April 17, 2012 – Pier 17

Statement of the Historic Districts Council
Certificate of Appropriateness Hearing


Item 1
129003- Block 73, lot 10-
89 South Street – South Street Seaport Historic District
A modern pier and retail structure built circa 1980. Application is to demolish the structure on the pier and construct a new building.

Before weighing the appropriateness of the proposed new building, it must be decided whether the demolition of a building approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission that specifically speaks to the historic district in its size, massing, materials, and details, and that was designed in a specific architectural style by the leading architect of that movement over thirty years ago is appropriate. HDC feels it is not

South Street Seaport is unusual in the histories of preservation and urban renewal for being one of the few places where the two came together. Rather than depending on the wrecking ball as so many urban renewal projects did, this plan looked to the preservation of the historic structures and construction of contextual new buildings to bring the neighborhood back to life. The Pier 17 pavilion was part of a project that was the largest Urban Development Action Grant partnership ever funded and included the restoration of Schermerhorn Row by Jan Hird Pokorny Associates, the restoration of the Museum Block and construction of the Bogardus Building by Beyer Blinder Belle, and the construction of the Fulton Market building by Benjamin Thompson.

That Benjamin Thompson was chosen to design two new buildings, the Fulton Market building and the Pier 17 pavilion, should come as no surprise. After World War II, Thompson worked with Bauhaus proponent Walter Gropius at the Architects Collaborative but took a different turn when he founded Benjamin Thompson and Associates. He made a splash in 1976 introducing the concept of Festival Marketplace Architect with the opening of Boston’s Faneuil Hall Market. The idea that a dilapidated inner-city location could be a place of celebration, life and enjoyment for all was a truly radical one in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Thompson went on to other projects and cities including Harborplace in Baltimore and Union Station in Washington, D.C. Speaking of Thompson’s work just after his death in 2002, Moshe Safdie noted, “It was an extraordinary celebration of design, life, urbanism and all the things we tend to take for granted now. He was one of the forces that changed America in that respect.”

The pavilion Thompson designed for the newly combined Piers 17 and 18 makes specific references to the South Street Seaport Historic District. Its gables, eaves and pitched roofs recall those of other existing buildings in the district as well as other important but long-gone structures such as the Fulton Ferry Terminal. Its metal material makes reference to other market buildings, most notably the neighboring Tin Building and WPA-era New Market Building. The open restaurants of the base harkens back to open market spaces and the upper floor decks provide space to enjoy river breezes and views much like pleasure parks on piers did a century ago. There is no mistaking it though for a 19th-century or early 20th-century structure; the Pier 17 pavilion is its own building from its own time. Seen from the Brooklyn Bridge, the Brooklyn Heights Promenade and the ever-increasingly used East River, it creates a fitting visual – for those disembarking vessels, physical – and some would even say iconic, gateway to the South Street Seaport Historic District.

Nearly thirty years old, by a noted architect, approved by the Commission, relating to the district and its history, the Pier 17 pavilion deserves to be retained. When an historic building in a district does not “function” the way its owners want it to, the building should not automatically be eyed for demolition. It should be adapted and repurposed the way so many other buildings are in this district and around the city. HDC has real doubts that Pier 17 is actually a commercial failure – a visit on just about any day of the week will show it to be a place teeming with people and activity. (An interesting twist on the historic trade that once took place on these piers, there is even a currency exchange office proving that dollars are in use.) If change is desired and management is serious, the vast interior of the pavilion offers numerous opportunities for retrofitting. As historian Francis Morrone wrote in a 2008 New York Sun article, “Whatever may have gone wrong with the marketplace, it wasn’t the architecture.”

New Construction
Besides that fact that it would begin with the demolition of the existing Pier 17 pavilion, the proposed new building poses a number of concerns. In general, HDC finds that it relates better to the glassy buildings outside the South Street Seaport Historic District in lower Manhattan rather than the district itself.

The inspiration photos in the presentation, which handily are not labeled, seem to take all waterfronts in Manhattan and elsewhere as equal precedents, rather than considering what is right for this historic district. Three of the four examples titled the NYC Waterfront Piers are on the Hudson River where most shipping moved to towards the end of the 19th century when larger, ocean-going vessels found the East River to be to shallow. Page 27 has an image from San Francisco, and the page titled Retail, Markets, Activity Central includes a photo of Seattle’s Pike Place Market. Rather than hunting far and wide for examples to justify the proposed design, the applicant should look to the historic district in which the site sits in order to create a building that can speak with its neighbors.

