Last night, at 6:00p.m. sharp, Community Board 1’s Landmarks Committee kicked off a public hearing on the Howard Hughes Corporation’s controversial plans to remake New York City’s South Street Seaport. The event was held at St. Paul’s Chapel in Lower Manhattan and it was standing room only before anybody got up to the mic. By five after, people waiting on the chapel steps were being turned away.
At first glance, the huge crowd makes sense. Since Howard Hughes first unveiled its plan to build a luxury tower next to the Seaport last year, local residents have been showing up in large numbers to meetings like this to voice their opposition. This event also comes shortly after Howard Hughes unveiled its revised Seaport plan: a shorter, SHoP-designed tower and more perks for the community. To many local residents and elected officials, though, that wasn’t enough. Tensions are still high and the developer is still pushing forward, so the turnout isn’t a big surprise.
But there was something noticeably different about last night’s crowd, and it didn’t take long to figure out what it was. More than half the people packed into St. Paul’s pews were wearing the same blue or yellow t-shirt that said “SEE / CHANGE” and “Howard Hughes is committed to saving the Seaport Museum.” Some of this t-shirt-wearing contingent said they worked for Howard Hughes and were there to show their support. Others said they were residents or small business owners and wanted the plan to move forward. But that wasn’t everybody.
Someone simply said his boss told him to show up. He declined to identify his boss or what line of work he was in, but admitted he didn’t live in the neighborhood. The same thing goes for another non-Seaport resident who said his boss—who has work relating to the Seaport—asked him to show up as a favor. Two men standing in the chapel’s balcony said they signed a petition and kind of just made their way into the event, one of the two worked Downtown. A young guy, maybe in his early 20s, said he was being paid to get people to sign those pro-Seaport petitions; yesterday, he said, was his first day on the job. Some people wouldn’t answer the “why are you here?” question at all; others said they didn’t really care if the tower got built or not.
As for the event itself, SHoP walked through its updated plans, and things played out on familiar lines. Those who support the plan still support it, and those who don’t, don’t. The crowd was obviously heavily tilted toward the former. When SHoP partner Gregg Pasquarelli mentioned his firm’s attention to historic detail, the crowd erupted in applause. It wasn’t until about 6:45 that people waiting outside were allowed into the event.
An hour or so later, the crowd was thinning out and the blue and yellow shirts could be heard making plans to meet up at the event’s “after party” that included free ice skating, drinks, and food. That party was held at a South Street Seaport bar and actually started before the hearing even ended. When AN walked by, bartenders—decked out in yellow t-shirts—could be seen passing beers to their patrons who were wearing the very same thing. The crowd was small at that point, but the party hadn’t officially started yet—there was still half an hour of public hearing left.
“A broad array of supporters including local residents, small business owners, and members of the labor and business community turned out in force last night to speak out in favor of the proposed plan for the Seaport,” said a spokesperson for the Howard Hughes Corporation in an email. “In fact, a recent poll shows that over 84 percent of Lower Manhattan residents support the redevelopment plan for the Seaport District. To thank supporters for taking time out of their evening, The Howard Hughes Corporation held a skate party at the Seaport Ice Rink.” That poll was commissioned by Howard Hughes.