Society for Industrial Archeology on HDC's Pier 15 Testimony

Dear IA friends,

Last week, the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission considered a design for a new pier 15 in the South Street Seaport Historic District. As you will see from press reports linked below, the design for this structure was approved (See related links at Gothamist, NY Post).

The Historic Districts Council, waterfront activists, and the Roebling Chapter opposed the modern design as inappropriate to the historic character of the area and problematic for use by historic ships, one of the its supposed goals. A glass-enclosed space of approximately 1600 sq. ft. is to be used for maritime programming, but most of the pier is given over to lawn, trees, and seating with a small cafe and ticketing area, presumably for admission to the ships.

HDC testified in part, “Unlike most urban renewal districts which permitted the government to seize properties to demolish and build anew, the goal of the Seaport district was for the government to take control of and restore historic structures. This goal seems to be lost. Now it appears that the city would prefer to “fancy up” the district, by reworking its historic envinroment to the extent that it becomes unrecognizable and completely divorced from the historic record. The district is starting to have a Disnified feel, something that was fought against for decades. This is unacceptable.” Further, they said, that although supporting re-building a pier lost years ago, “We strenously obejct however, to the gussying up of a pier with a structure designed for leisure in a district defined by its working history. The piers are a significant part of the history of the area which the LPC went out of its way to protect. They could have easily been left out of the designation of the historic district as districts typically focus on buildings. Instead the piers were included. Therefore, they should be treated with the same respect and protection as other landmarked structures are for their basic style and history, and the sense of place they contribute to a district. In addition to the building, greenery does not belong on a pier in an historic district; there is simply no historic precedent. Commissioners often speak out against projects that interfere with the gritty character of districts such as the Gansevoort Market. South Street Seaport was an earlier incarnation of such a market and its character should also be protected. It should be left a little rough around the edges, not cleaned up and stream-lined. This proposal feels so overdesigned – why not just let Pier 15 be a pier?”

HDCis responsible for adding the South Street Seaport Historic District to the Seven to Save list of New York’s most endangered historic sites, a list selected by the Preservation League of New York State. It was the only New York City site on the 2009 list.

The Roebling Chapter’s testimony read in part, “This thoroughly modern pier is out of character for the South Street Seaport Historic District. Above all, it is not functional as a mooring place for historic ships. It is simply a platform for passive recreation.

Although the Commission does not typically address nor dictate use of structures in a historic district, since the purpose of this pier is to serve the historic ships of the South Street Seaport Museum and interpret their history, evaluating its ability to fulfill this purpose should be part of the Commission’s deliberations. If the new pier does not succeed as a berthing place for historic ships, it should not be approved.”

Of course, whether the NYC Economic Development Corporation can or will expend the funds to build this pier in the current economic climate is yet to be seen.

Photos of some of the display boards presented at the LPC hearing are attached so you can see the proposed design.

–Mary Habstritt, Chair
Preservation Committee
Roebling Chapter, Society for Industrial Archeology

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