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Cut through by the rumbling FDR Drive and shadowed on one side by the towering skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan, the South Street Seaport is still surprisingly transporting to New York City’s maritime past. Belgian block streets gridding through the 3.5-acre district, tall ships tilting in the water between piers, and an architectural legacy spanning 200 years preserve a 19th-century view of the city that has vanished just about everywhere else. It’s survived encroaching development, ill-fated malls, 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, and now is facing a major challenge in the form of the Howard Hughes Corporation (HHC), which wants to block the neighborhood’s East River view by building a 494-foot waterfront tower.
There’s no question that, especially following Sandy, the Seaport is in need of revitalization, with empty ghosts such as the Bridge Cafe, which dates back to 1794, remaining closed following the flooding. Howard Hughes has added a middle school and other improvements to boost the appeal of its development. But for many in the community, the permanent alteration of this rare relic of the past seems like too great a sacrifice.
“It really does come down to New Yorkers built that, and why should we give it away?,” David Sheldon, a member of the grassroots organization Save Our Seaport, told Hyperallergic. “I think the district, once we lose it, you can’t get it back, that’s the simple fact of it.”
This coming Friday and Saturday, as part of Jane’s Walk — a global festival of community walking tours inspired by urban activist Jane Jacobs — Sheldon will help lead a South Street Seaport Walk to highlight the neighborhood’s history, the development plans, and the resistance to them. On Sunday, the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance is leading a Towering Masts to Towers: A Conversation about the Past, Present, and Future of the Seaport Jane’s Walk, which will focus on the changes in the neighborhood and what they mean for New York’s identity as a port city.
“It’s not that we’re saying that the area doesn’t need work and it doesn’t need help, and indeed it does,” Sheldon said, adding that there is a “sense of this historic presence, and yet it’s a vital everyday neighborhood” where there are both “people buying groceries and people carrying supplies to the boats,” a place which should be able to “be preserved without that being impinged upon.”
As Charles V. Bagli reported for the New York Times in February, for 18 months the HHC has been working with the city’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) on its plan. David R. Weinreb, the HHC’s chief executive officer, told Bagli: “We feel like we’ve met every one of the community’s needs, except the elimination of the tower. The tower represents the economic driver for everything else.”
An initial backlash did persuade the HHC to reduce the height of its SHoP Architects-designed tower from 650 feet to 494. However, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer remained unconvinced, stating that “building a tower at the South Street Seaport is like building a tower at Colonial Williamsburg.” Last June, SHoP Architects told Downtown Express that the tower is “the only way to get enough revenue to get all of the goodies they want,” namely the improved, multimillion-dollar amenities for the area, the rehabilitation of its historic sites, and the conversion of Schermerhorn Row — where the South Street Seaport Museum is now — into affordable housing. Earlier this year year the HHC paid about $31 million for over 300,000 square feet of air rights at South Street, and it recently began marketing its interest in 80 South Street, which could speed up the district’s redevelopment.
Last month, Save Our Seaport presented an alternative vision for the South Street Seaport, in particular for the 1939 New Market Building and 1907 Old Market Building (also known as the Tin Building). In the HHC plan, the New Market Building would be torn down, and the Tin Building relocated, while in the Save Our Seaport proposal the Tin Building would be converted into a school, recreational space, and public food market, and the New Market Building would become a maritime activity space with room for a South Street Seaport Museum gallery.
As James M. Lindgren, author of Preserving South Street Seaport: The Dream and Reality of a New York Urban Renewal District, wrote on Curbed in February, the Seaport has been on the brink of disappearing before. The creation of the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1965 helped to secure its future, while the South Street Seaport Museum sought to preserve its past. (The 50th anniversary of that Landmarks Law is currently being commemorated uptown at the Museum of the City of New York.)
The city’s historic heritage, by virtue of being in the midst of a constantly evolving metropolis, must be part of vibrant local communities. As Sheldon of Save Our Seaport said of the area’s fragile history: “The magic of it is it doesn’t have a fence around it, it’s sitting on a city street.” There’s a chance to preserve that atmosphere at the South Street Seaport, and with HHC asserting its claims on the area, its future will inevitably involve some radical new developments. But preservation groups are hoping that those changes won’t come at the expense of the historic character of Manhattan’s oldest surviving neighborhood.
The South Street Seaport Walk with Save Our Seaport takes place May 1 and 2, and the Towering Masts to Towers: A Conversation about the Past, Present, and Future of the Seaport walk, with the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, is on May 3. Both are part of Jane’s Walk and depart from the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse (Fulton and Water streets, South Street Seaport, Manhattan).