250 Water St. Towers Too Big for Seaport, Landmarks Commission Says

Rendering of proposed towers as seen looking west from Peck Slip. Howard Hughes Corp./SOM

Jan. 13, 2021

The Landmarks Preservation Commission dealt a blow to Howard Hughes Corp.’s controversial proposal to build two 470-foot-high towers at 250 Water Street in the South Street Seaport Historic District. 

Opining on the application at its meeting on Tuesday, the commissioners said the towers were out of scale with the historic neighborhood and would, in the words of one, “invade the district’s sky space.”

The commission took no action on the proposal, which the Hughes Corp. (HHC) coupled with the design for an extension of the South Street Seaport Museum on John Street that the museum hopes one day to bring to life through fundraising. 

The proposed 360-unit residential condo towers, with about 100 below-market rentals, would stand on a low-rise base meant to fit in with the look and scale of the historic district. While the base design drew mixed reviews from the commissioners—and the prospective museum extension for John Street was largely praised—the towering apartment buildings were roundly rejected. Commissioners even questioned the very concept of two towers atop a base. 

So now it’s back to the drawing board for the project’s Skidmore, Owings & Merrill architects.

In a statement, a Howard Hughes Corp. spokesperson said, “We appreciate the LPC’s thoughtful feedback and look forward to returning soon to the commission.” 

The proposed 250 Water Street project towers over the mostly 5-story buildings in the district and is nearly four times taller than the current 120-foot zoning height limit. Along with a zoning change, the building would require the transfer of air rights from other Seaport properties, now restricted by the city. Besides an approval from the Landmarks Commission, the project must go through an environmental and land use review. 

The developer is linking the project’s fortunes to the fate of the struggling South Street Seaport Museum, and a promised $50 million endowment to the institution if it succeeds. The project draws much of its public support from museum advocates who cite the Seaport Museum’s value to the Seaport and its critical funding needs. 

“The museum’s unique tie to the district and this proposal’s unique ability to save it should make this plan worthy of your support,” Downtown Alliance president Jessica Lappin told the commission at a Jan. 5 hearing. 

“Without the museum, there is no historic district,” testified Councilwoman Margaret Chin, who along with Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer are lending key political weight to the project.

But at the outset of the commission’s meeting on Tuesday, Sarah Carroll, the chair, made it clear that the benefits to the museum, “while laudable are not factors that we can consider or rely on in determining whether the proposed designs for the 250 Water St. site and John Street site are appropriate.”

Chris Cooper, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s principal architect on the project, argued that the size of the 250 Water Street site is unique for a historic district, and its location at the district’s far end, bordered by Peck Slip, and Pearl, Water and Beekman Streets, should be evaluated in the context of taller buildings outside the landmarked area. “The site is an anomaly in any landmark district,” he told the commission. “It’s a full city block with no historic structures on this block. It’s the largest empty site by more than double of any lot in a landmark district.”

While it’s unclear how big an acceptable building might be to them, the commissioners concurred that these proposed structures are too tall, regardless of the lot’s size or where they stand in the historic district. 

“If this lot had not been in the district in the first place then you could do whatever you want and that’s perfectly fine,” said Commissioner John Gustafsson. “But that’s not where we are. It is part of the district. It’s either in or it’s out.”

“Right now it’s overwhelming,” said Commissioner Everardo Jefferson. 

Commissioner Michael Goldblum went further. “Can any towers be built on this site?” he said. “I don’t think so.”

Those comments largely echo the objections of opponents, whose numbers include preservation organizations, Community Board 1 and the Seaport Coalition, a group representing Southbridge Towers, Children First and Save Our Seaport. More than 7,000 people have signed an online petition opposing the project.

Facing intense opposition in 2014, HHC scuttled plans for what first had been a 650-foot, then a 495-foot-high tower on the site of the New Market Building, next to Pier 17 and just outside the historic district. The main lure to the community then, a promised 71,000-square-foot middle school at its base, could not win over opponents. Four years later the developer bought 250 Water Street for $180 million from Milstein Properties, a developer that had failed over the years to win approvals for a tall building on the site. The one approved plan, for a 10-story building, was never built.

As she sent HHC’s architects off to rethink their proposal, commission chair Carroll summed up the decades-long challenge of 250 Water Street.

 “The commission would be supportive of some development here,” she said. “And really, the question is, what?”