While the building may be of equal height to the present pavilion, it is not equal in overall size. What is now three stories with an attic-like roof will become four full stories The existing peaked gables which make up the charming roofline would be boxed off to create two enormous floors each with over 60,000 square feet of retail space, about one and one half the size of the average large suburban supermarket. The popular open decks of the two upper floors would also be lost. The new building also appears in the plans to extend for the first three floors right up to the Tin Building. Besides the increased size of the new building, we are concerned that the historic market building needs some breathing room, particularly if it is ever to be reused.

HDC finds the futuristic warren of shipping container-like structures that make up the first two stories to be unwelcoming and out of context. The space will be about as inviting as under the FDR Drive. Our concerns about the building becoming a giant billboard are thankfully prevented by the translucent channel glass and narrow show windows, but this does create a certain opaqueness to the building. With the additional floor space, it would block views of the open sky on the outside, while preventing any chance to enjoy the magnificent river views from the interior.

Much has been made in the presentation about the public or open space, but we wonder just how public it is and for how often. The present public decks can be accessed from all sides of the pavilion’s exterior without going through the mall. The proposed escalator to the roof on the south side – the side on which most visitors having come down Fulton Street approach the water – would make people stop in the retail space of the upper floors. The only access directly to the proposed roof is from an escalator on north side which can be reached only by going through the service entrance or the ground floor retail space. On the roof, more retail can be found in addition to a beer garden and outdoor bar – all private spaces in an area being touted as public. We also question how often the stage will be used for performances and if they will require a fee, both restrictions set on public space.

Other market buildings
HDC is disappointed to see that the Tin Building continues to waste away and we are concerned for the fate of the New Market Building just next to it. A contributing building to the National Register historic district, the WPA structure which served as part of the Fulton Fish Market would make logical physical and historic fit in the South Street Seaport Historic District. HDC asks that you calendar this structure and consider it for inclusion in the district.



15 April 2012
1 Centre Street, 9th Floor
New York City, NY 10007
Attn: Robert Tierney, Chairman

Dear Robert Tierney, and Members of the Commission,

At the request the members of the Historic Districts Council and the New Amsterdam Market regarding the proposed replacement of the Pier 17 building at the Seaport, I offer the following observations.

I am writing because I believe the Pier 17 building should be preserved as an architectural landmark that represents the Manhattan waterfront with singular distinction. It should remain—but be reinvigorated—as a vibrant center of the Seaport waterfront emphasizing enhanced public activities, supported by appropriate and reconfigured commercial activities.

Under the direction of AIA Gold Medalist Benjamin Thompson, I served as the BTA Associate in charge of master planning and design for the South Street Seaport project. At BTA as well as in my own practice I have served as a principal designer or retail consultant to other specialty public-private partnership projects including Harborplace, Baltimore; Bayside, Miami; Union Station, Washington, DC; and Grand Central Terminal, New York.
The Pier 17 building was the result of collaboration over several years by The City of New York, The Rouse Company, BTA, and the South Street Seaport Museum. The Landmarks Commission, and New York State played significant roles in the design, approvals and financing for this project. Several other architects contributed, including Jack Beyer of Beyer Blinder Belle on the Museum Block, and Jan Hird Pokorny on the Schermerhorn Row buildings.

Benjamin Thompson & Associates, Inc, now BTA+, had completed the design and opening of FaneuilHall Marketplace in 1978, introducing The Rouse Company to the project after several years of search carried out by Ben Thompson beginning in 1970–71. The BTA/Boston/Rouse partnership became a widely emulated model for subsequent projects, including South Street Seaport.

