Another Tower Plan for the Seaport: 'There's Going to Be Fierce Opposition'

Screen shot from video of Chris Cooper of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill as he shows a model of one of four development concepts for 250 Water Street to a Howard Hughes Corp. "stakeholder workshop." The one pictured is a model of a 990-foot-high building. Video courtesy of Seaport Coalition

Mar. 10, 2020

Six years after losing a bruising battle to build a tower at the South Street Seaport, the Howard Hughes Corp. has set the stage for its next development clash with the community. 

Last week, at an invitation-only “stakeholder workshop,” Hughes executives and architects from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill revealed their options for a soaring project at 250 Water Street, buildings that would many times exceed zoning limits in the South Street Seaport Historic District. Among the ideas is a residential tower nearly 1,000 feet tall. 

To sweeten the deal, the developer is dangling a host of tantalizing neighborhood investments and amenities, chief of which is a new building for the struggling South Street Seaport Museum.

Along with a 990-foot-high tower are three other concepts for the site, now a parking lot stretching from Peck Slip and Beekman Street. They include an 880-foot tower that rises in stepped setbacks; two towers, one 770 feet tall, the other 385 feet; and a 285-foot-wide, 570-foot-high building. Each project, which would include 200 below-market rate apartments, features a base about eight stories high meant to fit in with the low-rise neighborhood and, the developer hopes, convince the Landmarks Preservation Commission that the project is appropriate for the low-rise historic district. 

At the recent workshop, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill architect Chris Cooper pitched the towers as reasonably sized compared to other Lower Manhattan skyscrapers, while the base is in scale with the neighborhood. In a video, he is shown pointing to a model of the 990-foot-high building and saying: “You see, that base corresponds to the context. And then the height responds to the rest of the city.”

“I don’t think they once mentioned that 250 Water Street is in the historic district,” said Paul Goldstein, the chair of Community Board 1’s Waterfront, Parks and Cultural Committee, who attended the workshop. “I don’t think the word historic district even arose.” (A Howard Hughes spokesperson denied this.)

Community Board 1 and local activists are expected to fight any large-scale project at 250 Water Street during the public land use review required for a zoning variance. And they are likely to oppose the developer’s efforts to scrap a city rule that specifically prohibits its needed transfer to 250 Water Street of 450,000 square feet of air rights from two Seaport properties that Hughes Corp. leases from the city.

That air rights transfer would almost certainly need the consent of Councilwoman Margaret Chin, who said she has her own doubts. She told the Trib in a statement: “With the future of the Seaport District at stake, the community’s priority is clear: we need a conversation about bulk and density that fully takes into account the context of this historic area. At this point, I don't believe the case has been properly made to residents that an air rights transfer is even necessary.

On a possible air rights transfer, a spokesperson for the city’s Economic Development Corp., the agency that oversees the Seaport properties, emphasized in a statement the long road ahead for the developer, which has to go through a “competitive public procurement as well as multiple land use approval processes.”

“As stewards of the Historic South Street Seaport,” the spokesperson said, “we take the community’s priorities seriously and look forward to engaging further with local stakeholders on how to best equip the neighborhood for the future.”

Hoping to pave a path forward, Hughes Corp. is promising an array of local improvements, including a new $50 million, 30,000-square-foot building for the South Street Seaport Museum at John and South Streets, and a $100 million, 75,000 square-foot building for an undetermined community use, at the site of the current New Market Building. Then there are the host of other possible local improvements, from an upgraded play street for the Peck Slip School to a community theater to a skate park.

“We have a rare opportunity to bring affordable housing to an area where it’s in short supply, secure the long-term future of the Seaport Museum, boost resiliency along the waterfront and provide public realm and infrastructure improvements across the historic neighborhood,” a Howard Hughes spokesman said in a statement. 

“This neighborhood like any other neighborhood could use improvements. And we like a lot of the things that have been discussed,” Goldstein said. “But the price is not the price we’re willing to pay, and we’re not that desperate for these things to give away ten percent of the historic district.” 

In a resolution passed last November, CB1 repeated its long-standing position for keeping the existing zoning in the Seaport Historic District that “ensures that new buildings maintain the low scale character of this very special area.” The resolution supports a “Seaport Strategic Vision” drawn up by the Seaport Coalition, an activist group that calls the current height limits non-negotiable.

“We certainly can’t stomach the idea that you can buy your way out of the zoning and that you can buy your way out of history,” said Michael Kramer, a leader of the coalition, which includes Children First, Save Our Seaport, and residents of Southbridge Towers. “This is a very fragile and unique neighborhood.”

