lauding the original working group as a proven method for communicating community concerns and expectations to the Seaport shot-callers.

“The Seaport Working Group brought together stakeholders to develop a sound set of principles to guide any mixed-use development proposal in the Seaport neighborhood,” said a spokesman for Brewer. “We look forward to reconvening the group when there’s a proposal for it to review.”

Chin echoed Brewer’s praise of the group, while emphasizing the community board’s assertion that now was the time to reconvene the panel and start looking forward.

“I am in full support of CB1’s resolution to reconvene the Seaport Working Group, which is needed more than ever to communicate community priorities and to coordinate efforts to revitalize this incredibly important historic area,” Chin said. “I look forward to continuing the conservation about our hopes for the Seaport’s future and how best to make them a reality.”

The EDC was rather more reticent about the proposal. A spokesman reiterated the agency’s commitment to working with locals to improve the district — but without touching upon the matter of the working group itself.

“We have undergone an extensive process over the last two years to ensure that input from the community and our local elected officials is incorporated into the South Street Seaport, and we will continue to work with all parties to make sure that we bring a strong South Street Seaport project to this neighborhood,” said spokesman Ian Fried.

Howard Hughes Corp. was similarly unforthcoming about the prospect of reviving the working group.

“The Howard Hughes Corporation is proud to have participated in an unprecedented community planning process with the Seaport Working Group,” said Chris Curry, senior executive vice president of development at the company. “We are currently under construction at Pier 17 and the Fulton Market Building, and are committed to remaining engaged in ongoing community conversations about the future of the Seaport District.”

Asked to clarify whether Howard Hughes Corp. would commit to participating in a reinstated working group, a spokeswoman for the developer declined to comment further. The EDC spokesman, similarly pressed, failed to respond at all.seaport-working-group-2016-05-05-map,DE,PRINT_WEB,WEB

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