Proposed Pier 17 Mall Sign Called 'Blight' on the Seaport

Rendering of sign proposed to be installed on the roof of the new Pier 17 mall. The roof of the mall is planned to contain public space and a theater. Rendering courtesy of Howard Hughes Corp.

An 18-foot-high, 90-foot-long illuminated sign proposed to go atop the redeveloped Pier 17 mall was denounced last week as a potential eyesore by City Planning commissioners. They said they feared the sign would mar iconic views of the South Street Seaport.

Designers for developer Howard Hughes Corp. argue that the sign, proclaiming “THE SEAPORT” in giant letters, harkens back to historic riverfront sign­age and would help draw visitors to the area. But during a review session for the mall project on Jan. 22, all five City Planning commissioners said they opposed it.

“My feeling is we will have blighted—it’s a strong word, but I feel it—the Lower Manhattan waterfront environment forever,” said Commission Chair Amanda Burden. “I am really worried about it.”

The Planning Commission, which takes its official vote next month, must weigh in on several special permits, zoning amendments and special signage approvals as part of the city’s lengthy Uniform Land Use Review Process. The commission is expected to vote favorably on the project as a whole, with some modifications. Only signs in waterfront districts are under the purview of the commission.

Community Board 1 also opposed the sign after reviewing the mall plans in October.

“I think we can consider this to be a major victory for the efforts of this Community Board,” Michael Levine, CB1’s director of land use and planning, said of the commissioners’ views.

The commissioners’ opposition to the sign puts them at odds with the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), which approved it last October.

“I think [the sign] is excellent," LPC vice-chair Pablo Vengoechea said at the October meeting. “It does recall an industrial building, but at the same time it is appropriate to this use.”

Michael Bierut of Pentagram, the company that designed the pier’s proposed signage, told the Landmarks Commission last fall that the sign is inspired by giant industrial signs like the riverfront Colgate clock in New Jersey. The simple lettering, he said, would be made of channel glass and lit from within to give the letters an “even soft glow.”

“Our challenge as sign designers was to bridge [two] worlds,” Bierut said. “To do something that was congruent with the historic character of the overall site, but yet had a certain kind of logic with the contemporary architecture.”

Planning commissioners last week acknowledged the history of such illuminated industrial signs such as Pepsi and Domino, but said the concept did not translate for them.  

“We really have to respect the integrity of the waterfront,” said Commissioner Maria Del Toro. “And I like the iconic signs, but this is not an iconic sign, so let’s not put it in the same category.”

Burden told fellow commissioners that her concerns about the sign came after spending numerous hours “studying how it feels to be on the East River at night.”

“The glory of the East River in this location is the Brooklyn Bridge,” Burden said. “It is beautiful, the skyline of Brooklyn from Manhattan, of Manhattan from Brooklyn and these twinkling lights on the water. It is really quite extraordinary.”

The City Planning Commissioners appeared to agree with CB1’s criticisms on two other Pier 17 issues. They voiced an interest in limiting the illumination on a series of planned blade signs for the exterior of the building. And they are expected to recommend that Howard Hughes Corp. remove the view-obstructing canopy of a proposed stage on Pier 16 when the stage is not in use, so as not to obstruct views of the South Street Seaport Museum’s historic ships. (CB1 had requested that the stage be removed from plans altogether.)

The Planning Commission is expected to vote on the project on Feb. 6. From there, it will go to the City Council for final approval. Howard Hughes Corp. plans to begin work on the project in June and reopen the area in 2015.

As of Friday, Howard Hughes representatives had not responded to requests for comment.