South Street Seaport, that battered, neglected, kitschified zone of 19th-century warehouses and shipping offices, is one of the most evocative corners in New York. Here, you can still sense the mercantile soul of a maritime city. For several hundred years, longshoremen hoisted sacks of coffee, sugar, and opium onto the docks, feeding the continent’s economy. The Fulton Fish Market kept the cobblestones slick and the traffic lively for 183 years, until 2005, when it moved to shinier — and less mobbed-up — quarters in the Bronx. The smells lingered for a while, but today the area’s tangy, clattering romance has faded to melancholy. Tourists pass through for an hour or two, breathing in the brine of nostalgia. The seaport’s heyday was always a lifetime or two ago. Even in 1952, The New Yorker’s Joseph Mitchell seemed to be writing its eulogy. “The smoky riverbank dawn, the racket the fishmongers make, the seaweedy smell, and the sight of this plentifulness always give me a feeling of well-being, and sometimes they elate me,” he wrote in “Up in the Old Hotel.”
The presence of the past gives good reason to be alarmed when a public company rolls into the neighborhood, buys up as much of it as possible, replaces a failing shopping mall with a shiny new one, and cheerily proposes building a 50-story tower on an abandoned platform above the East River. The megalandlord here, the Howard Hughes Corporation, has already begun construction on the Pier 17 shopping center. Now it’s offering to sprinkle the area with more than $300 million worth of desperately needed urban goodies — a middle school, a new purpose-built home for the Seaport Museum, an extended riverfront esplanade, a food market, and a smattering of affordable housing — in exchange for the right to build a skyscraper on the river’s edge. The plan would save the neighborhood in order to destroy it, a Faustian bargain that the city must reject.
The tower site hangs over the water, part of an L-shaped structure that includes Pier 17 (which sits on concrete pylons and is currently being rebuilt) and a shore-hugging platform, supported by wooden columns that are rotting away so extravagantly that they look like a meth addict’s teeth. One section has already collapsed. Do nothing — the city’s approach — and eventually the rest will follow, dunking a jigsaw of low-rise industrial buildings.
Hughes’s money would save that brittle chip of coastline. The company hired the ubiquitous architecture firm SHoP to formulate a plan laced with the public amenities that only rich corporations can afford. Their proposal stirs together a tempting recipe of urban ingredients and a well-balanced mix of historical fabric and new construction. The area’s population is growing, and a fresh batch of residents would dilute the tourists and support the stores. Back on terra firma, Schermerhorn Row, a block of largely early-19th-century countinghouses across from the old fish market, would accommodate about 70 affordable apartments in the largely vacant upper floors. Decades ago, a restaurant here was Mitchell’s hangout, Sloppy Louie’s, and above it the old hotel he wrote about, then a mysterious relic preserved in a state of almost sacramental decay. Another piece of the project involves dismantling the 1907 Tin Building, a gem that was heavily damaged by fire in 1995 but remains jammed beneath the FDR Drive. The architects are proposing to rebuild the shuttered relic 30 feet back from the highway and repurpose it as a walk-in cornucopia like Seattle’s Pike Place.
Some area residents have been hoping to get all these improvements without the offending tower, which is a bit like ordering dinner and then being shocked when the bill arrives. Someone’s got to pay for these sugarplum visions, and the city surely won’t. A mammoth real-estate investment would.
SHoP originally proposed a 650-foot whopper, and then, in response to neighbors’ yowls, knocked it down by a quarter. The developer has another option in its pocket: a shorter, thicker version that requires no special dispensation in zoning. (Though, since the property belongs to the city, the project would still need to be approved.) The architect Gregg Pasquarelli, one of SHoP’s principals, argues that being able to see around a building matters more than seeing over it, and that bulkier buildings create more shadow than narrower ones. In general, he’s right: Height is not inherently a force for evil. Pasquarelli’s team has designed a handsome, narrow-hipped tower that pirouettes gracefully atop a four-story school, trying politely to avoid blocking anyone’s view of the Brooklyn Bridge. It doesn’t nearly succeed: It’s a honking big building, no matter what. In any case, what makes the tower a neighborhood-killer is not its size but its site.
This little brick patch of Hamilton-era urbanism can feel a bit like a stage set, enclosed on three sides by serried high-rises. An army of giants converges on the old port: Southbridge Towers to the north, the Financial District to the west, and the footings of the Brooklyn Bridge to the east. Only to the south does the horizon dip down to meet the shore — or would, if the FDR Drive didn’t slice across the proscenium, dousing South Street in shadow and rumble. To the architects, the highway represents an opportunity and an excuse: They can dress up and light the viaduct’s underbelly as if it were an attraction, and at the same time they point out that since it already looms, there’s not much of a view for a new building to ruin. (Of course, in an ideal world, this downtown segment of the FDR would one day go the way of San Francisco’s vanished Embarcadero Freeway.)
But a tower — any tower — standing alone on the outboard side of the roadway would set a new precedent, claiming the waterfront for residences and stashing public space behind. It would also wrap the curtain of high-rises around the neighborhood’s fourth wall, erecting a new barrier between the seaport and the world beyond. This battle doesn’t just pit preservation against development; it forces us to choose between preservation by neglect and a more active restoration. The first would be disastrous; the second worrisome. Even aside from the tower, fine design won’t keep the seaport from evolving into a high-gloss deluxe edition of itself, if that’s what the developers decide customers want. Hughes controls so much property that it can almost treat the neighborhood like a gated community. The company’s real-estate portfolio includes planned enclaves of affluence like Summerlin, near Las Vegas, which turned acres of Nevada desert into green velvet, and the Woodlands, outside of Houston. Both are terrible models for the fragile, antique seaport. A certain judicious neglect is woven into the neighborhood’s fabric, a benign shabbiness that the company and the architects need to respect.
They could start by rethinking their plan. Though SHoP and Hughes have pitched their tower-on-a-pier and the neighborhood’s makeover as an indissoluble package, there might be another way to merge respect for the seaport’s past with faith in its future. Hughes is buying up the block of South Street between John and Fletcher, which comes with preapproved plans for a 1,000-foot tower at 80 South Street. Here, barely a block from Pier 17, even a supertall skyscraper would find itself at home in the bristling Financial District, leaving the seaport unmolested. Even though Hughes needs no approvals for 80 South Street, that site may open the door to a different deal. Finding a new location for the seaport tower is “a red herring,” the head of the city’s Economic Development Corporation said recently. Maybe so, but then it’s time to dye the fish a more promising color.
*This article appears in the December 29, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.