The Fish Won’t Walk: Despite Rudy Assault, Fulton Market Stays

From Joseph Forstadt’s window, 32 floors above the East River, the Fulton Fish Market is humble to the eye: two boxy white structures against the river front; across the elevated F.D.R. Drive, a new brick building a few dealers share with a bistro and shops; a line of ramshackle brick buildings across Beekman Street. Sometimes, when he works late at the law firm of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, he can see the fishmongers setting up stalls along South Street for their night’s work.

For a while there, Mr. Forstadt thought the view from his window might be changing. Deputy Mayor Rudy Washington was trying to move the city-owned market out of Manhattan to Hunts Point in the Bronx, just south of Yankee Stadium. In a few years, those little buildings would become hotels, or apartments, or something grander. The merchants figured their days were numbered and hired Mr. Forstadt to fight for lucrative compensation from the city for moving.

Now it seems Mr. Forstadt may keep his view. More than a year after the move was first proposed (actually, it is merely the latest proposal to move the market to a less historic, and cheaper, location), talks appear to have stalled. Some believe that officials at City Hall, just a few minutes’ walk from the market, took a look at cost estimates for the move-about $75 million-and decided that maybe they liked the smell of fish in the morning. “As of now, everything is pretty much shelved,” said Frank Mineo, owner of Smitty’s Fillet House, who has participated in the negotiations with the city. Developers salivating over the prospect of building on prime riverfront property, in the midst of one of Manhattan’s most historic neighborhoods, may be stuck with their speculations showing. Some initial plans for the site included movie theaters, hotels and residential buildings, and some developers began buying up adjacent sites in anticipation of a South Street boom. But now, everybody appears to be on hold.

“The initial negotiations [with the city] were very aggressive,” Mr. Forstadt said. “They spent a substantial amount of money hiring professionals to come up with plans for the new market. Then it seemed to fizzle.”

These days, the conventional wisdom around the market is that the fishmongers, who have lived through Tammany Hall and mob control, will outlast Rudy Giuliani, too.

If the New York City Economic Development Corporation is having second thoughts, it isn’t saying so. “The status is that [the move to Hunts Point] is under consideration,” said Janel Patterson, an E.D.C. spokeswoman. But it has been 15 months since Mr. Washington first proposed the relocation. Nine months ago, he announced it would happen within a year.

Several people who have had discussions with the E.D.C. recently report that officials are now saying that the relocation could be two years away. “The money isn’t in the budget” to begin the move, said Josephine Infante, executive director of the Hunts Point Economic Development Corporation. E.D.C. officials recently informed Ms. Infante of their $75 million cost estimate for the move. At the fish market, they figure the price tag has scared off the city.

“I heard they backed out,” said John Keenan, owner of Crescent City Seafood, as he stood in front of a 125-pound swordfish, a large picking hook dangling from his shoulder. “I don’t know if it was because Giuliani’s leaving, but from what I understand, nobody wanted to put the money into it.”

Nine months ago, the move seemed almost a done deal. The fish market would join produce and meat markets that have been in Hunts Point for almost four decades, creating a massive wholesale food-distribution center in the Bronx. The state-of-the-art facilities would allow the merchants to easily comply with new federal standards for fish refrigeration. With the fishmongers removed, the city could turn its eye toward redeveloping the valuable riverfront real estate that the current market occupies.

Rumors of circling developers flew, and the locals began to imagine life without the fish market. Some residents dreamed of parks. An executive with the company that runs the South Street Seaport, which owns development rights to part of the site, began talking to movie theater chains. A residential developer bought an adjacent block of boarded-up buildings for conversion into apartments.

Then, seemingly, the city’s opportunity began to fade. Mr. Washington’s chosen site at Hunts Point turned out to have contaminated soil. The city’s number crunchers found the $75 million cost to move the market would be far more than the estimated resale price for the land, somewhere between $40 million and $60 million. The fishmongers decided to play hardball.

The negotiations stopped.

