'Seaport' or 'Tropeas'? Big Lit-Up Sign Headed for Top of Pier 17 Mall

The rooftop sign on redesigned mall, as it might be viewed from a helicopter but not by visitors to the Seaport.

SHoP Architects

On the upper level of the soon-to-be rebuilt Pier 17 mall will be an expansive public lawn, outdoor performance space, sweeping views of the Brooklyn Bridge—and a 90-foot-long sign that spells out “TROPAES”?

In nine-foot-high illuminated letters, that's what visitors will see towering above them.

Howard Hughes Corporation’s proposal to place a large illuminated sign, which would read “SEAPORT” backwards to those with a view from the Manhattan side, drew some very mixed reviews this month among those who weighed in on its appropriateness in the South Street Seaport Historic District. Community Board 1’s Landmarks Committee, advisory to the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission, offered a scathing assessment of the sign.

“I don’t think you need to scream out that this thing exists in the evening, and I don’t think you need to scream out that it exists during the day either,” CB1 Landmarks Committee Chair Roger Byrom told representatives of the Hughes Corp on Oct. 11. “I don’t think it adds anything. We know it’s the Seaport.”

But the plan got unanimous approval from the Landmarks Commission on Tuesday, Oct. 23.

“I think [the sign] is excellent," said LPC vice-chair Pablo Vengoechea. "It does recall an industrial building, but at the same time it is appropriate to this use.”

The rooftop sign and other signage is among several design modifications Hughes Corp. is proposing for its big mall, which replaces the current one that was built in the 1980s.

“Our challenge as sign designers was to bridge [two] worlds,” said Michael Bierut of Pentagram, the company designing signage plans for the pier. “To do something that was congruent with the historic character of the overall site, but yet had a certain kind of logic with the contemporary architecture.”

The rooftop sign is inspired by large illuminated industrial signs like the Colgate clock in New Jersey, Bierut said. The lettering is simple, he said, and will be made of channel glass, lit from within to give the letters an “even soft glow.” 

“We tried to do something that wasn’t overly logo-like, a la Pepsi-Cola,” Gregg Pasquarelli of SHoP Architects, designers of the new mall building, told the Landmarks Commission. “We wanted something straight forward that could be seen not just as labeling the building, but the entire district.”

But Bruce Ehrmann, co-chair of CB1’s Landmarks Committee, called the industrial references “anachronistic.”

“I just don’t get a sign that says 'Seaport',” Ehrmann quipped. “I’m worried that an errant oil tanker will see the sign and want to pull up there.”

For other CB1 committee members, the problem came down to the view from behind.

“To stare at ‘tropaes’ or whatever it is, you know I think in the 21st century we shouldn’t be faced with that,” Byrom said. “People on the roof should look out and see what a wonderful river we’ve got there.”

Hughes Corp. plans to elevate the sign nine feet above the roof to allow for unobstructed views of the waterfront, Bierut said.

CB1 liked the sign plan for the Link Building, a structure adjacent to the mall that may house a large food market. Hughes Corp. plans to paint “subdued” signs directly on the building’s exterior cladding. Both the CB1 committee and Landmarks commissioners liked the signage, as they did plans to replace 13-foot-high wayfinding signs leading to the pier with new 10-foot high signs with digital capabilities.

“Almost anything you do will be better than what is there,” Ehrmann told Bierut.

There is also the matter of how commercial tenants will announce themselves on the mall building in a way that is right for the historic district. Hughes presented plans to place 32 vertical “blade” signs, each 32-feet high and mounted on the second floor of the north and south sides of the building. Although panned by CB1’s Landmarks Committee, the Landmarks Commission approved the signs—glass panels with opaque letters mounted directly to the glass—on the condition that there would be only one per tenant.

“We worked very hard about how we can introduce retail signs on the building,” Bierut said. “The new building is highly transparent. It is made of glass, basically…it’s not like the Link Building where you have plenty of space to paint or hang signage up.”

All of Hughes’ signage plans were approved by the Landmarks Commission, but Roger Byrom said the community board will restate its objections to the rooftop sign and the blade signs at a meeting next month. That's when CB1 weighs in on the overall Pier 17 project as part of a city land use review process.