Seaport’s early reviews are bad for Gehry’s tower


By Ronda Kaysen

The tower on Beekman St. will climb 850 feet into the sky, a twisting, titanium sculpture that will rival the Woolworth Building in scale. At a public forum last week, the residents of the South Street Seaport and the Financial District got a first peek at the skyscraper by Frank Gehry that will transform their neighborhood and a preview of how the construction will impact their lives.

“This will be a signature project,” said MaryAnne Gilmartin, an executive vice president of the developer, Forest City Ratner, at the forum. Gehry, best known for his Gugenheim in Bilbao, Spain, is also designing the Performing Arts Center in the World Trade Center.

His 75-story, Beekman tower will leave an indelible mark on the New York City skyline, with its rippled skin and undulating walls. With construction set to begin next month, it will open two years before the new World Trade Center towers, except for 7 W.T.C., which opened last May.

Set three blocks east of the W.T.C., the four new Trade Center buildings will become a mighty backdrop to Gehry’s tower, which will be less than half the size of the 1,776-ft tall Freedom Tower. “It’s really going to change the neighborhood,” said Meghan French, a spokesperson of Pace University, which hosted the forum and is situated across the street from the new building.

For many of the residents who spoke at the forum, the new tower is not such a welcome neighbor. “I am absolutely appalled that a community board that was against a 12-story building in Tribeca has allowed a 75-story building on a narrow street,” said Phylis Salom, a resident of nearby Southbridge Towers, referring to a recent fight by Community Board 1 to reduce the height on a waterfront development in North Tribeca. “Tribeca is a community of millionaires and we’re middle class people.

We have been walked over and stepped on… it is immoral that this real estate company is destroying our neighborhood.”

Unlike the Tribeca development, which required public approval, the Beekman tower fits within the neighborhood’s zoning laws and involved no public review process. “They can build as tall as they want to build,” C.B. 1 chairperson Julie Menin said at the forum.

And so residents heard the details of how constructing an 850-ft. building will affect their lives. For the next three and a half years, residents will navigate closed sidewalks, periodic bouts of excessive noise and a dearth of public parking.

Forest City representatives displayed renderings of the building, which is bound by Spruce, William and Beekman Sts., at the public forum, including a video of how the building will be constructed from the ground up. However, a spokesperson for the company declined to make the images available for print. Bruce Ratner, Forest City president and C.E.O., did not attend the meeting.

An 11,000 sq. ft. public plaza, designed by Gehry, separates the building’s Nassau St. facade from two residential buildings at 140 and 150 Nassau St. Gehry will also design a second, smaller plaza on William St., used mainly for school children headed to a new 630-seat public school in the lower levels of the tower.

The plazas “are intended to be places that encourage people to pass through them,” said Gilmartin. The Nassau St. plaza will include ample seating, while the William St. plaza “was designed with kids in mind.”

The new K-8 school will sit in the bottom five floors of the tower and have a rooftop play area on the fifth-floor podium of the building. When the school opens in 2009, children will enter the building at William St., and gather at the plaza there. New York Downtown Hospital, which sold the parcel — currently an acre-wide parking lot — to Ratner, will have a 25,000 sq. ft. outpatient facility in the new building. There will also be about 2,500 sq. ft. of retail.

Mainly, residents wanted to know what to expect during construction.

“Many of my windows will overlook this site,” said Alan Mitchell. “Should I expect that, practically speaking, I will not be able to work out of my home office?”

Beginning in February, the construction project will involve a three-month period of pile driving—an extremely noisy and disruptive foundation building process. Forest City representatives offered little solace to neighbors.

“Pile driving is noisy, there’s not getting around it,” said Forest City senior vice president Joe Rechichi. “You’ll hear a boom, boom, boom and feel a vibration… it’s the course of doing business with piles.”

If residents agree to allow pile driving on Saturdays, the three-month process could be expedited, Rechichi noted.

Excavation will begin as early as next week, followed by three months of drilling caissons, a foundation building process that is less noisy than driving piles. Rechichi told Downtown Express that Forest City opted to drive caissons along the perimeter of the site to protect nearby buildings, but will drive piles on the rest of the site because it takes far less time than drilling caissons— allowing the school to open in 2009 — and will be less expensive for the developer. Forest City is also developing the controversial Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn. The city announced earlier this year that the school opening would be delayed to 2009 because of a funding dispute with Albany.

Residents also worried about a loss of parking, both during construction and in the long term. New York Downtown Hospital will operate the parking lot planned for the new tower. However, the spaces will not be available to the 800 new units of luxury residential apartments. Residents expressed concern that parking, already a scarce commodity, would become even scarcer.

But Forest City is not planning parking for residents since it’s not required. “There’s got to be a reason why there’s no code requirements for it [a parking lot],” Rechichi told Downtown Express.

Construction will begin as soon as next month and continue for three and a half years. Crews will work Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.