SOUTH STREET SEAPORT — City officials and real estate executives broke ground on a major redevelopment of Pier 17 Thursday morning — even as a holdout tenant fought to keep his doors open and prevent the pier's mall from being torn down.
While Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the leaders of Howard Hughes Corporation put their shovels in a mound of dirt and gave speeches outside the soon-to-be-demolished mall, Joseph Demane was inside, waiting for customers at his restaurant Simply Seafood in the mall's deserted food court.
Demane has been locked in a battle with Howard Hughes over his lease, which he says runs through 2020, and is the last remaining tenant still trying to do business in the mall, which is slated to be replaced with a high-end shopping and dining center by early 2016.
"We're coming in every day like we normally do," said Demane, who has run the restaurant in the mall since 1995. "I intend to stay open until something works out or my lease runs out."
Howard Hughes contends that Demane's lease was terminated years ago because Simply Seafood had not paid its rent, while Demane claims his lease is still valid and that the developer is just trying to force him out to make way for the redevelopment, which will feature a glass facade and a 4,000-person rooftop space.
A judge is set to decide the case in late October or early November, Demane said Thursday.
Howard Hughes released a statement saying Simply Seafood's lease ended in 2010 and that Demane owes "a substantial amount" of rent, which a court order required him to pay.
“We fully expect a favorable outcome with Simply Seafood very soon,” the Howard Hughes statement said. “The Pier 17 redevelopment project is moving ahead as planned.”
During the groundbreaking, Hughes Corporation CEO David Weinreb said he hopes the overhauled pier will become just as essential to city residents as it is to the tourists that have flocked there for years.
“One of the things New Yorkers want is an experience they can’t get anywhere in the city, and that’s what we’re trying to create here,” Weinreb said.
As part of an agreement with the city, Howard Hughes will take over responsibility for maintaining the city-owned pier, including preparing it for future hurricanes.
“We believe that the pier holds unlimited potential for us, and as private individuals and private developers, we’re willing to take [on] that risk,” said Howard Hughes President Grant Herlitz.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg praised the project as one that "will inject the Seaport with new life and fresh energy."
Demane said he agrees that the redevelopment will be good for the neighborhood, but he just wants to make sure he's treated fairly.
"I've been out here longer than they've been here," he said of Hughes, a company created as a spinoff after former Seaport owner General Growth Properties declared bankruptcy in 2009. "I'm a part of the Seaport's history more than they are."