For decades, a 48,000-square-foot parking lot has sat between Water and Pearl Streets at the corner of Peck Slip, the edge of an 11-block historic district in the South Street Seaport section of Lower Manhattan.
Attempts to build on it have proven fruitless. At least nine proposals have been brought to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the body that would need to greenlight any proposal in the historic district. All have failed. An 11-story option was approved in 1991, but it was never built.
Now, the Howard Hughes Corporation is trying again, with a 470-foot-tall dual-tower proposal with about 360 homes, including around 100 affordable apartments.
But the prospect of a residential tower is so loathed by some in the community that one faction is lobbying for the NYPD's Manhattan tow pound to be relocated to the historic district instead.
“We consider it to be a reasonable alternative,” said Michael Kramer, a prominent member of a group known as the Seaport Coalition. “We’re not NIMBY here.”
In a proposal plan shared with Gothamist, the coalition calls it “Resiliency Park,” an eyebrow-raising moniker in the era of climate change and an effort by cities to reduce the reliance on cars.
More than 6,500 people have signed a petition against the developer’s tower proposal, and the coalition is raising $100,000 to bankroll a legal battle. Community Board 1 has voted to oppose the developers’ project in an advisory resolution.
Meanwhile, Kramer and Paul Goldstein, a Community Board 1 member and Southbridge Towers resident, have been speaking about the tow pound as an alternative for months in multiple private meetings, including with the borough president’s office, according to Manhattan Deputy Borough President Matthew Washington.
Washington acknowledged discussions, although he said the plan was not “realistic.” Councilmember Margaret Chin’s office said it was aware of the proposal.
Still, the aggressive campaign against the Howard Hughes project reflects the deeply ingrained resistance to tall buildings in parts of in NYC, even in sections of Lower Manhattan. Just 149 affordable apartments have been built in CB 1’s district during the entire de Blasio administration, which has been criticized for concentrating construction of affordable housing in lower-income neighborhoods through rezonings. And 1,651 affordable co-ops were lost in 2014 after Southbridge Towers voted to privatize and opt out of the Mitchell-Lama program for middle-class homes.
The two towers under the developers’ plan would rise about 470 feet, with about 100 affordable apartments at 40% of the area median income, or $40,960 a year for a family of three in NYC. It would also provide $50 million for the Seaport Museum’s expansion, which is a part of the application to the landmarks commission, and clean-up of a toxic mercury site below ground from more-than century-old thermometer factories through the state’s brownfield program.
A spokesperson for the developer, James Yolles, said in a statement: “The proposal to replace the parking lot with a large tow pound proves that a few of the project’s opponents care far less about what’s right for the neighborhood and the historic district than about preserving their own apartment views in the guise of historic preservation.”
The developer has faced opposition from longtime residents for years over development proposals and promised amenities— like blowback after promised public rooftop space at Pier 17 was reserved for those who could afford a $492 ticket on July 4th in 2019.
But now, both Councilmember Margaret Chin and Borough President Gale Brewer, whose input is critical to the Howard Hughes project, are expected to issue joint testimony in support of the developers’ proposal on Tuesday.
“The potential proposed improvements to the surrounding area through these two applications would be a welcome addition to the Historic District,” the officials’ said in written testimony.
Brewer has also said a tow pound should stay in Midtown.
Sarah McNally, the owner of McNally Jackson bookstore with an outpost in the Seaport, has been baffled by how long a parking lot has managed to last in a land-scarce city like New York.
She recalled a recent landmarks community board committee meeting where members were “gleefully” touting how many projects had failed.
“I’m like, ‘This is crazy.’ You’re defending a parking lot. You’re proud of this,” McNally said.
The Seaport fight comes as SoHo and NoHo, another historic district, is about to undergo a rezoning that has also raised the specter of taller buildings.
Amelia Josephson, who works in Lower Manhattan and is a board member of Open New York, a YIMBY group that played an integral role in getting the city to move forward with plans to rezone Soho and Noho, said, “To me, it's just a sad commentary on the opposition to this project that they would rather live next to a tow pound, than welcome new neighbors to mixed income housing in their wealthy neighborhood.”
Currently, about 195 vehicles are taken to the Manhattan tow pound each day, amounting to about 49,000 a year, according to a presentation by the NYPD and city officials to Community Board 4 in November 2019.
The relocation of the tow pound to build out a park area has been stalled since 1998, when Hudson River Park was formed. That changed last week, when the de Blasio administration announced it would make good on its promise to move it to an unannounced location, avoiding fines the state has threatened. Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday the tow pound’s operations would move to a city-owned alternative, though he did not yet say where.
Seaport Coalition members are calling for the city to obtain the new parcel through eminent domain and build the 60-foot-tall parking garage that would include underground stormwater tanks to mitigate flooding in the neighborhood, which was deluged with storm surge flooding during Superstorm Sandy.
According to the plan, the garage’s rooftop would include an active recreation space for neighborhood residents, including two nearby schools with little recreation space.
It would be built within 120-foot height restrictions under a 2003 downzoning. The lot was originally included in the historic district, at least in part, to detract from high-rise development that would block apartment views.
“In this context, we think that a low-scale structure that was able to meet all of these challenges would be quite desirable and would be quite unique,” Kramer said, referencing lack of open space, the need for more parking for city employees, and resiliency infrastructure.
"As far as an idea that serves a lot of the different problems that our neighborhood needs addressed, I think it's a solid one," added Megan Malvern, a parent organizer with Children First, which is a group that's a part of the Seaport Coalition.
But waterfront planning has for years been centered around increasing cyclist and pedestrian space while studies and plans have been underway to mitigate more frequent flooding and storm surges anticipated as a result of climate change. Community Board 1’s top budget request for the area, written in February, included long-term resiliency infrastructure and traffic studies to address sanitation and crowding issues in the Financial District.
“I never recall in the budgetary process a tow pound as being a community amenity or something that the community wanted,” said Catherine McVay Hughes, a neighborhood activist who once chaired the community board and is a board member of the South Street Seaport Museum. “People are using their sneakers and bikes more than ever to get to their destination. And that is the kind of infrastructure that needs to be built in 2021, instead of investing in the fossil fuel infrastructure.”
The Howard Hughes proposal—reworked after the developers scrapped an earlier 900-foot design—goes before the landmarks commission on Tuesday.
The project would later require a lengthy public review process to transfer development rights (often called air rights) from city-owned sites at Pier 17 and the Tin Building to the parking lot, bound by Water and Pearl streets.
This article has been updated to include information about a previous proposal for 250 Water Street.