HDC reacts to the South Street Seaport Plan
Under General Growth’s new plan for the South Street Seaport, the 1907 Tin Building would be dismantled and moved from its historic location, the birthplace of the Fulton Fish Market to the far edge of the pier behind it. The 1939 New Market Building, which is not landmarked, would be demolished and the site would be cleared for two high-rise towers; a 12-story boutique hotel building and a 45-story residential/hotel building, both on public waterfront property. The Pier 17 mall, approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission and built in 1984, is also slated for demolition. The new development would wall off the seaport from the water, destroying the relationship of the rest of the district with the historic market buildings and the East River.
The South Street Seaport: Historic and Low-Scale
The South Street Seaport Historic District is one of the oldest sections of the New York City and the only extant remnant of the city’s first working waterfront. From its low scale construction (ranging typically from 4 to 8 stories) to its wide, open cobblestone streets and slips, to its direct connection with the East River and its piers, the area is a unique in Manhattan with a sense of openness rare in this ever-growing metropolis. Its 18th, 19th and 20th century structures built as residences, counting houses, market buildings, shops, taverns, and hotels still evoke the shipping days while today finding reuse in many of the same activities. Although the wholesale fish market has left the area in 2005, the neighborhood remains a popular destination for tourists and local office workers. It has also become home to an increasingly large residential population.
The Tin Building: Without Context or Precedent
The idea of moving the Tin Building is unprecedented. Simply put, a building in a New York City historic district has never been relocated. There are rare cases of individual landmarks that are not in their original location, most recently Hamilton Grange whose move, planned for more than a century, from one relocated spot to another has placed the historic home in a much more proper context. Buildings within historic districts though gain their meaning through their relationship with other structures. It’s all about context.
Putting the Tin Building alone on the edge of a pier is not putting it into context. Doing so would separate it from the district’s other market buildings and structures that housed other businesses that supported the fishing industry. While the FDR Drive does block the view of the middle floors of the building, the distinctive top is visible walking down Beekman Street and the ground floor market space opens directly onto South Street as it always has. The district was designated 23 years after the completion of this viaduct, the LPC acknowledging that the construction to the west and the east of the drive were one distinctive grouping, not split in half.
The New Market Building: Unprotected and Under Dire Threat
While outside of the city historic district, the demolition of the New Market Building would be a great loss. Its history is clearly stated across the front “FULTON FISH MARKET · CITY OF NEW YORK · DEPARTMENT OF MARKETS”. Opened in 1939, the building was touted in its day for its state of the art amenities and clean, modernist design. The building’s iconic history is undeniable and it should be considered for reuse.
The Fulton Fish Market is history; moving the Tin Building and demolishing the New Market Building would be erasing that history.
The Pier 17 Mall: Appropriate for 24 years, Doomed Today?
While the Pier 17 mall may not be universally loved, it was approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission as an appropriate addition to the district. The AIA Guide to New York calls it “Gigantic, playful, adroitly detailed. . . An instant urban landmark. ” The structure was designed by Benjamin C. Thompson, winner of the highest honor in American Architecture, the Gold Medal from the AIA, chair of the architecture department for Harvard University, and a noted theorist of use of urban architecture to promote joy and social life. He is best known for his work in the Festival Marketplace architectural movement that was pervasive in America’s cities in the 1970s and 1980s, and which makes direct reference to traditional waterfront pavilion design. One can’t help but wonder if in the future, New Yorkers would regret its loss. The most obvious quality of its replacements is “the shock of the new”, but is this appropriate for Manhattan’s oldest neighborhood? And let us not forget that “shockingly new” rarely ages well, and the lifespan of historic districts is not measured in years., but in decades or even centuries.
General Growth claims the new structures were designed with the district’s history in mind making references to fishnets and ship’s prows. The gargantuan scale and massing is like nothing found in the historic district and would create an imposing barrier between the seaport and the water. The materials and overly designed concepts for the buildings resemble s theme park, something that the district has long fought against becoming. In a district of straightforward, practical buildings, whimsy does not fit. A building should look like a building.
Historic Districts Are Not Clean Slates nor Empty Fields
This is part of a sad trend of developers who look at historic districts as clean slates for development and it must stop.
In the early 1980′s, the LPC agreed to the notion that something had to be done to invigorate the South Street Seaport area and approved the filling in of the space between Piers 17 and 18 and the construction of the present mall. Now they are being told that this development did not work and another, larger development scheme must take place.
At about that same time, in the late 1970′s, Saint Vincent’s Medical Center asked and received permission to demolish its 19th‘century Elizabeth Bayley Seton Building which the hospital deemed out of date and to construct the larger Link and Coleman Pavilions. The LPC has been recently told that those buildings are now no longer useful and an even larger residential building should go in their place. Each time such demolition and new construction is proposed, the construction gets larger and more out of context, and our city’s historic districts suffer. Historic Districts are not frozen in time; 10,000 approved applications for work on landmark buildings last year alone dispels that myth. However they are not clean slates or empty fields, the buildings which exist have precedence over the buildings someone wants to exist. Landmarks mark the land – they are indelible. That is one of their primary characteristics. They are not placeholders to be demolished when the next bright idea comes along. We cannot and should not allow our historic districts to be looked at as merely plots of developable land. To do so diminishes our history and our city.
HOW YOU CAN HELP:
Send a letter to LPC Chair Robert Tierney at email@example.com urging the Landmarks Commission to vote NO on the General Growth Properties proposal for the South Street Seaport Historic District and to protect the character of Manhattan’s oldest neighborhood.