Seaport retail owners discuss what’s next

By Elizabeth O’Brien

Nearly 30 merchants representing 295 years in business at the South Street Seaport gathered on Monday to plan for what many call their uncertain future in the neighborhood, where big changes are expected after the Fulton Fish Market leaves early next year.

The Seaport retail operator and the city, which owns the land, have kept mum about their plans for the prime waterfront property once the fish market moves to the Bronx. Merchants have a better chance of participating in the project’s future if they speak with one voice, said Gerry Nally, owner of the Seaport Watch Company at Pier 17, who organized the inaugural meeting of the Seaport Tenants Committee on July 12.

“There’s something going on here and all we want to do is ask what it is and do we fit in,” Nally said at the meeting.

The city Economic Development Corporation is working with the Rouse Company, the Seaport retail operator, on plans for the site. Michael Piazzola, general manager of Rouse’s Seaport Marketplace, said on Tuesday that there would likely be an announcement about the property’s future by the end of the summer. Piazzola had previously told Downtown Express that Rouse was keeping its options open for Pier 17 and wanted to have the ability to reconfigure the property.

Piazzola said on Tuesday that he welcomed the merchants’ input.

“It’s a positive they’ll be involved,” Piazzola said.

Several merchants said on Monday that they did not want to be quoted as saying anything that might reflect negatively on the Rouse Company, since they were negotiating post-9/11 rental relief or other agreements with the company.

Rouse has a long-term lease on the Seaport property, with options to renew until 2072, according to a spokesperson for the Economic Development Corporation. Since New York City owns the land occupied by the Seaport piers and much of the surrounding area, the city will have to approve any plans to redevelop it.

Like much of Lower Manhattan, the Seaport suffered a big drop in business after 9/11, and many merchants took out personal loans to survive. Merchants at Monday’s meeting said they would feel betrayed if city officials shut them out of the Seaport’s future after encouraging them to remain Downtown and aid in the rebuilding process.

“I’d like to have a better understanding of what the city wants to do,” said Larry Lynch, owner of Seaport Novelty and Gifts and a long-time tenant who borrowed $27,000 to stay in business after 9/11. Lynch said he hoped his business had a future Downtown and that he would relocate if necessary.

City zoning and landmark restrictions will limit what can be developed on Pier 17 and the surrounding area. For example, if the city wanted to tear down the existing mall on Pier 17, it could replace it only with a building of comparable size. Buildings or other structures on piers are limited to a maximum of 40 feet, according to a spokesperson for the Dept. of City Planning; 30 feet is the limit for a building without certain setbacks.

The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission would have to okay any changes to the exteriors of the buildings in the South Street Seaport Historic District, 38 acres that include most, but not all, of the surrounding buildings. The height of buildings in the district is limited to 120 feet, or approximately 12 stories.

Merchants on Monday named representatives who would attend public meetings on the East River waterfront and press officials to tell them what to expect once the fish market leaves. Plans for the Seaport were noticeably absent from a presentation that city officials gave Community Board 1 last month on the East River waterfront redevelopment.

Nally and his fellow merchants said they don’t want to be kept waiting any longer for answers about their future.

Said Nally, “This is the end of the game if we don’t do something.”


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