Former CB1 Chair Enters the Fray, Opposing a Tower on 250 Water Street

Fights over development of a parking lot at 250 Water Street go back many years. In 2003, the 10-block South Street Seaport Historic District that includes the 250 Water Street site was downzoned through the efforts of Community Board 1 and its chair, Madelyn Wils, right. Photos: Tribeca Trib (parking lot); Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib file photo (Wils)

Jun. 29, 2020

A prominent new voice has been added to the chorus of opposition against permitting the Howard Hughes Corp. to build a residential skyscraper at 250 Water Street, in the low-rise South Street Seaport Historic District.

Madelyn Wils, president and CEO of the Hudson River Park Trust, was the chair of Community Board 1 in 2003 when the board won its fight to downzone the lot, which is part of the historic district. At a June online Community Board 1 committee meeting, Wils spoke publicly for the first time against the undoing of that work.

“I’m taking a different role tonight. This is very unusual for me,” Wils told CB1’s Waterfront, Parks and Cultural Committee. “I felt that I needed to get into this conversation. I am here to just remind you of what this community board did 20 years ago, and the reason it did it.”

The Hughes Corp. proposes to provide millions of dollars in neighborhood improvements in exchange for the zoning approvals that could allow a nearly 100-story building. To make that happen, the developer needs to convince the city to remove restrictions, won by the efforts of Wils and others, that limits the building height to 120 feet. Along with changing the zoning for the site, Hughes Corp would need to transfer some 450,000 square feet of consolidated Seaport air rights, something that is now prohibited. 

Chief among the incentives for those changes is a promised new building for the struggling South Street Seaport Museum.

CB1 is on record opposing changes to the current zoning, and Wils encouraged the committee to stick to that position, saying a “huge precedent” would be set if the board reversed itself and supported higher zoning in the landmark district. “You have to consider whether or not the amenities that you are being offered here are worth doing a process of upzoning this lot,” she told the committee. “And what it means for landmark districts around the city.”

Some have questioned whether the Howard Hughes Corp. will still be around to deliver on its promised largesse to the community, and Wils said she would not offer her own opinion on it. But, she warned, “Once you’ve rezoned this to allow a thousand-foot building you are left with a zoning lot that will allow a 1,000-foot building, whether or not the Seaport Museum or the community reap any of these benefits—or whether these benefits will get re-traded in the future.” 

The committee meeting focused on reviewing a third, pre-pandemic and invitation-only “stakeholder workshop” led by Howard Hughes Corp. in March. On hand to answer questions at the June remote meeting were Saul Scherl, the Howard Hughes executive in charge of the project, and one of the project’s architects, Keith O’Connor of Skidmore Owings & Merrill. 

Scherl and O’Connor emphasized the promised array of local improvements that would come along with an allowed 925,000-square-foot building on 250 Water Street, including a new $50 million, 30,000-square-foot building for the South Street Seaport Museum at John and South Streets, a $100 million, 75,000 square-foot structure for an undetermined community use, at the site of the current New Market Building, and a restored Pier 16, among other Seaport improvements. 

Those investments, Scherl noted, “not only ensures a future for the neighborhood but also supports the stable long-term future for the South Street Seaport Museum.” He said that the developer would return in the fall with a proposed project.

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CB1 should hold the line against this project

Is this the time to be building luxury housing?  Where is the landmarks commission on this?  CB1 should hold the line against approving such real estate developments which violate the historic preservation district established for the South Street Seaport neighborhood in 1977.  Such a huge apartment building enlarges the wedge between rich and poor. Unemployment in New York City is over 10%. Currently there are over 60,000 people sleeping in shelters in New York City; the cause: lack of affordable housing. 56 Leonard in Tribeca sticks out like a sore thumb. Tribeca has landmark status, yet this skyscraper got approved with the air rights sale of NY Law School. Tribeca made its serious mistake and now the Seaport district has a chance to prevent another one. Who will live on the 100th floor of the Seaport Tower? Why does it need to be 100 stories high? One corporation benefits so that a few people get their exclusive view.  Let us have the sunlight we deserve down on the ground, and focus on building housing that is affordable. Please keep landmark neighborhoods the way they were intended.
Patricia Aakre, Tribeca