Does a developer have any obligation to undo the ills of the past?
That was the rather existential debate that took place at the Landmarks Preservation Commission earlier this month, as commissioners debated the merits of a proposal to transform Pier 17 at the South Street Seaport. While the designs by SHoP Architects were roundly applauded, and ultimately won unanimous approval, many commissioners lamented the fact that the current mall was being replaced with a new one, rather than something less commercial or even nothing at all, just a wide-open public pier.
“There’s lots of proof in Manhattan that a shopping mall never works, but nevertheless, there’s a developer who insists they have the right formula for this shopping mall to finally work, so I guess within the context of that, then the question really is—is the architecture appropriate for the Seaport?” commissioner Margery Perlmutter said.
Commissioner Fred Bland felt so strongly about the issue, including the destruction of the notable-for-its-time Ben Thompson-designed mall, that he had composed his comments earlier that day, something he said had only happened twice before in his four years on the commission (for St. Vincent’s and “for the infamous mosque”).
“I come to today’s vote with such extreme ambivalence, even sadness, I wanted to express myself with careful words,” he said, going on to say that a mall belongs somewhere in the middle of the island if anywhere at all and then providing his own prescription for the site. “What should be here is a lot of open space, perhaps a little gem of a seaport museum or a seaport interpretation center and maybe some places to eat or drink while taking in some of New York’s great views.
“But I am persuaded we cannot roll back the clock 30 years and correct this mistake now. Politically, economically, too much is at stake and it will not happen.”
Gregg Pasquarelli, one of SHoP’s principals, told The Observer after that his design solves many of the problems the current building, which is there whether anyone likes it or not, creates, and no one would pay for the solutions were it not to some commercial end. “I think one can appreciate the argument that shopping on the waterfront is not the kind of project the city would approve today but the fact is that it exists, and therefore we should try to make the best solution to the current problem possible,” he said.
The commissioners seemed to agree, and indeed the mall proposed to replace the one that was there was quite a bit nicer. “Something needs to be done, I believe this is what should be done, and it’s an appropriate expression of what to do on this pier,” Commission Chair Robter Tierney said. “I harken back to Pier 15 for the kind of thoughtful materials and design and public amenities that work. You’ve done a sort of commercial version of that, if you will, in the best sense.” (It is appropriate that he would compare the two, as SHoP also designed Pier 15.)
It is not without irony that a previous proposal for the pier that the commission flatly rejected three years ago would have included a good deal more open space on the pier, as it was part of a larger redevelopment effort that moved the shopping and additional development to the landside of the pier and relocated the historic Tin Building to the water, leaving more room around it. This proposal also include a new 40 story residential tower, which along with the designs of the previous plan, drew a great deal of ire from the commission. Were they to choose between the two today, it would be interesting to see which was preferred.
Still, a bankruptcy and a recession have a way of altering economic realities.
SHoP’s proposal in many ways is far more open than the current mall. The architects, along with developer Howard Hughes Corporation, a division of Bill Ackman-owned General Growth Properties, want to tear the shed-style mall back to its steel structure and build up from there, an approach they argue is less wasteful and therefore more sustainable.
From there, a new prismatic glass façade will be added, meant to evoke the jaggedness of waves. Because the base of the new structure will be cut into the building, with paths interweaving throughout, the architects argue it is a more public and inviting space, not just a wall of red corrugated metal. Through this run archways that the architects say will foster views of the Brooklyn Bridge. Some commissioners were suspicious of these view corridors while other applauded them.
“This is ultimately a very big and very complicated project with many things to consider,” commissioner Michael Goldblum said. “On the issue of the view corridor, I think it could work. It does penetrate the building and draws the visitors in and through the space, and that is what you want.”
“I don’t think the view corridor will ultimately serve as a view-through corridor, but if that’s what you want to believe, I’m willing to follow along on your dream,” commissioner Perlmutter said dismissively.
The pathways created by these corridors are meant to evoke a retail experience closer to that of shopping at small storefronts on side streets (think West Village) than inside a monolithic mall (e.g. the Time Warner Center). Adding to the openness of the experience is a rooftop lawn that doubles as a venue for concerts, films and other events.
“Right now, the property pretty much serves the tourist trade,” Mr. Pasquarelli told The Observer. “It doesn’t serve the residents or the office workers. This reconfigures and opens it to the entire city, with a better space and a better mix of activities, something that will be a draw for everyone.”
A number of commissioners were buying it—up to a point. “I’m quite in favor of this design,” Michael Devonshire said. But he expressed a major concern that was repeated over and over again.
“We seem to get the polyanna version of what could happen with signage on those upper stories, I’m deathly afraid of what could happen.” he said, referring to the glassed-in facade. “This seems to be the best-case scenario, we could be facing a worst-case scenario, but it’s gratifying to see that that’s something we can talk about later.”
With all that glass, the building could easily turn into what Commissioner Goldblum fearfully called “Times Square.” The Historic Districts Council released a rather sensational rendering to that effect. The developer has promised that is not the desired aesthetic, and it will bring all future signage to the commission for approval.
Still, most of the commissioners were satisfied with their oversight of the building.
“I think the key to this scheme is the signage,” commissioner Goldblum said. “I think the openness of the applicant to providing us as a commission with the lease date, the lease terms, things that relate to signage and cladding of the boxes, will inform the pedestrian experience of this structure. That’s critical.”
The developer also agreed to shorten a building known as the Link, a smaller shed on the western end of the pier (to those who know the pier now, it is the building with the Pizzeria Uno and random kiosks inside). Commissioners wanted to expose more of their old friend, the Tin Building, which dates to 1903. While some would have preferred even more visibility, Howard Hughes agreed on reducing it by one bay.
The development will continue to take shape, and Howard Hughes is happy to have finally dropped anchor on this project after years of working on it.
“The new Seaport balances the pier’s iconic waterfront location with a much needed community destination for shopping, dining and entertainment,” Christopher Curry, executive vice president for development, said in an email. “We will continue working closely with the City to create an unparalleled New York experience for residents, workers and visitors.”