BY JOSH ROGERS | Before the de Blasio administration begins to consider a proposal to build a 600-foot tower at the South Street Seaport, officials want to see affordable housing added to the plan, according to the project’s developer.
Chris Curry, senior executive vice president of development of the Howard Hughes Corp., the Seaport’s developer revealed last week that the firm reached out to Bill de Blasio during his mayoral transition, and a few advisers told Curry in December that the best way to make the plan more appealing would be to add some type of subsidized housing.
Tower, de Blasio & affordable housing in the mix
“I know the administration has already mentioned to us… affordable housing,” Curry said during a presentation of the project to Downtown Express Jan. 7. “[It’s] very important to the mayor.”
He said it was not clear if the affordable housing needed to be included in the tower, which is strongly opposed in the community, or if it could be built somewhere off the site in order to curry favor with the mayor.
Curry did not reveal the meeting’s attendees and a de Blasio spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. De Blasio has said repeatedly that affordable housing is a top priority so Curry couldn’t have been too surprised by the direct signal.
When the mayor-elect announced Dec. 31 that Kyle Kimball would be continuing on as president of the city’s Economic Development Corp., Kimball said in a prepared statement that “we will innovate in new ways to spur affordable housing and meet the needs of neighborhoods.”
Kimball’s agency owns much of the Seaport and will be negotiating with the Hughes Corp. on its latest proposal to build a tower on the New Market Building site.
The mixed use building is likely to have apartments, a hotel and retail.
Curry is taking comfort in de Blasio’s decision to retain Kimball.
“I think that it’s helpful for us that Kyle was appointed president of E.D.C.,” Curry said. “Now that doesn’t mean the administration is gonna have the same perspective as the previous administration did, but I think it’s helpful to him to be able to articulate to the new administration what it is we’ve beentrying to do for the last three years.”
Similarly, during the same meeting last week, the project’s lead designer, Gregg Pasquarelli of SHoP Architects, pointed out that his firm has worked with E.D.C. for a decade to redesign Lower Manhattan’s East Side waterfront immediately north and south of the Hughes project.
“It’s nice to know there’s people there who understand why we made the decisions we made for the last ten years,” Pasquarelli said. “This is really the critical point in the development of that whole waterfront.”
Kimball joined E.D.C. in 2008 and became president last July, four months after the Pier 17 project was approved. Prior to joining government, he was a vice president at Goldman Sachs, which also helped groom another of the key administration figures in the Seaport project, Alicia Glen, deputy mayor for housing and economic development.
An E.D.C. spokesperson declined to comment for this article.
The project also includes a large food market in the Tin Building and a marina.
Adding affordable housing by itself though, is not likely to win over much community support.
“That may be fine for the administration but not for the community,” John Fratta, chairperson of Community Board 1’s Seaport Committee, told Downtown Express when told of the message from the de Blasio camp. “It’s still a tower and it just doesn’t belong.”
Hughes has not finalized its proposal, and negotiations with the various parties have not begun, but the parameters of the talks are becoming clearer.
C.B.1 and the local politicians are united in opposing a 600-foot tower, but if that height were to drop significantly, and large community amenities were added, a split would probably form, as some in the community might accept a smaller tower if there were enough sweeteners.
The board discussed that issue briefly last month.
“We don’t want to confuse the issue of the tower and anything else,” said Joe Lerner, a board member who lives in the Seaport area. “We are not selling our life and giving them a tower.”
But Fratta said at a certain point it may be fruitful to begin discussions of community needs, a list which includes schools, libraries, community centers and playing fields.
And Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver told Downtown Express last month that he could envision negotiations beginning around a smaller building.
“We’ve expressed our opposition to the height of the tower just as an opening,” Silver said, but if the height were reduced, “yeah, I think if we sit down with Catherine [McVay Hughes, C.B.1 chairperson] and other members of the community board and work out some of the things the community needs — obviously that’s what dialogue is about.”
At last week’s meeting with Downtown Express, Curry acknowledged that they have released prelimanary plans “without making a larger gesture to the community,” but later, he pushed back at the suggestion that from a community perspective the plan is a step back from a proposal five years ago which included a school and a smaller tower of 500 feet.
Asked to point out where in the mixed use building a large space to satisfy community needs could go, he said “when we get into our ULURP [land use application], I’m sure a lot of people will be asking for a lot of things, and some of it we can provide potentially and some of it we may not be able to provide.”
In the firm’s view, the community is geting an investment of about $125 million for community goals including a restored landmark structure, the Tin Building, a repaired pier which is decaying, better views and more access to the waterfront, a better esplanade and a large expensive marina.
Fratta countered that argument at last month’s C.B.1 meeting.
“If they don’t rebuild the pier their project is gone, if they don’t rebuild the Tin Building, they can’t do anything with it, and the marina is gonna bring a lot of money to them,” Fratta said. “There’s not one tangible thing that the community is getting from this project other than the destruction of our community.”
Pasquarelli, the project’s architect, told Downtown Express “we understand it’s a problem to put a tall building there,” but he is working on design features to “soften the scale.”
He said the building will be so narrow that it will not block one resident’s view of the Brooklyn Bridge.
He said the only way you can fund the $125 million or so needed to restore the Tin Building (preliminary estimate is roughly $45 million), repair the pier platform ($50 million) and build an esplanade and marina ($35 million) is to build on the only site outside the South Street Seaport Historic District.
The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission will review most of the plan, but not the tower since it’s outside the historic district.
C.B.1 and preservation groups have been unsuccessful in the past in adding the New Market building to the historic district, although they have not lost hope that they will have better luck with de Blasio appointees, who have yet to be named.
If Hughes gets Landmarks approval, they will submit a formal land use application. Once that is certified, the community board and borough president will have the chance to issue advisory opinions before the plan goes to the City Council for an up or down vote, perhaps by the end of the year.
On Monday, the community board held a town hall meeting on the project with a few hundred attendees, and almost all of the four dozen or so speakers were opposed.
“Howard Hughes, if he develops this building, is going to have an unbelievable amount of free marketing,” said Southbridge Towers resident Ze’ev Keisch, noting the proximity to the Brooklyn Bridge. “Every time you see a movie in the future there will be Howard Hughes and his money so if he wants that marketing, make him pay for it. Let’s start with 200 million upfront just to consider his plan.”
Councilmember Margaret Chin, who will be one of the chief negotiators on the plan, declined an interview request for this article and did not attend the town hall, citing a scheduling conflict.
She sent two aides to the meeting, one of whom reiterated her public statement of two months ago expressing “serious concerns” about the tower and her desire to work “toward incorporating much-needed public amenities that reflect what residents want to see in their neighborhood.”
There were a handful of project supporters who spoke, including a representatives from the Downtown Alliance business improvement district, and members of building and hotel worker unions.
Robert LaValva, the founder of the Seaport’s New Amsterdam Market and one of the leaders in the fight against the Hughes firm’s projects, announced at the meeting a new effort, “Just Press Pause” (justpresspause.org), calling on the city to stop the march to more neighborhood development until a full master plan is developed with more consideration given to historic preservation.
David Sheldon of Save Our Seaport asked whether the city’s E.D.C. showed up.
He got his answer, then said “there’s the elephant that isn’t in the room.”