Mr. Forstadt said the city had never presented his clients with any details. “The parties have talked to each other from time to time, but we are still awaiting a proposal by the city,” he said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Forstadt said most dealers had taken steps to comply with the new federal fish-handling law, making the move unnecessary. While a recent summer morning found fish still nestled for sale in ice-filled boxes, as they have been for generations, Mr. Mineo said there are ways to comply with the law short of refrigeration. “We’ll work it out,” he said.

Ms. Infante is still optimistic that the move will happen, placing the odds at “better than 50-50″ after her meeting with E.D.C. officials. She said the new site’s former owner, Consolidated Edison, has agreed to clean up the contamination as part of its sale agreement with the city.

Ms. Infante estimated the city had already spent $2 million on feasibility studies, architectural drawings and other groundwork.

“Right now everyone says yes,” Ms. Infante said, “and now we’re trying to put the money together.”

Well, not everyone says yes.

Mixed Feelings

“There are a lot of mixed feelings about doing the deal,” Mr. Mineo said. “There’s 20 different avenues to get out of the city here. There’s tradition here. Are they going to carry forth with the same concept? If not, it’s not going to work.”

Mr. Mineo’s business, like many in the market, has been kept in his family for generations. As the 7:30 a.m. sunlight shined down on his boxes, laid out along the sidewalk, a pair of customers meandered by. “A dollar fifty for the large, $1.25 for the medium,” he barked. Across the way, another dealer was haggling: “Walk away, then! I’m making less than five cents on you! I have to make a fucking living.” Mr. Mineo confided that, as it was the end of his day, he might take five cents less per pound for his fish.

At early morning, the market remains little changed from the place Joseph Mitchell rhapsodized about in his slice-of-life New Yorker stories a half-century ago. “The smoky riverbank dawn, the racket the fishmongers make, the seaweedy smell” remain.

Even then it was an anachronism, a vestige of a time when New York was a bustling port city and downtown belonged as much to sailors and fisherman as bankers. Fish peddlers began setting up stalls among the Fulton Market merchants in the 1820′s, said Norman Brouwer, a marine historian at the South Street Seaport Museum. Complaints about the smell sent the fishmongers across South Street to the riverside around 1831. Fishermen would unload their catch right onto the docks, and some fish would be kept alive in the East River.

Through the 19th century, Fulton Street was a major thoroughfare leading to the steam ferry to Brooklyn. Ferries to Williamsburg debarked from Peck Slip nearby. South Street was lined with taverns and hotels, as well as the fish market, which was growing to become the largest of its kind in the world.

The market soon became a patronage mill where Tammany Hall operatives found jobs for their relatives, and where a young laborer with higher ambitions named Al Smith gained a world-class education in the ways and means of the city. (Later, while serving in the state Assembly, he often told his more privileged colleagues that he earned his degree at F.F.M. When the initials drew a blank stare, Smith explained: “Fulton Fish Market.”)

Tourists Take Over

These days, the fish come in by truck and the tourists come by bus. On a recent weekend afternoon, the smell of fish hung over the complex of low-slung buildings as tourists meandered shoulder-to-shoulder past the bistros and shops of Fulton Street toward Pier 17, the centerpiece of the South Street Seaport. The building at 92 South Street, which was once the Fulton Ferry Hotel and was made famous by Mitchell as the location of Sloppy Louie’s restaurant, now bears a sign: “Opening Soon … A Newly Expanded North Star Pub.” An Ann Taylor showroom occupies the upper floors.

There are plenty of developers who could find something lucrative to do with a location like that. The city refuses to specify what it would like to see done with the land should it ever move the fishmongers out. But that hasn’t kept local residents from engaging in some (perhaps wishful) speculation.

“I’ve heard everything from … a waterfront park to residential,” said Judy Duffy, assistant district manager for Community Board 1. “We need a grocery store somewhere.”

“I heard Disney,” said Gerald McMahon, an attorney for some of the fishmongers.

Early speculation focused on a hotel or other commercial development, which would bring big tax dollars into the city. “It’s a great location, it has great accessibility, the South Street Seaport,” said Insignia/ESG real estate broker Brad Gerla. “As an office tenant it has a lot of amenities, and they’re there for residential tenants as well.”

