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Business Owners Want to Delay Pier 17 Eviction Due to Sandy

By Irene Plagianos | December 31, 2012 3:35pm

SOUTH STREET SEAPORT — In the midst of a blustery winter, Thomas Berton’s thoughts are focused squarely on the warmer months ahead.

But Berton isn’t day-dreaming about the summer sunshine — he’s deeply concerned about his business.

Berton, the owner of Manhattan By Sail, operates his sailboat touring company out of the South Street Seaport’s Pier 17 — a pier that’s set to undergo a massive redevelopment, with construction scheduled to begin July 1.

That means the plan, which calls for gutting the entire pier — including the touristy, dated Pier 17 Mall — and replacing it with high-end shops and restaurants built in sleek, glass structure, will force all the existing businesses out by June 30.

Being displaced just as the Seaport’s busiest season gets under way has been an issue for some since the proposal was first unveiled in March by the Howard Hughes Company, which operates the mall and leases the pier from the city. But in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the eviction date has become a major sore spot for many business owners in a neighborhood that remains largely devastated by the storm.

Community Board 1 members voted to approve the largely popular redevelopment last month, but passed a resolution asking that construction be pushed back until September 30, along with other recommendations.

“It just seems out of step with what’s going on post-Sandy to bring out the wrecking ball when the Seaport could bring millions of people downtown this summer,” said Berton, who’s run his tours from Pier 17 for more than 10 years.

He said that like most in the neighborhood, he's not opposed to the plan and hopes to continue to work off the pier following the new construction.

“The Seaport desperately needs the business," he said, "and it's also a way to drive more traffic Downtown in general.”

Recently, Berton, members of CB1, officials from the Economic Development Corporation, and representatives from the Howard Hughes Corp. spoke at a City Planning Commission hearing regarding the proposal.

“The city should let businesses in the area, already in a perilous state as a result of the storm, have a go at getting one more full season, rather than cutting it off in the middle of the busiest time of their year,” Berton told the commission.

“Local businesses and the people who live and work in the area shouldn't have to lose such valuable public space in the middle of their busy summer season when it is utilized the most.”

The pier and the mall, which did not suffer extensive structural damage, was shuttered for more than a month after the storm while Howard Hughes had inspectors making sure the building and pier were safe.

Though most of the mall's stores are now open, with much of the Seaport still battered and closed, shop owners have yet to see the usual amount of foot traffic. The holiday season, a crucial time for retailers, was far slower than usual, they said.

However, business owners said another summer would help to recoup losses, and they added that they'd ideally want to get the construction date changed as soon as possible.

“New York City tour operators want to know now whether they can advertise the Seaport this summer,” said Berton. “It’s a huge tourist destination — one of the most popular — and the planning needs to start as soon as possible.”

When asked about altering the date, Howard Hughes said in a statement: “We expect to commence construction in the summer of 2013.”

Under Hughes' agreement with the Economic Development Corporation, the starting construction date is set for July 1. The project is expected to completed in the spring of 2015.

A spokesman for the EDC said the agency was committed to the revitilization of the Seaport, including the July 1 construction date.

As the EDC sees it, the sooner the project starts, the sooner the entire city will reap the benefits of a redeveloped and modernized Seaport, the spokesman said.

Michael Levine, the director of planning and land use for CB1, said the next step in the process is for the city's planning commission to vote on the redevelopment in January. The plan would then go before the City Council, which may not happen until March or later.

But retailers say they hope officials will step in to intervene much earlier.

"We're hoping this is just a matter of getting the right people's attention," Berton said. "To us, it just seems like common sense to extend the date now."