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City and Developer Allowed Seaport Buildings to Crumble, Neighbors Say

By Irene Plagianos | June 1, 2015 11:17am | Updated on June 2, 2015 7:09pm
 Portions of long disputed, historic buildings will be torn down, leaving behind questions, frustration.
Seaport Redevelopment
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SOUTH STREET SEAPORT — Local preservationists have accused the city and the Howard Hughes Corporation of allowing two historic Fulton Fish Market warehouses to fall into disrepair as an easy means to justify tearing them down.

The abandoned New Market Building and Tin Building, which is landmarked, will each have a portion of their structure torn down by the city — because they are in “danger of collapse,” Economic Development Corporation spokeswoman Kelly Magee said.

The sudden news of the what the city calls “emergency work” — first reported by Crain’s — came as a shock to community leaders and activists, who have long fought to preserve those buildings. 

Several preservationists point to a 2010 EDC inspection obtained by DNAinfo New York that detailed the decay of the buildings, and determined that more than $10 million was need to repair the buildings. Those repairs were never made.

“I see it as benign neglect,” said Michael Kramer, a Community Board 1 member and member of the preservationist group Save Our Seaport. “The city has put no money into these buildings, and allowed them to deteriorate — they knew they were decaying and now they have to demolish.”

The city is planning the partial demolition of each building's “cooler” areas — sheds that run along the backs of the structures — for later this summer. If it's determined by structural engineers that the buildings remain unsound, the warehouses may have to be completely torn down. Any demolition will need approval from city and state agencies, Magee said.

For some local activists, the seemingly abrupt action seems part of a larger problem — a lack of transparency when it comes to the redevelopment of the Seaport.

The warehouses, relics of the Seaport’s fish mongering days, sit at the base of Pier 17, which is being completely rebuilt by the Howard Hughes Corporation and will be redeveloped into a sleek, glass outdoor mall.

The Hughes Corporation also has plans, which have not gone through the city land approval process yet, to build a massive, controversial luxury tower where one of the warehouses, the New Market Building, now sits.

While the New Market Building would be torn down as part of the company's proposed redevelopment, the company said they would preserve the Tin Building — but they would move it about 30 feet from where it now sits, taking it out from underneath the FDR Drive. The company declined to comment about whether the city's actions would affect their plans to move the Tin Building.

One group, the Friends of South Street Seaport, said they fear that the work on Pier 17 has led, in part, to the unsound state of the fish market buildings. They recently sent a letter to the Army Corp of Engineers, asking for oversight and review of the Pier 17 complex.

The group said they were “objecting to back-room bait-and-switch tactics that routinely bypass legally required consultation and permitting processes.”

Howard Hughes Corporation calls those claims "simply wrong on the facts."

"The Howard Hughes Corporation is currently constructing its [Uniform Land Use Review Process] approved Pier 17 project and all of its construction activities are being conducted with the necessary permits from the appropriate governmental agencies," Chris Curry, senior executive of development for HHC said in an emailed statement. "[The buildings and Pier 17 project] are not on the same structure and there is not an integrated piling infrastructure. There has been no impact on those structures from the Pier 17 work."

A variety of community groups, including Community Board 1, the New York Landmarks Conservancy, Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, the Historic Districts Council and Save Our Seaport recently also recently sent a letter to the mayor's office, saying they are "deeply troubled" by the "egregious absence of transparency and public review of the plans for the Seaport."

They are asking for a "pause to all activity" before they can see the "developer's full plan for the Seaport."

"Past developers have no delivered promised revenues or district-wide revitalization," wrote Peg Breen, the President of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, who penned the letter. "We fear that the current absence of comprehensive planning allows development to head in the wrong direction again and squander the potential of this remarkable resource. We demand an opportunity to get this right."

Wiley Norvell, a spokesman for the mayor's office, said that safety was the top concern for the city, but that the decision to tear down portions of the buildings does not "alter the city’s commitment to work collaboratively with all local stakeholders on a plan to revitalize the Seaport and preserve its maritime heritage."

“EDC and the administration reached out to all elected officials about this difficult decision and informed them of the dangerous structural conditions developing at the site—even extending an offer to personally inspect the new cracks threatening the structures," Norvell said. "Safety is our top priority, and years of neglect and disrepair finally have reached a critical juncture that must be addressed to prevent risk to the public."