Seaport plan is a good first draft

After nearly three decades of failure at the South Street Seaport mall, the firm now in charge proposes a grand plan in the billion-dollar range to revamp the area with hotels and better retail just as Wall Street’s shockwaves nearby are being felt everywhere. When you consider the long list of agencies at all government levels needed to approve the plan and you throw in the early opposition from vocal members of Community Board 1, there’s ample reason to dismiss General Growth Properties’ proposal as a fantasy.

But the firm, which took over the mall four years ago, knows it can’t build its plan in today’s market anyway and is planning for a better financial picture in 2010. This international corporation has a few dozen plans in development, and its Northeast asset manager told us last week that the Seaport project is the firm’s number-one priority. That commitment to the city in these tough times is inspiring.

But even more important, General Growth has the right approach to remaking an area that has little appeal to Downtown and city residents and not enough to tourists. Although the long-awaited proposal needs changes, it’s an excellent first draft.

The proposal adds a large amount of open space to the Seaport, brings people physically closer to the East River, opens the waterfront more to the neighborhood (as best as can be done with the looming, elevated F.D.R. Drive), and restores the historic Tin Building once used by the Fulton Fish Market — returning it to its figurative first home, on the waterfront.

The proposal includes a 30,000-square-foot recreation center, and just two months after hearing directly from parents about the desperate need for schools in Lower Manhattan, General Growth executives told us they would also include a school in the first phase of the project if the School Construction Authority wants one.

The opposition focuses on the 500-foot-tall, hotel-residential tower the firm wants to build outside the South Street Seaport Historic District. Size does matter when it comes to buildings, but bulk is much more important than height. General Growth can build a shorter, squat, 350-foot-tall building within the zoning limits that will block much more light and many more views to the Brooklyn Bridge than its slender tower design.

G.G.P. probably is willing to come down a little on the height of its first proposal, but we caution C.B. 1 and local politicians not to spend too much time shortening a tower that, in our opinion, will be an elegant addition to the Lower Manhattan skyline. The interests of the board, elected officials and the community would be better served by fighting for more amenities in the plan. A shorter tower means less money for things everyone wants.

The Seaport should be a go-to place for residents and workers and a must-see for tourists. General Growth’s idea shows a path to get there with some help from the community.