Proposed Pier 17 development arouses controversy

Developer intends to relocate the Tin Building, site of the former Fulton Fish Market. On October 21, 2008, Landmarks considered a presentation on the redevelopment of Pier 17 in the South Street Seaport Historic District. Developer General Growth Properties, which leases much of the South Street Seaport from the City, intends to demolish the Pier 17 Mall, relocate the 1907 Tin Building to the east end of Pier 17, and construct a new seven-building mixed-use complex including a “boutique hotel.” GGP also intends to construct a 495ft. residential/hotel skyscraper just outside the historic district.

At the hearing, GGP Vice President Michael McNaughton testified that the company acquired the property in 2007, and originally intended to build a theater for Cirque du Soleil on the pier. GGP later determined that a theater would be “an inappropriate use,” and created a new plan that would reestablish the Seaport as “no longer an appendage to the City, but part of the fabric of the City itself.”

Architectural historian Elise Quasebarth, on behalf of GGP, testified that the FDR Drive separated the Tin Building from the Seaport’s other merchant buildings, and the construction of the new Pier 17 would cut the building off from the waterfront if it remained in its current location. Quasebarth argued that GGP’s plan to reconstruct the building at the east end of the pier would enhance the Seaport’s “sense of place.” Architect Richard Piper, who would be responsible for the Tin Building’s relocation and restoration, testified that a 1995 fire had destroyed much of the original fabric, and that the building had undergone extensive alterations prior to the fire. Piper testified that all of the building’s windows and signs were unoriginal, and the cornice had been replaced with an imitation made of fiberglass. Piper claimed that the relocated building would be closer to the 1907 original than the existing building. Gregg Pasquarelli, of SHoP Architects, explained that moving the Tin Building was necessary to allow views of the Brooklyn Bridge from the esplanade.

Pasquarelli also presented a series of sea-themed buildings, inspired by ships’ rigging, ribbing, and sails, as well as fishnets and fish scales. The developers chose to keep the seven new buildings inside the historic district under a maximum height of 120ft., and maintain a variety of sizes in the proposed structures. The boutique hotel would be hung from a superstructure, with two sections separated by a transparent skywalk. A series of pavilions would be built beneath the FDR Drive, which Pasquarelli believed would help bridge the gap caused by the highway and draw pedestrians to the pier.

Council Member Alan Gerson, in whose district the proposal lies, called the project “unacceptable,” stating that it “does not reflect the history of the Seaport.” Preservationists were unanimous in their opposition: Christabel Gough, of the Society for the Architecture of the City, stated that the project “raises kitsch to a new level,” while the Historic District Council’s Simeon Bankoff said he “categorically, emphatically, and completely reject[s] every aspect of this proposal.” Bankoff also stated that the “gargantuan scale and massing is like nothing found in the historic district.”

Many argued that the relocation of the Tin Building was both unprecedented and inappropriate. A representative of the Municipal Art Society testified that “a historic building should be relocated from its original location only as a means of last resort,” not “for the convenience of a developer.” Others took issue with the scale of the residential/hotel tower just outside of the district; Andrea Goldwyn of the Landmarks Conservancy stated that it would “overwhelm the Historic District and block views to the Brooklyn Bridge.”

Supporters of the development included the Alliance for Downtown New York, whose representative stated that the project “embodies the spirit of the past in an exciting and appropriate new context.” Author Philip Lopate and filmmaker Ric Burns also sent letters in support of the development, with Lopate arguing against “preserving [the Seaport] in amber.”

With testimony having continued long past the meeting’s scheduled end time, Chair Robert Tierney closed the hearing without a response from the developers or questions from the Commissioners.

LPC: 80 and 95 South Street, Manhattan (COFA# 09-3798) (Oct. 21, 2008).

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