Another Makeover for NYC’s South Street Seaport?

October 17, 2008

By James Murdock

Although SHoP Architects partner Gregg Pasquarelli jokes that he’s designed something to last “as long as the pyramids,” he admits realistically that his ambitious proposal for redeveloping the South Street Seaport—which begins the municipal approvals process next week—would unlikely be the area’s final makeover. This lower Manhattan district has been revamped seemingly every few decades since it was built on a landfill during the 1700s. And, even during the best economic times, other high-profile architects, including Santiago Calatrava and Frank Gehry, have tried and failed to leave their mark here.

South Street Seaport
Image courtesy General Growth Properties
SHoP Architects has designed a new scheme for Manhattan’s South Street Seaport that includes a 495-foot-tall hotel/condo tower (pictured at center). Some residents oppose the tower on grounds that it would block views and set a precedent for more high-rises.
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The Seaport’s present iteration is the handiwork of the late developer James Rouse, who rehabilitated historic buildings and built an enclosed shopping mall on Pier 17 during the early 1980s. But the mall failed to do as well as Rouse’s other widely admired “festival marketplaces,” such as Boston’s Faneuil Hall, and the Seaport’s current mix of shops peddling “I Love New York” T-shirts and other tourist bric-a-brac fails to satisfy the needs of residents who flocked to the area during a recent condominium boom. General Growth Properties acquired the Rouse Company in 2004 and shortly afterward approached Manhattan-based SHoP to rethink the Seaport’s design.

“If there was ever a place that that word ‘de-malling’ was invented for, this is it,” says Michael McNaughton, General Growth’s vice president of asset management. “An enclosed mall was built on the pier because it stank there in the 1980s,” he adds, referring to the area’s history as New York’s main fish market, “but it doesn’t stink anymore.”

Unveiled last June, the proposed plan retains the site’s 4.8-acre footprint but frees two acres of open space on Pier 17. The mall, designed by Benjamin Thompson & Associates, would be razed. The Tin Building, a landmarked structure that formerly housed the Fulton Fish Market, would move to the east end of the pier to frame a new plaza. A 42-story tower, containing a 286-room hotel and 78 condominium units, would rise near the Tin Building’s current site at the northwest corner of the plaza. Its podium stretches south and adjoins two low-rise buildings containing 250,000 square feet of retail space and a 163-room boutique hotel.

SHoP was a logical choice for the project. Together with Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners it has been designing Manhattan’s East River Esplanade since 2003. This zone of parks and pedestrian walks will follow a two-mile route, along the East River, from Brooklyn Bridge to Battery Park. Where the esplanade passes the Seaport, the scheme calls for replacing jersey barriers and parking lots under the elevated F.D.R. highway with an obstacle-free walkway flanked by glass-walled retail pavilions.

In designing the buildings, Pasquarelli drew inspiration from the Seaport’s maritime history: A terracotta screen, whose latticework pattern refers to fishnets and sail riggings, will surround the largely glass-clad tower; steel floor joists will project from the sides of the boutique hotel, recalling cranes in a dry dock; and a wood screen, resembling the ribs in a boat hull, will cover the ground-level shops. The overall goal was to create buildings that are distinct yet relate to each other, Pasquarelli explains. “If all the new buildings looked alike, the Seaport would be a monstrosity clipped onto the side of Manhattan,” he says, “but if they were all completely different it would look like Disneyland.”

His proposal is not without critics. Neighborhood residents object that a 495-foot-tall hotel/condo tower might block their views and would set a precedent for more high-rises; in fact, the structure needs a zoning variance because building heights on over-water platforms are limited to 350 feet in order to preserve views. Pasquarelli responds that a shorter structure with the same floor-to-area ratio would be “a big fat brick of a building” compared to his more slender high rise. McNaughton declines to say if General Growth will compromise on the tower’s height; to woo locals, though, the developer has considered building a new public school in the Seaport.

New York City's Landmarks Preservation Commission is expected to review the plan tomorrow, October 21, but its scope will include only the Tin Building and the low-rise structures, which fall within a historic district. The Department of City Planning and other agencies will begin reviewing the entire plan during the first quarter of 2009.

If approved, construction might start in 2010 and finish by 2014. A General Growth spokesperson says that despite the current economic uncertainty, the company is committed to moving “full steam ahead” on the Seaport development, which it describes as its “top priority” nationwide.

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