City Council Is Last Hurdle for Mall Revamp of Pier 17

Mar. 19, 2013

More than 250 people filled the City Council chambers last Thursday to weigh in on massive redevelopment plans for Pier 17 in the South Street Seaport.

Most came to the hearing, held before the council's Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises, to support the New Amsterdam Market and its founder Robert LaValva. According to LaValva, the popular eight-year-old market is threatened if the city approves zoning changes that would allow the Howard Hughes Corp. to go ahead with a $200 million project to rebuild the pier's mall. The new zoning would allow more than two floors of retail in waterfront buildings from the Brooklyn Bridge to Maiden Lane.

The subcommittee is expected to vote on the pier proposal on Wednesday; the full council is slated to vote on it by the month's end.

During the market’s nine-month season, some 50 food purveyors sell from stands beneath the shadow of the FDR Drive and in front of the New Market Building, a remnant of the former Fulton Fish Market. LaValva has long wanted the New Market Building and the nearby Tin Building to be home to a year-round market.

The city, however, owns the buildings and it has granted Howard Hughes the option to redevelop them. LaValva hopes to convince the council to vote against the zoning approvals until Hughes reveals its plans for the two former fish market buildings.

“We propose that the two remaining, city-owned Fulton Fish Market buildings on the waterfront be preserved and rehabilitated as a permanent, year-round, indoor home for New Amsterdam Market,” LaValva told the committee. “Such an institution would rival the great markets of the world and create a significant economic impact for our city.”

“Without the Fulton Fish Market,” he added, “this maritime district, which generations have fought so hard to preserve, will lose all its meaning.”

LaValva turned down Howard Hughes’s offer to operate the market out of the Link Building, which is adjacent to the mall, once the pier is rebuilt.

“We asked him if he wanted to occupy the Link Building or find some other place within our project, and Mr. LaValva made it very clear he had no interest in being a tenant of our project,” Chris Curry, a senior executive for the developer, told the committee. 

The city’s Economic Development Corporation, the Seaport’s owner, said the city will continue to allow the New Amsterdam Market to operate in its present site, regardless of what happens to the Tin Building and New Market Building.

“Our relationship with them hasn’t changed,” said Joseph Coletti, EDC’s vice president for government and community relations. “We’re committed to maintaining their space. We want to make sure they stay in business.”

The council hearing on the zoning actions follows a vote of approval of Howard Hughes’s proposal by the City Planning Commission. Community Board 1 also favors approval of the zoning, with numerous conditions—in part because the new zoning would significantly lower the allowable height of a new building on the waterfront.

The board vehemently opposed a 2008 plan by General Growth Properties, the pier’s former leaseholder, to erect a 500-foot building at the pier. “If the whole [Pier 17 proposal] is withdrawn...then we could be faced with a General Growth type supertower again,” Roger Byrom, CB1’s Landmarks Committee chair, said at last Thursday’s committee meeting.

The board’s resolution supports the conversion of the Tin Building and New Market Building into a public market and community center.

“Our goals are the same,” Michael Levine, director of land use and planning for CB1, said of the community board and LaValva. “Our approach is different.”

Coucilwoman Margaret Chin said that she, too, supports the market, but that the Pier 17 proposal and the New Amsterdam Market are two separate issues.

“While the future of the market and the [South Street Seaport] Museum are essential to a robust and diverse Seaport, and while my support for these two particular institutions are unwavering,” she said, “they are not within the scope of this application.”

But LaValva claims that an approval would threaten the survival of his market, since the new zoning would authorize commercial development around the pier. Vendors, too, testified that the fate of the market rested with the council’s vote.

“There can be no more private development of public space,” Lisa Fischoff, co-owner of Pushcart Coffee, told the committee. “Do not let Howard Hughes Corp. destroy our market.”