BY REBECCA FIORE
Seaport area residents packed the community room at Southbridge Towers on Dec. 4 to give reps from Howard Hughes Corporation an earful about the developer’s Pier 17 project at a meeting convened by Community Board 1.
Beyond worries about noise, congestion and crowd control problems from the events that HHC is now planning host on the building’s roof, locals’ biggest complaint is how the Pier 17 rooftop became a 4,000-seat concert venue in the first place.
“For a lot of us, what is most disturbing is the pattern here of escalation of a project that started off as a moderate use of a rooftop with no canopy. It was sold [to us] that way. Then it has, when no one is looking, morphed constantly into something bigger. Now it’s an entertainment center on steroids,” said Caroline Miller.
Many said the Pier 17 project has followed a pattern with the developer of seeking approval for smaller plans but then methodically expanding them though a succession of tweaks into wildly different designs.
“As the plans keep changing I kind of feel like we are boiling frogs,” said Stacey Shub.
Michael Kramer of the local preservation group Save Our Seaport accused HHC of changing its promises of public access to the rooftop.
“Community Board 1 was told that there would be 40,000 square feet of public access on the rooftop,” he said. “Now we learn that there will only be a public corridor around the indoor restaurant patios totaling 10,000 square feet.”
But Saul Scherl, an executive vice president at HHC, pushed back hard against that assertion.
“It’s just not true,” he told the skeptical crowd. “Nothing has changed in terms of public space. The public space is still public space. Our plan is for whenever it’s not being used, it’s open to the public — the whole rooftop. That being said, there will be times when it will be closed,” he said.
When pressed, however, Scherl couldn’t say how much of the time HHC expected to be using the rooftop for private events, which are expected to include concerts, fashion shows, corporate events, and even tennis matches. He also conceded that even as construction on Pier 17 nears completion, HHC’s plans for the project are still not final.
Security was another major concern at the Southbridge Towers meeting, since the thousands of concertgoers will inevitably end up crossing through the complex to get to the pier.
Scherl said that the developer was working with several security companies and consultants on public safety for the pier, but locals said a security plan focused solely on Pier 17 wouldn’t address the larger issues the community has already seen with previous concerts HHC has hosted at the Seaport.
“I’m glad you have a great security company,” said John Fratta. “But that security company is for Seaport, not for our community. When we had the concert here for Drake, we had the problems in our community over here. Who did we turn to? We didn’t have the police over here. There was no one here to help us. You are going to be bringing all these people into our community.”
Scherl said that the security companies would be at a follow-up town hall meeting slated for February and could discuss locals’ concerns then.
Crowd-control issues aside, several residents demanded a traffic study of how the additional foot traffic, tour buses, and delivery trucks the Pier 17 development would attract will impact the neighborhood’s narrow streets.
“Has anyone taken a look at the size of the streets down here and how small they are? This is the original part of the city. This is not Midtown where we’ve got three lanes of roadway,” said Margaret Cooney.
The biggest concern by far was noise. Almost all of the 19 community members who spoke mentioned being able to hear the concerts that are already happening at the pier. John Fratta said during Seaport concerts he can’t even watch television in his west-facing apartment, even with the windows shut.
HHC conducted a test of the concert sound system on Oct. 25 — with sound monitors placed on the rooftops of 85 South St., 90 South St., 107 Beekman St., and 200 Water St., as well as inside a vacant apartment in Southbridge Towers — and the results suggested that noise would not be a problem, according to Scherl. He promised that the company that ran the test, Eastern Acoustic Works, would also be at the February meeting to discuss the results in more detail.
A few people brought up that the problem isn’t just the sound, but that the vibrations the low-frequency bass creates literally shake the surrounding buildings.
“I would just like to say that it’s not the volume of the noise, but it is the fact that you feel it,” said Rona Kluger. “I know you had an event recently at Seaport and I didn’t hear it. I felt it in my apartment with the windows closed and the air conditioning on.”
Kluger even challenged the HHC executives to come over and conduct another test in person to see what actual residents experience.
“I would invite you all, even give you a glass of wine — come to my house when you are having an event, if you really want to test it out,” she said.
Another suggestion that garnered a round of applause form the audience — but no commitment from HHC — was that the developers install a failsafe device for the sound system linked to monitors on surrounding rooftops that would automatically reduce the volume, or even cut it off completely, if legal noise levels were exceeded.
Shub also took issue with the Oct. 25 sound test, since it just tested the sound from the speaker system, which is only half of the noise equation for a packed concert, and suggested doing another sound test with more community participation.
“It’s going to be worse when you do it with 4,000 people,” Shub said. “I would love for you to be a partner and do a test for the sound system for us.”
When Scherl said that a second test would cost lots of money, and HHC would have to borrow speakers and spend a week installing them, the crowd responded with a sarcastic “Awww!”
The meeting came to a contentious and unceremonious end when members of the audience were pressing Scherl on how many concerts HHC plans to host at the Seaport, calling out “Can we get an answer?”
“I don’t think he has an answer,” said CB1 member Paul Goldstein. “We will have follow up meetings on this. This meeting was intended to raise the issues. We did that.”