Paul Harnett, an executive with the Rouse Corporation of Columbia, Md., which developed and runs the Seaport, said his company has contractual options to develop two of the buildings that are adjacent to his property if they come onto the open market.

“We have some ideas that would be very appropriate to the Seaport, and the lower Manhattan community as a whole,” Mr. Harnett said. “We’d love to see a movie theater, and we’ve had a lot of interest from movie theater operators in doing a deal down here.”

Mr. Harnett, Ms. Duffy and others linked the fish market’s redevelopment to a flurry of projects currently proposed for the East River waterfront. The Guggenheim Museum is pledging to spend as much as $850 million to build a Frank Gehry–designed museum along the waterfront on several city-owned piers. It’s competing with a proposal for a floating theater and hotel.

E.D.C. president Michael Carey recently told the Downtown Express that the agency has agreed to sell 10 dilapidated buildings on Front Street, abutting the market, to the firm Bohn-Fiore for an undisclosed sum. The firm plans to turn the 19th-century buildings into about 100 apartments, the project architect told the Express .

Citing a confidentiality agreement, neither the architect nor developer Richard Fiore Sr. would comment. Ms. Patterson would not provide more details.

It’s unlikely that buildings of any size will be built on any of the sites. The Landmarks Preservation Commission, which has to review projects in the Seaport historic district, would make that difficult. Building large buildings on old landfill is time-consuming and expensive, anyway.

Then again, if the city were looking for a tenant that provides jobs and tax revenue, it could do worse than the one it has now. The market still does an estimated $1 billion a year in business, and the city collects $3 million a year in rent. It’s in a location convenient to Brooklyn, New Jersey and especially Chinatown (many of its customers these days are Asian).

So it’s hardly surprising that as soon as Mr. Washington proposed the move, the fishmongers got on the phone to their lawyers. They’d been through this routine before. Mayors from John Lindsay to Ed Koch tried to roust them from their real estate. Mr. Koch wanted to send them to Brooklyn. Mr. Lindsay favored Hunts Point.

Mr. Forstadt knows this history. He was the Lindsay administration official in charge of negotiating the move with the fishmongers. He failed, mostly because the fishmongers, who harbor deep rivalries, could never agree among themselves.

Hugh O’Neill, a former Port Authority official who now works as a private consultant on development issues, said there was another reason why previous moves failed. “I think that the discussions were complicated by the fact that there was always somebody that was under investigation,” he said.

As for the Mob …

Mr. Giuliani’s administration says he cleaned organized crime out of the market by tightening city control over the dealers who operate there. (Readers have to take his word for it. During The Observer’s visit, none of the fishmongers wanted to talk about the Mafia, and most of them were carrying big hooks, so the issue wasn’t pressed.) The city raised the merchants’ rents and forced them to enter into long-term leases for their stalls.

Now that the city wants them to move, the leaseholders have some demands. They want to make sure their new digs are to their liking. They want to make sure all the fish dealers come with them, maintaining their centralized auction system. And they want to be reimbursed for investments in their property, including new refrigeration systems.

“Unless the city makes a substantial offer, and I mean something that is so attractive as to be persuasive for them to move, there is no inclination to move,” Mr. Forstadt said, adding that each of the dealers has invested hundreds of thousands in his facilities.

“They’re not moving until the dollars are right,” Mr. McMahon said. The fishmongers, he continued, feel they’ve been mistreated by the city in the past and thus are mistrustful of current promises.

“If the city is going to get $100 a square foot [for the property], why don’t we get a piece of the action?” he asked. “This is a prime piece of real estate, and we’re like the proverbial little old lady with a run-down shack right in the middle of a square-block building.”

Meanwhile, there are plenty of people who are happy the way things are. Gary Fagin, of the Seaport Community Coalition, said many residents weren’t happy with any of the possible redevelopment options.

“Many of us who have been down here for a while moved down here because of the fish market, and we really enjoy the proximity of the fish market and the sense of history it exudes,” he said. “We’d be very sad to see it go.”

There’s a good chance they will never have to shed a tear.