In 2014, following an intense struggle with local opponents, Howard Hughes abandoned plans for what first had been a 650-foot, then a 495-foot-high tower on the site of the New Market Building, next to Pier 17 and just outside the historic district. The main lure to the community then, a promised 71,000-square-foot middle school at its base, could not win over opponents. Four years later the developer bought 250 Water Street for $180 million from Milstein Properties, a developer that had repeatedly failed over the years to win approvals for a tall building on the site. But its attempts led CB1 and others to fight a winning battle in 2003 to downzone the site to a maximum building height of 120 feet and thwart any future attempts for an out-of-scale project. It was a victory they say they won’t abandon, despite their desire to help the South Street Seaport Museum, which has yet to recover from Superstorm Sandy.

Asked if the promised new museum building is necessary for its survival, Jonathan Boulware, the director and CEO, told the Trib, “The question, really, is what does the Seaport Museum need to thrive, to be a credit to its local community and the city of New York?”

“So to survive doesn't demand a new building,” he added. “But to make the Seaport Museum what it needs to be, it does: a museum focused on this city of water with an eye to that history and that future and a jewel in the crown of the South Street Seaport Historic District.

Chris Cooper of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill shows four options of buildings for the 250 Water Street site to a Howard Hughes Corp. "stakeholder workshop." Video courtesy of The Seaport Coalition.

Goldstein said that the 250 Water Street site should not be seen as the only development option for Howard Hughes, nor the museum’s only salvation. He and others are calling for air rights from the Seaport properties, Pier 17 and the Tin Building, to be transferred to potential development sites outside the historic district. More than a half-dozen of those sites will be presented this week to elected officials, Goldstein said, while declining to say where they are located.

“We are not aware of other sites that are achievable in the time frame that would allow the significant resources needed to deliver the proposed improvements,” a Howard Hughes spokesman said in a statement, citing among those benefits a secure future for the museum.

Boulware said the museum is open to “all ideas that support our mission” of building a strong institution. “If [an alternative] is viable, then great,” he said. “But because time is not on the museum’s side I would want for those ideas to be investigated and deemed viable, or not, with all haste.”

Goldstein said that Howard Hughes representatives will be presenting their plan publicly to his committee next month. “I suspect it will be a lively meeting,” he said.

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We've been clear, 250 Water Street is in Historic District

Your recent article regarding potential development at the South Street Seaport included the inaccurate claim that a recent community workshop did not include mention of 250 Water Street’s being within the South Street Seaport Historic. As the architect who delivered this presentation, it is important to me to correct the record on this point.


The historical context is essential to the design proposal we shared, and was a central part of the presentation. Our entire approach takes architectural cues from the immediate context of the Historic District. And all of our presentations reflect this priority. Our client for this project, Howard Hughes Corporation, has hosted a series of community workshops to ensure that we hear from a broad and diverse range of neighborhood voices as our team considers a long-term strategic framework for the Seaport District. At all of these workshops, we have discussed the South Street Seaport Historic District and have been clear that the parking lot at 250 Water Street is within the District. During the March workshop you reference in your story, when we shared concepts for a building at 250 Water Street, we spoke in particular detail about the site being within the Historic District and emphasized that development on the site requires Landmarks Preservation Commission approval.


Chris Cooper, design partner, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

HHC faces challenges in buying support for Seaport development

I enjoyed reading Carl Glassman’s article of March 10, 2020 in The TribecaTrib: Another Tower Plan for the Seaport: 'There’s Going To Be Fierce Opposition’. It provided a good, overall account of what was presented at the Howard Hughes Corp. (HHC)’s stakeholder workshop (March 3, 2020), along with the challenges HHC will face if it persists in its attempt to buy support for a tower in the historic district by attempting to use public assets as bargaining chips in order to override the Seaport’s zoning and landmarked area protections. 
HHC has planned for a tower since it arrived on the NY Seaport scene from Texas out of General Growth’s bankruptcy proceedings in 2010. As Mr. Glassman notes, HHC’s plans for a prior tower at the New Market site were defeated in 2014. On 12/29/2014, HHC bought 80 South St. where a tower could be built as-of-right, abutting but just outside of the historic district along the East River waterfront. HHC proceeded to create an even larger site through additional lot merger and air rights assembly. But instead of developing its longed-for tower here, HHC flipped its 80 South St. site on March 16, 2016.
Two years later, in June 2018, HHC bought the 250 Water St. site - with its eyes wide open. Surely more Seaport news to come, more articles to be written.
Joanne Gorman, co-founder, Friends of South Street Seaport (FOSSS)