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Tall ships at the South Street Seaport (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise indicated)

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.”

Construction scaffolding from the Howard Hughes Corporation on Fulton Street

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.

The original 650-foot-tall Howard Hughes Corporation tower proposal (rendering by SHoP Architects)

The reduced 494-foot-tall Howard Hughes Corporation tower revealed in 2014 (rendering by SHoP Architects)

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.

Looking up Fulton Street toward the South Street Seaport Museum

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).

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

One reply on “South Street Seaport, Manhattan’s Oldest Intact Neighborhood, Faces Uncertain Future”

  1. Last December, I was at Saint Paul’s Chapel in Manhattan, the same church where George Washington went to pray after giving his first inaugural speech on April 30th, 1789. On that night it was the site that the Howard Hughes Corporation and its designers chose to give a sweeping presentation of what they would do if allowed to change the historic South Street Seaport. The Seaport has a long history and It’s one of the few places left in Manhattan that gives one a solid impression of what Manhattan was like in Washington’s time.

    And yet, instead of holding a “public” meeting as they had advertised, they packed the place with their supporters, dominated the “public input” list and had their surrogates endlessly praise them as if Hughes were some generous charity doing the Lord’s work. It was a shameless spectacle and from others at the church that night I heard they have a habit of doing it in other so-called “public” meetings. What it comes down to is that they were trying to frame the entire South Street Seaport redevelopment project as if it were a discussion, and it is not, nor has it been. The truth is that Howard Hughes is a shrewd organization but they are investing $1.5 billion into a development that almost nobody wants – except for them and their potential employees. They stand to make a lot of money, fair enough, but why pretend there is a public consensus?

    Their central concept is for a completely out-of-place high rise residential condo tower that not only obscures a clear view of the East River for many, but it’s also irresponsibly close to the waterfront (think of all those residential units vulnerable in some future hurricane Sandy) and would come to dominate the entire skyline for blocks. I am glad Ms. Meir is reporting on this because it’s the kind of story we are hearing far too often these days and usually we hear about it only when it’s too late. Fortunately this time it is not too late.

    The Hughes South Street Seaport money grab is similar to the one in which developers sought to demolish the New York Public Library in midtown last year and then planned to ship all of the books to New Jersey. Nobody wanted that to happen either – except Bloomberg’s developer-friendly business lobbyists That entire plan was flawed because a) there was no need 2) there was no vision and 3) no real consideration for the public or the character of the city, and that’s the same situation here.

    Similarly, back in 1975 Grand Central Terminal was almost bulldozed (like the old Penn Station was) to make way for a towering high rise (not so different from the one Hughes is proposing for the South Street Seaport). Indeed, that project might have gone ahead if not for the last minute intervention of Jackie Kennedy Onasis. About Grand Central she said:

    “If we don’t care about our past we can’t have very much hope for our future. We’ve all heard that it’s too late, or that it has to happen, that it’s inevitable. But I don’t think that’s true. Because I think if there is a great effort, even if it’s the eleventh hour, then you can succeed and I know that’s what we’ll do.”

    Jackie Kennedy Onasis had it right. Destructive development is not inevitable. But it’s just sickening to watch Howard Hughes pretend that it has met all of the community’s demands because it really has not. In fact, their builders, designers and developers displayed almost no regard for the actual historical significance of the area as a centuries-old market and maritime space. Instead what I saw was an professionally crafted, but uninspired version of a mall that looked as if it could be sited in any city in America. It had few qualities of the South Street Seaport’s character or 19th century charm. So it’s just what Manhattan needs, another mall.

    Even the destruction of the South Street Seaport Museum and its move to a tiny space blocks away seemed like an afterthought. I felt like they had such a great chance to persuade the few members of the public and the Community Board that made it inside the church, but I guess they didn’t feel the need to because 80% of the people in the church were brought there by Hughes. It gives the term “preaching to the choir” a whole new meaning!

    The saddest thing of all is that there is a history of public markets in the Seaport that goes back to the time of the Dutch, which will all be erased if Howard Hughes continues to get its way. The New Amsterdam Market revived the tradition in recent years and had been holding open air markets down there for quite some time until they got forced out.

    An additional historically significant but overlooked fact is that during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, slave ships would dock along the South Street Seaport waterfront and unload human cargo and march them up the street to the slave market that once stood at Pearl and Wall Street. Slaves were a big part of the maritime industry of colonial New York and they worked all along the seaport and Lower Manhattan. Is it right to let a developer whitewash their history by installing a GAP store and new hipster boutiques? It’s high time they who built early manhattan get their long overdue recognition. Hughes would have been wise to talk up the history of the area, but they didn’t appear to know it.

    As New Yorkers, we all know the script: developers move in, influence the city to sign a dumb contract, make elaborate, complex plans and hold sham meetings to pretend the neighborhood loves it. Then they manipulate the media and their thing gets built. Everyone cashes out and all of the affordable housing, historic preservation and such media-friendly rhetoric somehow gets tangled up in paperwork and never manifests. And yet, somehow the condos always manage to get built. Haven’t we seen this movie before?

    Anyway, I know Manhattan is constantly changing and that’s an indisputable fact of life. It is not a bad thing. However, it’s not hard to find examples of developers and preservationists working together to create great projects to achieve win-win situations. Tell me with $1.5 billion to invest, there are no dazzling, creative, innovative and historically respectful plans out there? Look at the High Line in Manhattan or at the creation of the African Burial Ground Monument to mark the site where 20,000 African slaves and freed men and women were buried. So it is possible to work with the public — but Howard Hughes just doesn’t seem to want to. I’m glad someone is trying to do something with that area, but the way they are going about It is both offensive and disrespectful.

    Once those nineteenth century buildings are gone, they’re gone forever.

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