SOUTH STREET SEAPORT — Imagine the South Street Seaport without the hulking Pier 17 mall.
Howard Hughes Corp., the Seaport's owner, unveiled a sweeping new plan Thursday to redevelop Pier 17, tearing down the tourist-trap existing shopping center and replacing it with high-end stores and restaurants housed in a modern all-glass structure.
"We're very excited to unveil this," Chris Curry, the company's senior executive vice president for development, told a packed Community Board 1 meeting Thursday night. "We're really happy to be here after many months of work."
Pending city and public approval, Curry hopes to begin construction in 2013 and open the airy new Pier 17 building in 2015.
The proposal would gut the current mall at Fulton and South streets and build a new structure around the existing steel, said Gregg Pasquarelli, partner with SHoP Architects.
Unlike the monolithic shopping center that's in place now, the base and mezzanine levels of the new building would feel more like a normal streetscape, with smaller individual structures housing shops and restaurants, separated by open-air pedestrian thoroughfares.
Two large floors would stretch out above the small shops as a roof, each measuring 60,000 square feet and designed for big-name anchor tenants. Enormous glass garage-style doors could descend in bad weather to seal in the lower levels of the complex, offering protection from the elements but still opening up previously blocked views of the Brooklyn Bridge, Pasquarelli said.
"One of the biggest criticisms of Pier 17 is that [as you look north toward the Brooklyn Bridge] you see the front of a three-story mall and you don't see the bridge," Pasquarelli said.
"We felt it was very important to get view corridors through the building and open it up."
On top of the building, a large public lawn would surround a new 600-to-700-seat concert hall, which would convert into an open-air band shell in the summer and could host larger audiences of up to 2,000 people, similar to the Boston Symphony Orchestra's Tanglewood Music Center, Pasquarelli said.
"It would be a fantastic thing for Lower Manhattan to have a Tanglewood here, 60 feet in the air, right on the water," Pasquarelli said.
The designs wowed CB1's Landmarks and Seaport/Civic Center committees, which voiced their unanimous support at Thursday night's meeting.
"It's a fantastic makeover from what is there presently," said Vera Sung, a Seaport resident and CB1 member. "This is something I can't wait to go to. It's modern, it's fresh, it's very exciting."
The project also has the backing of the Association for a Better New York and the Downtown Alliance business improvement district, representatives of those groups said.
The redevelopment still has to clear several city approval hurdles, including the Landmarks Preservation Commission, because it sits partly in a historic district, and the Department of City Planning, because it requires zoning changes.
In addition to a complete overhaul of the Pier 17 building, the plan also includes improvements to the surrounding open space.
The architects envision a playful mixture of cobblestones and wooden decking, with "solar bricks" embedded in the ground, absorbing sunlight during the day and glowing at night. The space just north of the building, which now houses a beer garden, would feature plantings, picnic tables and glider seats like the ones typically found on a porch.
"We really feel like this could be New York City's front porch," said Lisa Tziona Switkin, the landscape architect on the project, who also helped design the High Line.
Unlike a much larger, failed redevelopment plan that General Growth Properties, the former owner of the Seaport, proposed several years ago, this new plan would not touch the historic Tin Building and New Market Building, which sit adjacent to Pier 17 along South Street.
Several CB1 members raised concerns about the future plans for those sites — General Growth had proposed a condo-hotel tower there — but while Howard Hughes has the option to develop them in the future, Curry said the company does not plan to do so now.
The designs will go before the city Landmarks Preservation Commission in April.