Battery Maritime plan backed by residents, but will lenders agree?

By Julie Shapiro

A revised plan for the Battery Maritime Building won resounding support from the community last week, but the plunging economy leaves the project’s future uncertain.

Developers hope to restore the 1909 ferry building at Lower Manhattan’s tip and build a hotel and restaurant on top of it. The community backs the plan because the sweeping Great Hall on the building’s second floor would be devoted to public space and cultural events.

The $150 million project is moving steadily through the city’s lengthy approval process, but it remains to be seen whether Dermot Company, the developer, will have the money to complete it.

In May, Alex Adams, the project manager with Dermot, told Downtown Express that he would seek private financing in early 2009. He said he hoped the financial markets would have stabilized by then, allowing construction to start in 2009 and finish in 2011. This week, the Dermot Company declined to comment on the project.

Peter Poulakakos, whose family is developing the Battery Maritime Building along with Dermot, said this week that financing is Dermot’s job, but he still can’t help but worry about the economy.

“I don’t know if it will get better,” Poulakakos said. “But you don’t stop moving. You still have to plan it and then hopefully it happens.”

Janel Patterson, spokesperson for the city Economic Development Corp., said the city wants to see the project move forward.

“We want to do as much as we can, so we’re ready when times get better,” she said.

The community is also hoping the project happens.

“We loved it, quite frankly,” said Ro Sheffe, chairperson of Community Board 1’s Financial District Committee, after seeing a presentation from Dermot last week. The full board will vote on the plan Nov. 25.

Sheffe praised Dermot’s plan to put a miniature version of the World Financial Center’s Winter Garden in the Battery Maritime Building’s Great Hall. The majestic, columned space with a skylight stretching across it would have a food court on the periphery and open space for cultural events in the center.

“What’s not to like?” Sheffe said. “It is a wonderful use. The Financial District is really bereft of performing arts spaces.”

To pay for the historic restoration and public space, the Poulakakos family would sometimes rent the space out for catered events. The developers are also planning a 135-room hotel atop the ferry building. They have not yet selected an operator.

The glassy, modern addition, designed by Rogers Marvel Architects, was unpopular when it was first unveiled last fall. But both the city Landmarks Preservation Commission and the community board ultimately approved the design after Dermot shrunk the hotel and promised to restore four historic cupolas on the water side of the building.

Now, the project is going through the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, which should finish late next spring, clearing the way for construction once the financing comes through. Last week, C.B. 1’s Financial District Committee gave the project a boost by unanimously approved several land-use actions as part of the ULURP. The actions included the lease of city property, a change from a manufacturing to a commercial zone and exceptions to some waterfront zoning rules.

“We got everything we wanted,” said Michael Levine, director of land use and planning for C.B. 1. “It will be a public space with uses that are accessible. It will not be a high-end shopping mall, but on the other hand it will not be a T-shirt shopping mall.”

The board had criticized the original plan for the Battery Maritime Building’s Great Hall, which included a check-in desk for the hotel and would have funneled all the hotel’s guests through the space.

“We were a little leery, wondering if that space would in fact be public or if it would be a de facto grand hotel lobby,” Sheffe said.

To differentiate the uses, Dermot moved the hotel’s check-in desk to a lobby on the building’s first floor with its own entrance, ensuring that the public space and hotel will stay separate.

“There were smiles all around the room when we heard that,” Sheffe said.

Catherine McVay Hughes, a member of the Financial District Committee, called the Battery Maritime Building designs “gorgeous,” but she said some details still need to be finalized. She was particularly concerned about pedestrian and cyclist safety around the building, which is tucked between South St., the Staten Island Ferry Terminal and the East River.

Previously, the developers considered putting a public market in the Great Hall, but they vetoed that idea because of the building’s location, near the beginning of the F.D.R. Drive.

Sheffe believes the cultural programs will draw people to the building and make it a destination. An increasing number of New Yorkers and tourists are already riding the free Governors Island ferry from the Battery Maritime Building from the spring to the fall, and the city hopes to add commercial boats at the building as well.

“It’s a little off the beaten path,” Sheffe said, “but it is such a beautiful architectural jewel.”