Seaport tower foes eye Wall St. pier as an alternative

BY JOSH ROGERS    |  Opponents of the proposed 500-foot Seaport tower are looking to move the skyscraper  further away from the neighborhood’s historic district.

The idea is to transfer unused development rights in the South Street Seaport Historic District just to the south or north on the East River, or to another part of Lower Manhattan, according to Gale Brewer, Manhattan’s borough president, and City Councilmember Margaret Chin, who both spoke at a meeting last week about the project, which had been in limbo for months until this Wednesday, when revisions were unveiled at a private meeting of the Seaport Working Group.

Michael Kramer, a member of the S.W.G. and a leader of Save Our Seaport, a neighborhood group that co-sponsored the Nov. 10  meeting, told Downtown Express that an “upland” area under consideration is the so-called Greenwich Street South, just south of the World Trade Center.

Kramer said building a tower elsewhere would not only preserve the historic district’s character, it would provide revenue to save the South Street Seaport Museum, one of the major goals of the working group, a community panel that has worked with the developer, Howard Hughes Corp., and the city toward developing a better alternative.

“The ability to transfer unused air rights would be a boost to Chase Bank [the air rights owner] — it’s like found money,” said Kramer, who served on the working group, which was led by Brewer, Chin and others. “The museum could share it 50-50.”

There is no interest yet from the city or Howard Hughes to move the tower. The firm is quietly acknowledging that its revisions do not meet all of the Seaport Working Group’s “guidelines and principles,” which call for an alternative to a tower at the New Market Building, so discussions about alternatives could become more serious depending now that there’s  dissatisfaction with the revisions.

If the tower does move, there’s at least hundreds of thousands of square feet, if not millions, of air rights that have sat unsold for decades, mainly because the number of sites that can be sold to our limited.

The first alternative site Chin and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver are considering exploring is near Wall St., where the demolished Pier 14 used to sit. The pier, which used to house part of a private tennis club, is an available air rights receiving site for the Seaport.

Yume Kitasei, Chin’s chief of staff, and Paul Goldstein, Silver’s district office director, on Tuesday night asked Community Board 1’s Seaport Committee to give preliminary support for the idea of looking at Pier 14 and other unnamed alternatives.

“It’s not that easy to find receiving sites that can take this bulk off that site,” Goldstein said.

Pier 14 would still require state and likely federal approvals, which are far from assured.

Some members of C.B. 1’s committee were reluctant to endorse Pier 14 or any specific location, but the committee did pass a resolution voicing support for finding feasible alternatives within C.B. 1.   

Former Mayor Mike Bloomberg eyed the area as part of his Seaport City idea to build on the water as a storm protection plan. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration continues to study the idea of building out in the water, although the name “Seaport City” probably died with the last administration.

Kramer, a public member of the Seaport Committee, said his Save Our Seaport group had identified other alternatives, which all have pros and cons, including just north of Pier 17 at the Seaport and Pier 36 on the Lower East Side. 

As for possibilities like Greenwich South, one source familiar with the discussions said there would be legal hurdles to clear in order to transfer the air rights to any place not slated to get Seaport air rights. Back in 2002, Bloomberg wanted to improve treacherous pedestrian areas around the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel entrance and nearby garage, by decking over large sections with landscaping and development sites. The idea was later scrapped because it was too expensive, but elements of it had the strong support of community and business leaders.

Todd Fine, a preservationist, prefers to call the area “Little Syria,” sine the neighborhood was once an enclave for Syrian Americans from the 1880s to the 1940s. Fine, president of the Washington Street Historical Society, was outraged to hear there was discussion about moving a tower to this neighborhood, when his group has tried in vain to get a Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing to protect three buildings.

He said he felt Little Syria could be sacrificed to preserve the Seaport, but he could envision supporting a tower move if it also included landmarking the three buildings, 941/2 and 96 Greenwich St.  and 105-7 Washington St.

Brewer, the borough president, said last week that “there are conversations” about transferring the unused air rights.

As for Pier 14, over the decades, the tennis bubble location has attracted artists, developers and mayors.  The courts on Piers 13 and 14 were made famous by Woody Allen, who set his character’s first meeting there with Diane Keaton in “Annie Hall.” Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and the Guggenheim Museum had hoped to build a mega-museum designed by Frank Gehry that many likened to his famed Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, but the idea was shelved for cost reasons.