Landmarks Commission slams Seaport project despite city support
From the Downtown Express, November 21-27, 2008
By Julie Shapiro
The city Landmarks Preservation Commission had harsh words Tuesday for General Growth Properties, the developer hoping to revamp the South St. Seaport.
The L.P.C. did not take a vote, but nearly all of the commissioners urged General Growth to rethink the project.
“It’s not about whether the new design is good or bad,” commissioner Roberta Brandes Gratz said. “It’s inappropriate.”
The commission weighed in on General Growth’s proposal to demolish the Pier 17 mall, move the historic Tin Building to the end of the pier and build retail and a boutique hotel up to 120 feet tall on the pier. General Growth also wants to build a 500-foot tower just north of Pier 17, but since the tower would be outside of the South Street Seaport Historic District, the L.P.C. did not consider it.
The commissioners said the new buildings were too tall and modern, overwhelming the low-rise brick buildings west of South St. The commissioners were also unhappy with the move of the 1907 Tin Building, a contributing building in the historic district. Several commissioners even advocated for the preservation of the 1984 Pier 17 mall.
“They were just comments, not a vote,” Michael McNaughton, a vice president with General Growth, said the next day. McNaughton estimated it would take between two weeks and three months for General Growth to respond to the L.P.C.’s comments with a modified version of the plan. He said all options are on the table, including leaving the Tin Building where it is. General Growth could still build the tower without moving the Tin Building.
“It’s difficult to say whether we would proceed with only pieces of the plan, but I can’t tell you we wouldn’t,” McNaughton said.
The L.P.C.’s criticism was the latest setback for the project, which has grown uncertain as General Growth’s stock continues to hover around 50 cents a share, down 99 percent from a high of nearly $50 a share in the past year. G.G.P. is considering declaring bankruptcy if it fails to refinance the portions of its $27 billion debt coming due.
Other parts of the city administration have pushed the Seaport redevelopment forward, and the city Economic Development Corp. reaffirmed its support in a statement Wednesday, saying the city is sensitive to the L.P.C.’s concerns but considers the project to be “of great importance to the community and the city.”
The mayor appoints all Landmarks commissioners. Dep. Mayor Robert Lieber, who oversees economic development, has also been supportive of the project.
General Growth’s architect told Downtown Express last month that he did not expect the L.P.C. to object to moving the Tin Building or demolishing the Pier 17 mall, while the new construction could pose more of a problem.
But as it turned out, the only commissioner who was on board with General Growth’s plans was Bob Tierney, the commission’s chairperson.
“It’s a mess down there in terms of Pier 17,” Tierney said. “It has been for some time.”
At Tuesday’s L.P.C. meeting, Tierney said he thinks the broad strokes of General Growth’s proposal are on track, and it’s just a matter of working out the appropriateness of the details.
Several other commissioners said they found SHoP Architects’ designs “seductive” during the initial presentation at a hearing in October.
“I felt myself being drawn into it — hook, line and sinker,” commissioner Stephen Byrns said.
But last weekend, Byrns spent two hours walking around the Seaport and was struck by how unique it is. It has grit, like the Meat Market, and early architecture like the West Village, he said. The soaring towers of the Brooklyn Bridge add an almost inspirational twist, he added.
“It’s really, really important to preserve that strong disconnect between the low-rise [historic district] and the towers of the bridge,” Byrns said. At 120 feet, the new buildings on Pier 17 are too tall, he said, although the height is within the zoning limit for the historic district.
Commissioner Margery Perlmutter agreed with Byrns, and she also criticized the modern, glassy design of the new retail buildings. The historic Seaport is a gritty jumble of worn metal and stone, while SHoP’s designs, especially the retail pavilions beneath the F.D.R. Dr., are “shopping mall-esque,” Perlmutter said.
Gregg Pasquarelli, principal at SHoP, clutched his heart in mock dismay as Perlmutter spoke.
“The gloves are off,” one commissioner joked, while another called out to Pasquarelli, “Defend yourself!”
Pasquarelli replied that he understood the need for grit, and he tried to incorporate maritime elements into the design. The glass makes the buildings transparent, which means they block fewer views, he said.
But criticisms of the design continued.
Elizabeth Ryan, another commissioner, said SHoP is bringing seafaring materials onto land. “That feels very faux to me in every way,” she said. She called the design a “huge missed opportunity” and said she would have preferred something like San Francisco’s Ferry Building Marketplace.
