On Tuesday, Gregg Pasquarelli and his partners at SHoP Architects moved ahead on a much-anticipated project when New York's Landmarks Preservation Commission voted 7-1 in favor of a new pier and promenade for the South Street Seaport district, part of the firm’s larger East River Esplanade. It was the last major regulatory hurdle for the project, a portion of which began construction last fall near Wall Street.
It’s been rough sailing for the SHoP crew of late, given the firm's struggles with the commission over its plans for a mixed-use project at the adjacent Pier 17. That design was rejected as out-of-touch with the district's maritime history, but for Pier 15, the commissioners largely agreed with Pasquarelli, who emphasized its antecedents in the multistory working and recreational piers that once lined the New York waterfront.
“While I don’t agree with every detail of this, I think the overall approach is an appropriate, 21st-century interpretation of its historic forebears,” commission chair Robert Tierney said. Some of his colleagues even argued that it was not so much the design as the reactivation of the waterfront that was the project’s focal point—the return of New Yorkers to the shore.
“The most important preservation part of this effort is pulling people to the pier, pulling them underneath the FDR and to the water,” commissioner Margery Perlmutter said. “Whatever you have to do to achieve that is appropriate.”
The plans for Pier 15 have not changed much since they were unveiled in November 2007. The major components remain a new pier constructed upon the site of one that collapsed decades ago—a sign of just how far the waterfront had fallen in the city. On the main level, there will be fendering and bollards for the Seaport Museum's historic ships to dock, as well as a small boat launch and a maritime-themed pavilion, all of which were major demands from the maritime community.
Local residents had called for ample open space, which SHoP delivered by adding a second level to the pier, a feature the firm found was once very common on the waterfront and which helped win support for the idea from the commissioners, who especially admired the use of a hull-like wooden shape for the base of the second level.
What did not impress them was the inclusion of three grass plots atop the pier. “The green space is not within the historic character of the district,” vice-chair Pablo Vengoechea said. “There was once a green edge on the water, but it is long gone, especially within the seaport.”
Preservation groups remain divided by the project. “The architects have done a good job of balancing the many different viewpoints of what the East River waterfront landscape should be, and we believe this pier design should be approved by the LPC,” Melissa Baldock, a fellow at the Municipal Art Society, told the commission. But Nadezhda Williams, preservation associate at the Historic Districts Council, disagreed. “HDC supports the rebuilding of a pier originally in the district and lost," she said. "We strenuously object, however, to the gussying up of a pier with a structure designed for leisure in a district defined by its working history.”
That working history, however, is so far gone from Lower Manhattan that the commission seemed eager to leave it in the past. “Although it is not a recreation of a historic pier, it is a modern interpretation that serves the needs of the community,” said commissioner Diana Chapin. And that, her colleagues agreed, was appropriate enough.