The most contested development site in New York City sits above water. For the past year, residents of Lower Manhattan, backed by influential city officials, have been trying to keep the Howard Hughes Corporation from building a 650-foot, SHoP-designed tower between the Brooklyn Bridge and the South Street Seaport. In an effort to appease the opposition—and to keep its battered development plans intact—Howard Hughes has proposed a new path forward.
Most notably, the plan’s controversial centerpiece, the tower, has been reduced by 10 stories, now topping off just shy of 500 feet. The building’s height has been a major concern for the Seaport Working Group, a coalition of local officials, business owners, and residents that created a set of non-binding guidelines for Howard Hughes to follow.
With the height change also comes an aesthetic overhaul. The previous tower—which appeared like stacked bronze bands—has been replaced with a glassier, more angular structure. Deep-set wood boxes are cut into the glass facade forming terraces for the luxury condos. “Historically, buildings on piers are always made out of more lightweight materials,” said Gregg Pasquarelli, a principal at SHoP, when unveiling the new design. “They are made of metal and glass and wood—never stone and brick.” He explained that the tower’s carved and tapering appearance was inspired by the sails of the Seaport’s ships.
The building’s podium houses retail and a public middle school for the community. To protect the structure from storms like Sandy, which devastated the Seaport, its ground floor and its mechanical systems were lifted above the 100-year floodplain.
“We know it is a tall building,” said Pasquarelli, “but it is really a driver for getting all these other community benefits.” The Howard Hughes Corporation said if the tower is built at its revised height, it will inject $171 million worth of private investment into infrastructure and public space improvements at the Seaport. Unsurprisingly, when unveiling the plan, the Howard Hughes Corporation was noticeably more eager to talk about this funding commitment than the tower itself.
First, 30 percent of the residential tower would be affordable, but these units (about 60) would likely be in the Seaport’s low-slung, historic Schermerhorn Row. SHoP and Howard Hughes consider this to be “on-site” because they are part of the same overall project. "This is no poor door,” said Pasquarelli, “this is an exquisite 18th Century door in really beautiful buildings."
At a cost of $54 million, the team pushes the existing Tin Building back from the FDR by 30 feet and transforms it into a food hall. Moving the structure makes it more publicly accessible and clears a connection for the East River Esplanade. SHoP also proposes lighting and pavilions underneath the roadway as well as an extension of Beekman and Fulton Streets onto the pier. This, they say, would plug the site back into the city grid. A new marina is also planned just north of the tower. The new open space components of the plan are designed by James Corner Field Operations and will have “High Line-level quality,” according to Pasquarelli. The Howard Hughes Corporation also provided capital to the Seaport Museum, but said it will work with the institution on how to best spend it.
This package of proposals will go before Community Board 1’s Landmark Committee in December, and then the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission in January. After that, it heads to ULURP. The tower itself sits just outside of the Seaport Historic District. The boundary line cuts directly through Pier 17—SHoP’s under-construction, greenroof-topped commercial complex.
But even with a new plan unveiled, and a tentative schedule set, the dynamic of this battle remains largely unchanged. Howard Hughes said it will work with the community moving forward, but has effectively drawn a line in the sand. “We are going to need something more to give more,” said David Weinreb, the company’s CEO, at a press conference. “We have put everything on the table that we have.” Transferring air rights to build somewhere else, he added, is not a feasible option.
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, a founding member of the Seaport Working Group, has reiterated her opposition to building a tall tower at the proposed site, saying “building a tower at the South Street Seaport is like building a tower at Colonial Williamsburg.”