No News Is Bad News for Critics of Planned Seaport Tower

Roger Byrom, left, chair of CB1's Landmarks Committee, criticized Howard Hughes Corp. executive Chris Curry, right, for providing no information on the developer's revised plans for a residential tower on a site now occupied by the New Market Building. Photos: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Jun. 16, 2015

Following the recent announcement by a developer that it would be scaling back controversial plans to build a 494-foot residential tower in the South Street Seaport, several dozen opponents of the project came to a Community Board 1 meeting on Thursday, July 11, thinking they would find out just how much lower the Howard Hughes Corp. would go.

Those hopes were quickly dashed.

“I’m going to disappoint because there is no update on the mixed use project,” Hughes executive Chris Curry told the gathering in the Southbridge Towers community room, where the board’s Landmarks Committee was instead due to be presented with an update on two other Seaport projects by the developer: the Fulton Market Building and the reconstruction of Pier 17.

CB1 staff at the meeting explained that they earlier had tried to counter a misimpression that Hughes would be revealing any new plans, but two opponent groups—Save Our Seaport and Friends of South Street Seaport—rallied their troops to the meeting.

“This could be your last chance to oppose the dreaded tower proposal,” Save Our Seaport wrote on its Facebook page.

“Presentation on latest Seaport developments,” Friends of South Street Seaport announced on its Facebook page. “How many more stories will the Howard Hughes Corp. shave off their shareholder 'economic engine' (a tower by any other name?) in an attempt to privatize one of the public's most valuable assets—its waterfront history at the South Street Seaport?”

During the public comment portion of the meeting, Diane Harris Brown, a Save Our Seaport member who also sat on the Seaport Working Group, a task force of Lower Manhattan civic leaders, elected officials and residents that proposed a set of guidelines for the project, complained that the developer has yet to show that it has complied with all those principles as the project continues to await public review.

“Because there is no evidence that these issues in the guidelines and principles are going to be addressed, people are frustrated,” she said.

Roger Byrom, the committee’s chair, also called on Hughes Corp to be more forthcoming about its changes to the plans.

“Obviously, we expected, and the public expected, too, that we would at least be shared with where you are in the process and if an update is imminent,” Byrom said. “So to say nothing is not really helpful, as I’m sure you appreciate.”

Those comments came a week after David Weinreb, Hughes Corp.’s CEO, told Mayor Bill de Blasio in a letter that the developer is addressing “the height issue” of the tower.

The letter was a response to another letter to the mayor, this one written by Peg Breen of the New York Landmarks Conservancy and signed by several organizations, condemning what she said was “the current absence of comprehensive planning [that] allows development to head in the wrong direction again and squander the potential of this remarkable resource. We demand an opportunity to get this right.”

Weinreb did not respond to the Landmarks Conservancy, but told de Blasio he was “compelled to respond to [him] to clarify the letter’s gross mischaracterization of the Seaport’s redevelopment process which should not go unanswered.”

He emphasized that the developer had worked to incorporate the guidelines proposed by the Seaport Working Group into its revised plans for the district, released last November. All but one guidelinewhich called for a shorter building at the New Market Building sitewere met, he said.

Curry emphasized that point at the CB1 meeting. “The height issue may never completely be satisfied to everyone’s satisfaction,” Curry said. “But what I can tell you is that we’re looking at a significantly revised plan that I don’t even know what it looks like yet so it’s not going to be shared.”

In the November plans, the developer announced that it would lower the tower from 650 to 494 feet, and include a three-story, 71,000-square-foot middle school at its base. That change failed to please opponents. But now the developer is promising to do more to satisfy its critics, who include Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and City Councilwoman Margaret Chin.

Curry said the project’s delay was due to the constant push from Seaport Working Group members to “slow down” the development plans.

“That’s why we don’t have much happening right now,” he said. “The slowdown happened. For 18 months, we’ve been talking about what’s going to happen on the mixed-use project and it’s something that nobody wants to move faster [on] than I do.”