Hughes Corp. Reveals Two-Tower Plan for Seaport Historic District

Detail from rendering of the Howard Hughes Corp.'s proposed two 470-foot towers, center, rising above historic Seaport buildings to the east. Credit: Howard Hughes Corp./SOM

Oct. 22, 2020

The Howard Hughes Corp. on Thursday released its long-anticipated proposal for a high-rise residential development at 250 Water Street in the South Street Seaport Historic District. The plan calls for two 470-foot towers on the site, now a parking lot bordered by Peck Slip, Water, Pearl, and Beekman Streets.

To gain approval for the project, the developer needs to convince the city to scrap low-rise zoning that governs the site as well as regulations that now prevent the transfer of Seaport air rights to the lot. Each of the buildings would be nearly four times the 120-foot maximum height that zoning in the historic district allows.

Hughes Corp. is hoping to sweeten the $1.4 billion deal with a promise to offer about a quarter of the approximately 360 units in the buildings as below-market rentals, the rest to be market-rate condos. The company also says it will give the struggling South Street Seaport Museum $50 million towards “long-term financial stability,” a sum meant to provide both annual funding through an endowment and enough money to reopen the museum’s galleries, closed since Superstorm Sandy. The developer is no longer dangling the prospect of a new museum building on a nearby John Street lot as part of the deal, saying it will pay for design and planning.

Jonathan Boulware, president and CEO of the museum, said the need for the promised funding is more urgent now as a result of the pandemic. “Without that the prospects for the museum are very uncertain,” he said.

“This, I believe, is the most critical moment in the museum’s history,” he said, “and for this institution that is really saying something.”

Community Board 1 has long opposed any development on the site that exceeds the current zoning, having won its fight to downzone the lot—one of 10 blocks in the historic district—in 2003. Before that, the board battled multiple proposals, buildings from 14 to 43 stories, by the site’s former owner, Milstein Properties. The Landmarks Preservation Commission also rejected them. This project is expected to be formally presented to the Commission in mid-December, and to CB1’s Landmarks Committee next month. Tammy Meltzer, chair of the board, said she would wait to comment on the proposal until she has seen it presented to the committee.

Along with Landmarks approval, the proposal needs to go through the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), and finally voted on by the City Council. Councilwoman Margaret Chin, who is key to the approval, declined to respond to questions about the proposal, saying in a statement, “I look forward to reviewing all details of the proposal and participating in the public engagement process.” A spokesman for Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer did not respond to a request for comment.

The project’s design, by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, calls for the two towers to share a “contextually scaled podium base” that is described as matching the materials and massing of nearby historic buildings. The base would include storefronts that the developer, in a statement, said is meant to be “resonant and compatible” with stores in the district.

The Seaport Coalition, a group that includes Save Our Seaport, Southbridge Towers and Children First, issued a statement condemning the project and insisting that “existing zoning protections be respected.” As part of its Seaport Coalition Strategic Plan, it calls for supporting the museum with the sale of air rights outside the historic district.

Community Board 1 supports the coalitions air rights plan. “It would also generate more funds for the Seaport Museum, and for other local improvements and would produce more affordable housing units,” Paul Goldstein, chair of CB1’s Waterfront, Parks and Cultural Committee, told the Trib in a statement. “We should not allow the Covid crisis or the needs of a private corporation to ruin such a special part of Lower Manhattan.” Goldstein served as CB1’s district manager during the boards long fight to downzone 250 Water Street.

Hughes Corp. spokesman James Yolles said in a statement that Lower Manhattan is already zoned for high density development and there are “limited” opportunities for large scale air rights transfers. “The idea of transferring Seaport air rights to other miscellaneous and unrelated locations in Lower Manhattan is a gimmick unsupported by any planning logic,” he wrote. 

In the meantime, opponents question whether Hughes Corp. actually intends to build the project it is proposing. They cite an October 2019 internal document that appears to show an anticipated $212.8 million sale of the site in 2022. 

“They don’t have the wherewithal or intent to build this out,” Goldstein said.

Yolles disputes this, claiming that the opponents are “taking this standard budgeting document” out of context. “Howard Hughes is fully committed to the neighborhood and the city,” he said in an email, “and we have no plans to sell our site at 250 Water Street —either now or in the future.” 

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Honor the intent of the historic designation

The proposal for a high-rise residential development at 250 Water Street in the South Street Seaport Historic District is a disgrace. The plan calls for two 470-foot towers on the site, now a parking lot bordered by Peck Slip, Water, Pearl, and Beekman Streets.

Such bullying by the Howard Hughes Organization is discouraging and outrageous. Historic Districts were created to preserve the architectural stock and neighborhood character within. No exceptions should be made to standards within their borders. I was born on and lived on West 11th Street for 45 years; our battles within New York’s first historic district never ended.

I implore all concerned to honor the intent of historic designation and reject these intrusions into what is left of a charming, historic neighborhood. — CYNTHIA CRANE STORY


Hughes internal document revealed its true plans for 250 Water

The Seaport Coalition, at its public meeting on Sept. 17, 2020, revealed a slide - High Level Cash Flows - Mixed Use/250Water - that was part of an internal Howard Hughes Corp. NY Region 2020 Budget Presentation of October 2019. The slide reveals under "Key Assumptions" that after obtaining pre-build entitlements (with air rights being a necessary component), the Hughes Corp. intends to sell the asset [its 250 Water St site] in 2022, before any actual development occurs. 

In the Tribeca Trib article, responding to opponents’ questioning regarding the company’s intent to even build on the Water St site, Hughes Corp. spokesman James Yolles tries to dismiss the Oct 19, 2019 budget document, stating: "we have no plans to sell our site at 250 Water Street - either now or in the future." 

This statement borders on the ridiculous.    

 -   Was HHC lying to its own employees at the budget presentation regarding planning relating to

      trying to recoup and show a profit off its problematic  $182MM investment in 250 Water? 

 -   With one HHC "stakeholder engagement" workshop over (Sept 26, 2019), and two to come (Nov 12,

      2019, March 3, 2020), did the company read the writing on the wall regarding a tower where it 

      doesn't belong?

JOANNE GOREMAN, co-founder, Friends of South Street Seaport; member, Seaport Coalition


Two 49-story towers means destruction of the historic district

Thank you for your article regarding Howard Hughes Corp.'s ("HHC") plans to develop 250 Water Street (the "Site").  

I must take issue with some of the statements by HHC, in particular that lower Manhattan is zoned for high density, implying that there is nothing wrong with two 49 story towers at the Site. HHC ignores the fact that this location is the gateway to the South Street Historic District, and that the City leaders decided a long time ago to limit development to buildings no higher than 120 feet.  In years past, the Landmarks Commission has denied development many times as presented by the prior owner, the Milstein family.

While it is gracious of HHC to offer to create an endowment of $50 million for the South Street Seaport Museum, HHC has been known to renege on its promises. Furthermore, trading building height within an historic district for cash is totally inappropriate. The creation of two 49 story towers will completely change the ambience and tenor of the historic district.  

I urge the City to prevent the utter destruction of the ambience of this historic district.

WARREN GREEN, Pearl Street