Over the years, the place-based spirit of seminal urban projects of this type has been slowly eroded by a lazy sort of greed, driven by the financial “bottom line.” Control of such projects by owners primarily motivated in that way has, paradoxically, reduced the very profits desired. This has lead to a long-running sequence of “fixes” that have brought a numbing uniformity wherein “bankable” national and international tenants have displaced “indigenous” home-grown creativity and innovation.
Initially, the expansion of the ruins of the old Pier 17 to support a new pavilion building was proposed by Ben Thompson to solve the problem of inadequate “critical mass”—uses associated with the Seaport—to create a functional “waterside” destination in support of the Museum. The final design reflects his sensibilities regarding public access to the water, views to the Brooklyn Bridge, and historically appropriate contextual design. In addition, the elaborated pier edge details and the “working pier” along the north side provide continuous public circulation levels showcasing the Museum ships and the Brooklyn Bridge. As an expression of the collaborative intent of the Development Plan of 1980, the Pier building has become an icon, perhaps unexpectedly, of the Seaport Museum and the entire Manhattan waterfront. As a part of the 20th Century additions to the Seaport, it relates to the TinBuilding and New Market Building, but recalls the spirit, and uses, of former ferry terminals such as
the Fulton Ferry that once stood on South Street. It is a building designed by an AIA Gold Medalist in response to a major public-private partnership at a time when faith in the city was at a low ebb, and when the Seaport Museum was threatened with extinction. While it is not a perfect realization of the spirit originally intended, a significant case for its preservation should be made—combined with modifications to expand public uses on the pier and updates to its commercial components.
The South Street Seaport project was undertaken by the largest UDAG partnership ever funded. In spite of this, the proposed replacement of Pier 17 continues the ongoing failure of its owners to fully realize and maintain the goals of the original partnership. The programming of this new proposal provides an illustration:

Enter the suburban “big box” of the distributed landscape! The new scheme for Pier 17 imagines two floors of large tenants (such as Target?), enclosed along their back sides by glass. I have to wonder whether this expression will avoid the look of a service corridor (with giant graphics?), or simply place the detritus of delivery on public display—whether through clear or translucent channel glass. Such tenants rely on extreme turnover of stock to achieve adequate sales, and are thus usually surroundedby large parking lots in low rent quarters. As the pinnacle of container-based shipping and marketing, this programming hardly relates to the break-bulk history of South Street Seaport.
• Can the localized New York spirit of place for South Street Seaport be rebuilt?
• Yes—It is quite possible to reverse the erosion of uniqueness with “re-localization” to restore place-based spirit. Strong “spirit of place” can lead to extraordinary success—weak spirit leads to weak economics.
• Can the existing Pier 17 building be updated to strongly support today’s goals?
• Yes—its iconic presence can respond to much stronger public environment—countering years of “maintenance leasing” and progressive privatization.
• Is reliance on large “bankable” tenants contributing to Seaport goals—and further, is glass an appropriate primary architectural material in this historic context?
• No—It is historically inappropriate and very unlikely to be economically successful.  At BTA+ we have evolved a wide variety of techniques used to create extraordinary success in our projects. Unfortunately, successive project teams have not understood, or have ignored, the principles involved. The result has been the erosion of spirit and localized uniqueness readily observed
today. However, such erosion can be reversed, and in the case of Pier 17 should be.
I encourage you to consider the preservation, with update, of Ben Thompson’s Pier 17—in preference to a far more expensive and questionable replacement.

BTA+ Architects
Philip Loheed, AIA, NCARB, Assoc ASLA


Commissioner Robert Tierney, Chair
Landmarks Preservation Commission
Municipal Building, 9th Floor
One Center Street
New York, NY 10007

Dear Mr. Tierney
I would like to contribute three observations on the proposed reconstruction of Pier 17. These contain different angles of view on the resulting impact on site and city.

1. May I first pen a few words as a modern-historic preservationist directly involved in the initial Seaport recreation?

South Street Seaport today remains one of the few imageable destinations in Manhattan where citizens can legally and safely get close to the river with some comfort, for real experience of river life. Nearby streets and piers have survived as an intensely active public zone, characterized by heavy lifting and lusty hawking. Thanks to centuries of prudent stewardship, the area still can display a functional building inventory of original vernacular character.

Benjamin Thompson & Associates spent six years developing South Street’s concepts of commerce and public culture. It was also our charge to bring together the whole area as a neighborhood expressing what “public place,” and ”place for people” really means in the city. A Public Place welcomes reasonable public access throughout its domain, facilitating social exchange . offering both services and contact with walk-in history in a genuine environment.

The BTA team gave particular thought to the special experience of Pier 17, with its high balcony perch with a dramatic viewing perspective on the East River, affording the daily stream of visitors a “wow” moment in confronting the simultaneous vistas of city landmarks marks up and down the waterway.