The move of the Tin Building raised the most ire among the commissioners, with nearly all opposing it as currently proposed. Much of the former fish market building was destroyed during a fire in the 1990s, and General Growth wants to salvage what remains and rebuild a restored version of the building at the tip of Pier 17. The Tin Building currently sits at the base of the pier along South St., partly eclipsed by the elevated F.D.R. Dr.
The commissioners questioned whether General Growth had given enough thought to alternatives to moving the building.
“The idea of relocating landmarks should always be a last resort and really to enable a rescue,” Gratz said, “not for the convenience of a development.”
McNaughton, from General Growth, said it wasn’t a matter of convenience but a question of making the project work. Moving the Tin Building opens up the Beekman St. corridor, providing another entrance to the pier.
“Financially, it would not be viable” to leave the Tin Building where it is, McNaughton said, though he said the next day it was a possibility. The restoration and move of the Tin Building will cost $70 million and the proposed restaurant-catering hall would presumably be more profitable with a river view.
The move also clears a path for the East River Waterfront esplanade, which the city plans to build from the tip of Lower Manhattan up to East River Park. The Tin Building currently blocks a portion of that esplanade and would force it to make a detour under the F.D.R. Dr.
But the commissioners said the esplanade wasn’t a good enough reason to move a historic building. Gratz gave the example of Pier A, the former firehouse building jutting out of Battery Park. Pier A was once considered for demolition to make way for an esplanade, but it was ultimately preserved.
“Moving historic buildings for this purpose is inappropriate,” Gratz said.
The part of the esplanade ducking under the F.D.R. Dr. could be an “exciting moment,” Perlmutter said. She urged General Growth to have fun with the Tin Building and modify its structure to make it more transparent — just as long as they leave it where it is, across the street from the low-rise historic district.
Pasquarelli said one of the motivations behind the design, and particularly behind the move of the Tin Building, was to extend the city’s grid out onto the pier, carving pedestrian pathways and view corridors. Several commissioners liked that idea, approving of the new sightlines to the Brooklyn Bridge, but Ryan said the narrow corridors offered nothing more than a glimpse, not a view.
Historically, the grid ended at the edge of the mainland and the pier presented a different experience, said Pablo Vengoechea, vice chairperson of the commission.
Perlmutter added, “I don’t understand the idea of introducing a view corridor where historically there has been none.”
Pasquarelli replied that the city has expanded out into the East River once every 100 years, which he saw as historic precedent for extending the grid.
Ryan, though, said the concept of view corridors seemed incidental. “It almost feels to me that they’ve been thrown in there to justify the proposal,” she said.
During the discussions, several commissioners mentioned their concern over the 500-foot condo and hotel tower that General Growth hopes to build on the site of the New Market building outside the city’s historic district.
“Although we’re not supposed to consider the tower that’s going to loom over this, I can’t separate it,” Ryan said.
General Growth declined to respond to the commissioners’ questions about the historic significance of the 1939 New Market building, which would be demolished under the plan.
The hulking Pier 17 mall building, whose demolition was expected to be the easiest part of General Growth’s application, also found a defender at the L.P.C. hearing. Byrns said he looked at the building closely after several people lauded it during an earlier hearing. From the shed structure to the metal detailing, Byrns said he found plenty worth preserving in Benjamin C. Thompson’s design.
“We just don’t want to trash it quite so quickly,” Byrns said.
While the commission is steadfast in preserving very old buildings, Byrns said the commissioners should give more thought to the importance of newer buildings that could one day grow in significance.
The L.P.C.’s criticism comes as the community’s support for the project is faltering as well, in the wake of the Department of Education’s conclusion that the Seaport does not need a school. General Growth had promised to provide space for a school as an amenity if the D.O.E. said the seats were needed.
“With the school off the table, it completely changes the picture and the analysis,” said Julie Menin, chairperson of Community Board 1.
The community board passed an advisory resolution last month that did not oppose the landmarks aspects of the project. But Menin said Wednesday that the main reason she did not object to the move of the Tin Building was because she and other parents thought a new school was so important. The community board’s Executive Committee will meet next Monday to reconsider General Growth’s landmarks application and possibly pass a new advisory resolution disapproving it.
Even if the project moves successfully through the Landmarks Preservation Commission, it will face many additional hurdles at the city, state and federal levels, including the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure. Menin has said that the community board would only consider the ULURP if the project included a new school.
“I would be shocked if the community board were to approve the ULURP under these circumstances,” Menin said.