A Last Gasp Effort to Save Seaport Museum, Due to Close July 5

Galleries at the South Street Seaport Museum are closed in order to protect the collection. The Museum of the City of New York took over the running of the museum in the fall of 2011. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Apr. 17, 2013

 The hurricane-damaged South Street Seaport Museum, already on life support, has two months left to live.

Jerry Gallagher, the museum’s general manager, told a Community Board 1 committee last month that without help, the mar­time institution will run out of money and shut down on July 5. “We have close to no winning cards in our hand,” Gallagher said. “It’s a very dire situation that we’re faced with.”

Hurricane Sandy dealt a significant blow to the struggling museum at 12 Fulton St., which has been run by the Museum of the City of New York since fall 2011. Flood waters destroyed the electrical and air conditioning systems located in the basement.

The new mechanicals cannot remain in the basement, where they could be flooded again, Gallagher noted. One option is to relocate the equip­ment to a new building on John Street. But according to the museum’s estimates, that would cost up to $22 million.

With temperatures rising and no air conditioning to protect the collection, the museum’s galleries were forced to close last month.

Meanwhile, the museum is struggling to meet its nearly $4 million in an­nual operating expenses. It partly blames developer Howard Hughes Corp­oration, the South Street Seaport’s major leaseholder, which recently won city approval for its plan to build a new mall on Pier 17. Gallagher claims the developer is failing to help the museum—and even mounting roadblocks to its survival.

According to its lease with the city’s Economic Development Corp. (EDC), the museum’s space at 12 Fulton St. as well as other spaces it rents in the Seaport can be turned over to Howard Hughes if they are left vacant for at least six months.

Gallagher said the $750,000 the developer recently agreed to give the museum over a six-month period isn’t enough, since the museum is “running out of cash right now.” He also complained that the developer tried to strike a deal in which it would commit $150,000 annually for 10 years to support the museum’s ships on Pier 16, but only if the museum gives up its leases on Water Street.

“Howard Hughes has twice asked my permission to walk through the spaces with one of their architects,” Gallagher noted.

At the same time, he said, Howard Hughes was unwilling to rent them space in any of its own vacant properties. He noted that the museum’s agreement with the city, which forbids it to earn in­come by subleasing its own spaces, further threatens the museum’s existence.

“It’s important for the museum to survive to be able to make use of its spaces as much as possible,” Gallagher said.

“From our perspective,” he said, “the Howard Hughes Corporation’s actions to date signify that the museum will not likely survive. The Howard Hughes Corporation doesn’t seem to have an interest in our survival.”

Chris Curry, Howard Hughes’ development executive who also attended the committee meeting, contended that Gal­lagher was telling only part of the story.

“I think it’s important to know that this is primarily a negotiation between the EDC and the Seaport Museum,” he said, referring to the city agency that is the South Street Seaport’s landlord. “We were brought into this because we’re a neighbor and they were asking for certain things that would impact our existing leasehold interests.”

Curry added that the developer has already “done a lot” to support the museum.

“I think we could potentially do more in the future, but we need to have a conversation with the Seaport Museum,” he said. “The most conversations we’ve had with the museum quite frankly are here in this room.”

The committee’s chair John Fratta, noted that “nothing’s making sense, nothing’s coming to­gether…and we can’t afford to lose the museum.” The group voted to schedule a meeting in the next few weeks with the EDC, the city’s  Department of Cultural Affairs, the Seaport Museum and Howard Hughes.

“What I’m hearing tonight is that we actually need to get everybody in the same room…do a walk-about so we can go through those spaces,” said CB1 Chair Catherine McVay Hughes. “We can’t have people pointing fingers at each other.”