All of these amenity aspects, as planning priorities, weigh into the value that Pier 17 has modeled as the city’s tenant occupant on this historic property dedicated to public enjoyment. These standards, established by intense collaboration with city and private interests, should stand today as baseline criteria.

2. A few words on the design character of the 1985 Pier 17.
Ben Thompson and team, of which I was one, worked intensely on the programming and design of South Street Seaport district, in hand with the Museum, City, developer and many other participants.

Our charge from the City and developer was to design a ”whole place,” an historic district with great respect for the preserved history and buildings, as we worked to remake Fulton Market and Pier 17 as compatible modern members of the total context. We were not seeking to create “designer showcases,” as privately owned buildings might be: we were somehow composing with materials, forms, scale, and details derived from the site itself, recomposing them to contain today’s public functions, in a building form thought of (like the ones in the district) as vernacular.

Vernacular is most popularly understood to be “the language as we speak it.” Our goal was to speak the same language as remaining and remembered structures in the hood, with reference to precedents in commerce and in pier character itself. In particular, we discovered that the ancestor piers of the Bridge zone had evolved special public importance. Last century, the City arranged for the upper level decks, above active loading areas, to be reserved as free Pleasure Parks on the river, inviting citizens to escape the dense humid streets for the river breezes, and to arrange dances and their own group entertainments.

We found those pier precedents persuasive as we composed structure lines, roof shapes and exterior expression to make a statement consistent with the feeling and experience of the invaluable long-lived seaport.

“Vernacular: Of the Place.” The character of this very place was, memorably, a port of working piers also affording the people pleasurable access to the river.

3. A few final words as an observer of modern urban commerce:
From seeing only early images of the proposed replacement for Pier 17, one has the impression is that this building is not conceived as a public place. It shows no tendency to offer welcome, amenities or appealing space to accommodate crowds of people — who ingreat numbers were enjoying all three-levels of Pier 17 on the recent Easter weekend. This suggests that there is a different business plan, one for a building that is privatized. As pictured, there is really no place for lots of people to spend time there, other than sitting on the outdoor steps if there is space. The enlarged footprint has apparently swallowed most of the plaza. The relationship to the water itself is rigid and impersonal. If restaurant seating were placed on an upper level behind the glass wall, it would seem to be an enclosed experience with possibly unclear vistas through the glass.

Looking to the interior rendering, one sees no inviting or ample space for seating or strolling , or even a reason for being there. A 750-seat boutique concert shell on the roof might be popular and welcome for 750 people (or might it be a nightmare for 100,000 folks in the surrounding sound zone?)

The report is that the interior 2- 3 floors, behind glittering glass, could be dedicated to one or more big box retailers (or possibly big box brokers or law firms), one to a floor. That, for all of us, can be read as announcement of an entirely different agenda: Big Box above ground level will use NO show windows; Big Box is the notorious no-window operation – it is controlled space entirely turned inward behind blank wlls. No matter how exciting the view, Big Boxers will turn their backs on the river.

Shouldn’t we ask, what justifies this here? Evidently it is an owner’s ability to capture more premium square footage. Does that compute here? The pier as built has 215,00 sq.ft. gross, with 142,000 net leasable. End to end, it provides sheltered public access to the river’s edges and views for all who come. If the projected 250,000 sq.ft. in fact are Net, it seems that the payoff — for trading in the seaport neighborhood, tradition, character, public usefulness on this waterfront land — is the private owner’s benefit im adding 100,000 sq. ft.– maybe two tenants-worth.

This program and building could happen anywhere, most likely uptown.
It is hard to figure the financial justification for a large conversion and construction cost here yielding that small measure of return.
A different and ironic outcome seems predictable : the rent for leasable footage will inevitably rise to premium rates; privatization will intensify, which forces a turn to luxury retail and top-drawer private firms, paying for the prestige of being “on the waterfront” that they cannot use and perhaps will not even see very clearly.

There are innumerable new uses that might occupy and support a reasonably renovated pier in the continuing spirit of public-private collaboration. There are successful prototypes all around the USA.

I hope, on behalf of the multitudes of continuing Pier 17 users, that those consideration will remain an option.


Jane Thompson, President THOMPSON DESIGN GROUP
35 Channel Center Street Boston, Mass. 02210 [email protected]

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