How a luxury tower could change NYC's historic character


New York

FOR more than 40 years, real estate developers have been intoxicated by an asphalt trapezoid at 250 Water Street.

It has East River proximity, high visibility from the Brooklyn Bridge and the Brooklyn Heights promenade and - as far as open space in downtown Manhattan goes - it is big: nearly 50,000 square feet. But this particular lot, whose spots cost about US$20 an hour on weekdays, is in the South Street Seaport Historic District, which means that anyone seeking to build even a toolshed there must first secure permission from the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Though that might have deterred some developers, the Howard Hughes Corp nevertheless paid about US$180 million for the lot in 2018. The real estate company had made several building proposals to the commission, culminating this past week with a plan for a 324-foot-tall mixed-use luxury tower.

Though zoning laws prohibit any building higher than 120 feet in the district, the real estate company has cleared the first hurdle toward fulfilling its dream of a skyscraper taller than the Brooklyn Bridge in an important, and visible, part of lower Manhattan.

After years of grassroots meetings and protests, community board hearings, more than 1,000 letters (pro and con) and an 8,500-signature petition, it appears that 250 Water - also known as Lot 1, Block 98 - will cease to be a parking lot.

On Tuesday, the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) voted 6-2 to issue what is called a certificate of appropriateness, a crucial first step in Howard Hughes' march to city approval. Sarah Carroll, chair of the commission, said the only loss of historic fabric was "of a parking lot that is an intrusion in the historic district".

"An approval here would not set a precedent for any other site in any other historic district," she added.

Commissioner John Gustafsson, one of the two who voted against the certificate, said: "There are literally thousands of appropriate alternatives. We are not being offered one of them."

He added that he realised he was in "the unenviable position" of having to choose between a tower and an "obviously detrimental parking lot". No one on either side thinks a parking lot is a good use of space. But if a tower goes up in one of the most important historic districts of the city, critics argue, it could set a precedent for other developers seeking to go tall in other districts, forever altering low-scale streetscapes.

One of the most vocal proponents of the development is at first glance one of the most unlikely: the president and chief executive of the South Street Seaport Museum, Jonathan Boulware, a historic ships expert whose museum honours the birthplace of New York and its rise as a port city. He supports the project in part because Howard Hughes pledged a gift of as much as US$50 million to the museum as part of its plan.

The gift, Mr Boulware said, would give the museum stability for the first time in its 50 years and prevent the it from folding. He hopes to reopen soon after decades of financial struggle.

Two other surprising allies were Councilwoman Margaret Chin, who represents the area, and Manhattan's borough president, Gale Brewer, both of whom will serve important roles in getting the project approved by the city.

In 2008, Ms Chin, who was then running for City Council, opposed another developer's project, saying, "A 40-storey tower has no place in the Seaport," while Ms Brewer said of a 2014 plan, "Building a tower at the South Street Seaport is like building a tower at Colonial Williamsburg".

Their support for the Water Street project was largely based on the museum gift and the agreement that the tower would include about 70 units for low-income tenants.

Those disappointed by the decision make up a broad coalition: historic preservationists, those concerned about climate change (250 Water is in the highest-risk flood zone in Manhattan), and Seaport residents concerned about noise, sewage and losing their views.

"I am completely disappointed in LPC's decision to grant this enormously out-of-scale, out-of-character project the green light," Megan Malvern said of the vote.

The founder of the opposition group Children First said the lot has been home to three mercury thermometer factories, a chemical company and a gas station. It has elemental mercury beneath it, which, when vaporised, can cause brain damage and is particularly dangerous to children. Howard Hughes plans to start remediation next year through the state's voluntary Brownfield Cleanup Program.

With Landmarks having approved a certificate of appropriateness, Howard Hughes' plan will enter the city's review process. "We are looking at litigation and working with an attorney to that end," Ms Malvern said. If they can delay city approval past December, a new City Council member, borough president or mayor might halt the development.

The question is what the Landmarks decision will mean for other developers seeking to build skyscrapers in historic districts.

"The fact is that the political forces at play in NYC are placing preservation pretty low on the scale of desired public good," said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, which advocates for New York City's historic neighborhoods.

"There are real concerns that landmark preservation and historic preservation, which have done so much good for the city, are being thrown aside because they've been successful.

"Landmarking helped stabilise and draw investment into the city's neighborhoods during the 1970s and 1980s," he added, "and now it's a victim of its own success".


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