Facing eviction, Seaport shops plead for summer

Although Pier 17 reopened on Dec. 6, 2012 in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, many stores remain closed and there are few customers.  Downtown Express photo by Terese Loeb Kreuzer
Although Pier 17 reopened on Dec. 6, 2012 in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, many stores remain closed and there are few customers. Downtown Express photo by Terese Loeb Kreuzer

BY TERESE LOEB KREUZER   |  The clock is ticking for the tenants of Pier 17 in the South Street Seaport, but so far, there has been no reprieve from the lease termination notices issued by their landlord, The Howard Hughes Corp., who wants them out of there by April 30.

Howard Hughes has a long-term lease on the pier. After Superstorm Sandy blew through on Oct. 29, 2012, Howard Hughes shut the pier down to inspect it for damage, reopening it on Dec. 6.  However, some of Pier 17’s 72 merchants never reopened.

“The hurricane dealt a blow to the entire Seaport, nobody will dispute that,” said Robert LaValva, founder of the New Amsterdam Market on South St.  “But damage to Pier 17 and the Fulton Market (Bridgewaters) building was minimal. If Howard Hughes Corp. were truly committed to ‘continuously, uninterruptedly, actively, and diligently’ operating the South Street Seaport as their lease requires, they would have jumped right onto opening Pier 17 and the Fulton Market building as soon as possible, rather than dragging their feet.”

Sal Himani, whose family owns six restaurants on Pier 17, said that after reopening, it took Howard Hughes two weeks to turn on external lighting on the pier. Even with a smattering of light, few customers made their way past the boarded-up stores of the South Street Seaport’s Fulton St. corridor and through the forbidding darkness to shop or dine on Pier 17.

Now Howard Hughes Corp. is finishing what Sandy started. It is requiring all tenants to vacate their stores by the end of April. Howard Hughes has a contractual agreement with New York City’s Economic Development Corp. (E.D.C.), owner of the pier, stipulating that construction of a new mall on Pier 17 must begin by July 1.

The tenants have been pleading with Howard Hughes for more time, but so far, their pleas have fallen on deaf ears.

“Every tenant in the mall, including myself, is losing money every single day until April 15th. That’s when the weather gets warmer and our business picks up,” Himani said. “Every winter, it’s tough, but in summer, the crowds come, and you make it back.”

The tenants ideally would like to remain on the pier until the end of September so they could recoup their losses.  But even a stay of eviction until the end of June would be helpful, Himani said.

“Everyone lost everything they had,” he said. “Everyone is in such a state of depression. Their hearts are broken.”

In order for Howard Hughes to proceed with tearing down the existing structure on Pier 17 and replacing it with a glass-enclosed mall, it still has two hurdles to clear. Some elements of the design must still be approved by the City Planning Commission, which will vote on them on Feb. 6 and then the plan must be approved by the City Council.

At a City Planning Commission meeting on Feb. 4, commissioners noted that the Landmarks Preservation Commission rejected Howard Hughes’ plan to put a large “Seaport” sign on the pier and had reiterated that opposition despite a new request made by the firm.

Himani and some of the other tenants had hoped that City Planning or City Council could or would intervene on their behalf. But Michael Levine, director of planning and land use for Community Board 1, said that placing any hope in City Planning was misguided.

“The issue of when the tenants are being asked to leave is not subject to the ULURP [Uniform Land Use Review Procedure] process,” he said.  “It’s strictly a matter of the lease between E.D.C. and The Howard Hughes Corporation. It’s the E.D.C. that’s requiring that the property be prepared for construction by June 30. Howard Hughes is responding to the E.D.C., not to the Planning Commission’s requirements to obtain the zoning changes they need to rebuild the pier.”

He said that neither Howard Hughes nor the E.D.C. had made a move to change the due date. “Either party could have initiated the decision,” Levine said. “Neither party is willing to.”

But the pier’s owner, the city’s E.D.C., refused to comment on the standoff between Howard Hughes and the Pier 17 tenants. “This is a landlord/tenant matter,” said a spokesperson.

Nevertheless, Community Board 1 passed a resolution Jan. 22, reiterating a previous request that “the Howard Hughes Corporation delay reconstruction of Pier 17 until after the summer 2013 and extend the deadline for the Clipper City [a sightseeing ship that moors at Pier 17] and other Pier 17 businesses from June 30, 2013 to September 30, 2013 to permit operation through the important summer season.”

City Councilmember Margaret Chin and members of her staff have met with some of the Pier 17 tenants. On a Jan. 23 conference call with Hughes executives, she asked them to give tenants an extension, but has still not received a response.

“The councilmember is advocating for the businesses to be allowed to operate over the summer,” said Chin’s spokesperson, Kelly Magee. “She is also talking to [New York City] Deputy Mayor [Robert K.] Steel and will soon sit down with the E.D.C.”

“It’s not just about us as tenants of the Seaport,” said Himani. “It’s this whole area of Lower Manhattan from Water St. to Front St. to Fulton St. — everybody’s counting on all this tourist traffic coming here in the summer. We’ve been devastated by Hurricane Sandy. The whole area has. And how is this area going to recover unless we’re here to do business in the summer time?”

Tom Berton, owner of Clipper City, said he would have to lay off 40 employees if Howard Hughes proceeds with its plan of closing the pier down on April 30. Berton said that around 1,000 people are employed on the pier.

Some of the Himani family’s leases on Pier 17 extend well beyond the April 30 eviction date, but Sal Himani did not want to comment on any legal action they may take.

A Howard Hughes spokesperson, Alex Howe, said the firm had no comment on the April 30 eviction or the requests for extensions made by Councilmember Chin and C.B. 1.