On Tuesday, May 4, the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) approved by a 6-2 vote an application for a new residential tower at 250 Water Street in the South Street Seaport Historic District. This was the third time the Howard Hughes Corporation had presented the project, and this time, after the architects at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill made a few tweaks to the design, the LPC determined that the building was appropriate.
The City Club of New York stated our opposition to each iteration of this architecturally inappropriate, out of scale, and quite likely illegal residential tower. The approved design has nothing to do with the area’s historic architecture or scale, and the minimal gestures made in that direction hit a sour note.
Nowhere does the tower-on-a-podium configuration find resonance in the historic district. The architects, however, suggested that the tower does relate to the modern commercial and residential buildings just outside the district. Surprisingly, several commissioners echoed that rationale.
The design is predicated on the unsupported premise that for this purpose, the block can be divided down the middle. The half facing Water Street would mimic the scale and materiality of the historic buildings across the street, while the volume facing Pearl Street would reference the tall, modern buildings outside of the district. Nowhere does the landmarks law suggest such a solution could be fitting. A site is either within the historic district, or it is not. To argue that the edge condition encourages such a solution is unjustified, as referencing structures outside the district for design clues has nothing to do with being appropriate to the district itself.
The question of appropriateness – legally the only concern of the Landmarks Preservation Commission – has from the beginning been intertwined with the fate of the South Street Seaport Museum, now on life-support. The Howard Hughes Corporation has pledged to donate $50 million to the museum once this proposal wins final approval. We all want the museum to thrive, but we must point out that it is the City of New York which has starved it and placed it in the position of supporting an out of scale and architecturally inappropriate building as a matter of institutional survival.
The block known as 250 Water Street was included within the South Street Seaport Historic District when it was designated in 1977. The site was vacant even then, which meant that the Landmarks Commission intended to regulate whatever new construction was proposed. Various proposals came before the commission over the years, and one was finally approved, but it was never built. In 2003, specifically to prevent the out-of-scale development just approved the block was downzoned. Clearly, the city intended to limit height and bulk there.
It is outrageous that Howard Hughes requested approval from the Landmarks Commission for the design of a building that cannot be built without a zoning variance. The LPC has thus tacitly supported this massive upzoning with its approval of the design.
We are particularly troubled that this proposal calls for the unprecedented transfer of development rights from within the historic district to another site in the district. The legality of this maneuver is doubtful, and to our knowledge it has never been done before. The original idea was to fund the museum through the sale of unused development rights from the historic, low-scale buildings in the district. But the clear intention then was that the square footage would be transferred to sites beyond the boundaries in order to safeguard the scale, character, and sense of place of the historic district. By approving this application, the city disregards the history of controls imposed upon this site and all preservation precedents in order to set a new precedent by allowing such a transfer of development rights.
The Hughes Corporation is misleading in their invocation of the 1972 special district, which designated certain granting sites and other receiving sites. First, the idea was that the museum would profit directly from the sale of those development rights. Here, the city has invented development rights on Pier 17 and sold them to the corporation, which in turn promises a donation to the museum. That is a perversion of the original intention of the special district.
Second, Pier 17 was never designated a granting site, nor was 250 Water Street a receiving site. Originally, the city made development rights transferrable from the historic blocks in the district to save those historic structures. Pier 17 is in no way historic. So where do those 400,000 square feet of excess development rights come from?
Most disturbing from our perspective, the vote to approve 250 Water Street compromises the integrity of the landmarks law. Surely other developers are watching this application to see whether historic districts will remain inviolate. The city is poised to upzone SoHo-NoHo, arguably to enable construction of affordable housing. In essence, City Planning is all but removing protective zoning from a historic district.
We must ask: what is the point of zoning if property owners are routinely permitted to build far beyond what the zoning allows? And what is the future of historic districts, places designated to preserve and protect their unique sense of place, if unused development rights can be plopped down in their midst?
Despite what LPC Chair Sarah Carroll said in finding the proposal appropriate, this will indeed set a precedent. Applicants will essentially argue that they are not bound by the existing zoning whatsoever, and, following the Hughes Corporation’s lead, will argue for the social benefits of a proposal – affordable housing, community improvements, funding a cultural organization – and mount a public relations campaign to tout those supposed benefits. Those benefits will come at the expense of the historic district, and at the expense of the landmarks process.
Approving 250 Water Street, which design-wise could be built anywhere in the city as there is no connection to Seaport, could drive a stake through the heart of the landmarks law and threaten the zoning protections in other historic districts. This precedent does not bode well.
By: Jeffrey Kroessler, President of The City Club of New York