The most talked-about part of General Growth Properties’ recent presentation to the Landmarks Preservation Commission of a proposal for a mixed-use development at South Street Seaport doesn’t even fall under the LPC’s jurisdiction: A 495-foot-tall hotel/condo tower that is the most visible part of SHoP Architects' design for GGP sits just outside of the historic district. What was on the agenda at the spirited October 21 hearing, however, was the overall appropriateness of the project—which includes four two-story retail buildings, a department store, and other uses on Pier 17—along with a proposal to relocate the Tin Building, the only historic structure in GGP’s plan.
That naturally didn’t stop preservationists from commenting on it, however: “The new tower will have a huge negative impact on the historic district,” Frank Sanchis, senior vice-president at the Municipal Art Society, told the commission. “The new construction would completely wall in the seaport at the waterside with a 42-story skyscraper.”
And so with the tower looming over the proceedings, the rest of the hearing revolved around the relocation of the historic Tin Building and the overall merits of the project. GGP’s proposal for the Seaport involves removing the 1982 mall and replacing it with a series of smaller buildings for retail and hospitality, moving the Tin Building to the edge of Pier 17, and building the residential and hotel tower. The new construction would sit in a series of public spaces and promenades.
The designers argued repeatedly that moving the Tin Building to the end of the pier and out from under FDR Drive would not only give it pride of place within the new development but restore it to its rightful historical site on the waterfront, which was blocked when Piers 17 and 18 were filled in to make way for the mall. “The significance of historic buildings partly resides in their historic context, which, over the years, has been lost to the Tin Building,” said Elise Quasebarth, principal of preservation consultancy Higgins & Quasebarth. Moving the building would also allow for a seamless connection to the East River Esplanade, another SHoP project.
The Tin Building was heavily damaged in a 1995 fire, and little of the existing structure is original. The team argued that this meant there is little of true historic value to displace. “The property owner’s and our intent is to take unprecedented steps in the recreation of the building,” said Richard Pieper, director of preservation at preservation architects Jan Hird Pokorny Associates.
While many of the preservationists did applaud the restoration efforts being put into the project—as well as GGP’s outreach in sharing the project with them during its development—they still took issue with the decision to move the Tin Building. “That so little of the original structure remains is all the more reason to leave it where it is,” Andrea Goldwyn of the Landmarks Conservancy said. “Its historic location is all that’s left of its historic role.”
Some also pointed to the dangerous precedent such a move could set. “Simply put, a building in a New York City historic district has never been relocated,” Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, said. He noted that a handful of individual landmarks had been moved to prevent their demolition, but never to satisfy a developer, something he and others said would become common practice if it were allowed here.
After the hearing, Gregg Pasquarelli, a principal at project architect SHoP Architects, told AN that it was about striking the right balance between reverent preservation and a successful plan to revive the neighborhood. “It’s a matter of understanding the trade-offs,” he said.
In the end, the project may come down to a question of economics. The development team, whose proposal has the imprimatur of the city’s Economic Development Corporation, said that it does not wish to ignore the seaport’s historic value, but that something must be done to revive it and make it enticing to locals as well as tourists.
“The South Street Seaport has been an underutilized part of Lower Manhattan for years, slowing its growth and holding the area back from the renaissance it deserves,” said John Skillman, a representative of the Partnership for New York City. Skillman and others said the new development would offer much needed amenities, like grocery stores and locally owned businesses, cultural and recreational space, and a Bryant Park–sized public plaza adjacent to the Tin Building.
Local City Council member Alan Gerson, the one person who could vote down the commission’s decision, expressed serious reservations about the project. “I remain willing and available to work with General Growth and the community to come up with a redevelopment plan that meets the financial needs of General Growth without obliterating the charm and history of this unique district and further separating our citizens from their own waterfront.”