The long walk to demolish a pier

By Julie Shapiro

Tuesday’s hearing before the Landmarks Preservation Commission was just the first step General Growth Properties will have to take before breaking ground on their redevelopment of South St. Seaport.

Downtown Express spoke with Elise Wagner, a partner at Kramer Levin who is working for General Growth, about all the other approvals the project will need over the next several years, if it gets Landmarks support. General Growth will apply jointly with different city agencies for many of the approvals.

Later this fall, General Growth will go before the city Public Design Commission (formerly the Art Commission) for approval on the parts of the project outside the South Street Seaport Historic District. That includes the 42-story condo and hotel tower General Growth hopes to build just north of Pier 17 and two small pavilions beneath the F.D.R. Dr. The public will have a chance to weigh in on the designs when they are before the commission, Wagner said.

The majority of the approvals General Growth needs from the city will come during the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, which will begin in spring 2009 and will last the rest of the year. As part of ULURP, General Growth has to sign a new lease with the city. When General Growth bought the Rouse Company in 2004, G.G.P. picked up Rouse’s 99-year lease of Pier 17, signed in the 1980s. That lease does not include the site of the New Market building just north of the pier, where General Growth hopes to build the condo and hotel tower, so the new lease would add that parcel to General Growth’s holdings, Wagner said.

Under ULURP, Community Board 1 and the borough president will offer advisory opinions on the plan before it goes to the City Planning Commission and the City Council for approval.

General Growth’s ULURP application will also include several zoning changes. G.G.P. wants to expand the South Street Seaport Subdistrict to include the New Market site, so that the entire project sits within one zoning district with one set of rules. Then, General Growth wants to create a special permit that would allow City Planning to waive some waterfront zoning regulations. One such regulation limits the height on platforms to 350 feet. General Growth wants to build its tower 150 feet taller than that on the platform that currently holds the New Market building.

C.B. 1 members have expressed concern that General Growth’s tower would set the precedent of high-rises along the waterfront, but Wagner said that would not happen. The special permit would only apply to the Seaport Subdistrict, and Wagner does not think any other sites in that district would be eligible for it. General Growth will ask to create the permit and apply for it at the same time, during ULURP.

In addition to using the special zoning permit to build the tower, General Growth would also use it to circumvent several technicalities of waterfront zoning, like the width of walkways and the size of rear yards. Rather than following the current waterfront zoning requirements to the letter of the law, General Growth would work with City Planning to provide adequate open space in the project as a whole, Wagner said.

As another part of ULURP, General Growth will ask to change the zoning of the project area from one type of commercial district to another. The current C-2A zoning does not permit large retail spaces like department stores, so G.G.P. wants to switch to a C4-6 district, which allows for more commercial space.

General Growth’s final ULURP application is unrelated to its plan for Pier 17, but instead relates to the uplands portion of the project, which will remain largely unchanged. Since General Growth is going through ULURP already, the company decided to include a change to the Brooklyn Bridge Southeast Urban Renewal Plan that would give General Growth more flexibility in regulating sidewalk cafes and vending on the uplands. General Growth will also modify a city map change resolution to carry this out.

While G.G.P. is going through ULURP, the company will begin seeking state and federal environmental permits. To repair the crumbling wooden supports beneath the Tin Building and New Market building, General Growth needs approval from the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which held up construction of the Hudson River Park for years before it granted a permit to rebuild piers. General Growth also plans to make minor changes to the footprint of the pier, without changing its net square footage, Wagner said. The State Historic Preservation Office will have an advisory role in the environmental approvals.

General Growth hopes to have the environmental approvals in 2010, once ULURP is complete at the end of 2009. Also in 2010, General Growth plans to finish negotiating the financial terms of its lease with the city. The city Economic Development Corporation has said the city would not sign the lease until G.G.P. proves it can finance the project.