Welcome to the South Street Tweeport! Downtown Tourist Trap Aims for Cool, Cool Summer

Howard Hughes had been planning this Seaport overhaul since 2011, long before Sandy. But the physical and psychic damage wrought by the storm—arguably more durable than 9/11’s—in a cruel, almost literal sense, wiped the slate clean. One broker with extensive experience in the area said, on the condition of anonymity, that Sandy, whose costly damages sank many floundering businesses across the city, was the best thing that ever happened to the Seaport, providing a mandate of sorts for revival.

SmorgasBar debuted Memorial Day weekend on Front Street between Beekman and Fulton Streets. Brooklyn Flea creators Jonathan Butler and Eric Demby “curated” the vendors, which hawked resolutely local, quirky goods from kiosks and storage containers. “Hopefully hopping the river to Manhattan won’t make us feel like a fish out of water!” read an announcement of the move on the Flea’s website.

Of See/Change, Lockhart Steele, the Curbed, Eater and Racked blog proprietor, said, “it’s pretending to cater to locals.” And that tight-knit, eclectic group of locals is the hidden asset of what Mr. Steele calls a “micro-neighborhood” with an unstudied indifference to being a scene.

“The thing that was beautiful about it was you had a mix of people who’ve lived there for 50 years and the Wall Street folks who work nearby and have some money,” he said. “What you didn’t have was anyone who was too cool for school. It’s not a neighborhood where anyone goes to be seen.”

Mr. Steele, who moved to the area in 2011 and has become something of a neighborhood cheerleader, said Howard Hughes’s embrace of SmorgasBar indicates a move away from the Seaport’s homegrown charms. “Robert LaValva is the soul of the neighborhood,” Mr. Steele said. “And it feels a bit like that’s been sold out to outsiders.”

Mr. Butler seemed baffled by that claim. “If there’s some big conspiracy theory, I’m unaware of it,” he said. “We have big respect for the New Amsterdam Market. When we were planning this, LaValva was making a lot of noise. But what we do is very complementary. I can’t see why it would be an either/or scenario.”

It’s also uncertain which of this summer’s cool concessions will stick around. Mr. Butler and Karen Bellantoni, a broker with RKF, the retail brokerage firm assigned to lease out the new Seaport, said there were no plans to make SmorgasBar and the current roster of pop-up shops permanent fixtures.

So what do we know about the Seaport’s still-mysterious future? RKF is courting the “more neighborhood-y, contemporary and aspirational” tenants like those that dot Soho and the Lower East Side, and could build two- or possibly three-story flagships totaling between 12,000 and 20,000 square feet, compared with the complex’s current 500- to 1,000-square-foot footprints.

At this early stage, Ms. Bellantoni would not go into detail about who those tenants might be, but she did emphasize that “we don’t need luxury.” (Not for nothing, initial renderings of the new Pier 17 included banners bearing alternate-universe shops like “Raza,” “M&H” and “Shot Pop.”)

“Certainly the food court won’t be there,” Ms. Bellantoni said, adding that the new food options will be “very inspiring” and “on the local level.”

Chris Curry, the senior executive vice president of development at Howard Hughes, stressed that See/Change aims to please rather than alienate the locals. “We want neighborhood residents to be happy with the project while also delivering a return to our shareholders,” he said, accurately adding that it’s impossible to “satisfy everyone.”

The biggest point that its new landlords want to get across is that the new Seaport will not be Pier 17: The Sequel. “It’s won’t be your typical mall,” Ms. Bellantoni said. “That is not the vision of this company whatsoever.”

Yet locals are wary. During a bar conversation that ricocheted between Obamacare, the NSA surveillance scandal, the Trail of Tears and the student debt crisis, Kevin Murphy, a six-year neighborhood resident, accused Howard Hughes of “taking advantage of a catastrophe” by steamrolling the Seaport overhaul through a still-reeling neighborhood.

Could Pier 17 and Tourist Alley possibly get worse? “Of course they could,” he said, adding that “things have been failing here for a long time.”

And yet, Mr. Murphy was eager to see the results and a return to normal—tourists, interloping entrepreneurs and all.

“That’s the magic of destruction,” Mr. Murphy said. “You can do anything.”