By Arthur Z. Schwartz
Opponents of a planned 324-foot residential tower in the South Street Seaport won a critical decision on January 12 halting the project’s construction.
State Supreme Court Judge Arthur F. Engoron invalidated the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s approval of the controversial Howard Hughes Corp. project at 250 Water Street, agreeing with the lawsuit’s petitioners, which include the Seaport Coalition and several individuals. The agency, the judge said, had acted improperly when it approved the tower.
Last October, Engoron ordered a temporary stop to construction, pending the January hearing.
At a rally celebrating the decision, Paul Goldstein, who for many years was Community Board 1’s district manager, recalled the previous owner’s multiple failed attempts to convince the Landmarks Commission to approve a project larger than allowable in the South Street Seaport Historic District. “The LPC turned down buildings as short as 12 stories, saying they were too tall for a district here. In these precious historic districts we should preserve what we have here. It’s a special part of New York. We don’t have to give that up on behalf of a greedy developer.”
The $850 million project was planned to include 190 market-rate condos and 80 below-market apartments, with a five-story base of office, retail and community uses. Work on the site so far has involved excavation and removal of soil contaminated by a thermometer factory that once occupied the property.
The Seaport Coalition, which includes Children First, Southbridge Towers and Save Our Seaport, argued—and Engoron agreed—that the Landmarks Commission “abused its discretion” when it allowed a building of the same scale as others it had rejected in the past. The LPC, Engoron wrote in his decision, “fails to explain why a parking lot that was previously repeatedly found to be part of the Historic District could now appropriately be the site of a high-rise tower that would loom over the remainder of the protected neighborhood.” Engoron continued, “In the final analysis, the Citizens of New York City are entitled to feel confident that a controversial, counter-intuitive decision to allow a skyscraper to be built in a low-rise historic district, after repeated decisions disallowing such a structure and without a coherent explanation, was made solely on the merits, and not because of a quid pro quo, even one with a laudable purpose.”
“This decision demonstrates that how much money you have, it doesn’t matter. If you are a developer, you are not above the law,” said Grace Lee, the new Assemblywoman for the area. Lee’s political activism began as a co-founder of Children First, an organization of parents formed out of concerns about toxins on the site which, until recently, was a parking lot across the street from two elementary schools.
Much of the support that the developer received for the project was based on its promise to financially support the struggling South Street Seaport Museum.
For those of us who live in the Village Historic District, the win is critical. Developers are looking to build bigger and higher, even on blocks where every building is landmarked. While affordable housing is desperately needed in our community, the cohesion of our core community could be destroyed by developers in a minute. The Seaport Decision throws a wrench into any plans to get LPC support on similar projects here.
Arthur Schwartz is the Male Democratic District Leader for Greenwich Village.