Developer Wins Big Round One in South Street Seaport Tower Fight

Still from animated renderings shows view of the proposed tower at 250 Water Street as seen from Peck Slip. Howard Hughes Corp./SOM

May. 06, 2021

The controversial residential tower proposed for 250 Water Street, now the site of a parking lot in the South Street Seaport Historic District, took a giant leap forward on Tuesday with a 6-2 vote of approval by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

The hotly debated project by the Howard Hughes Corp. (HHC), nearly three times taller than current zoning allows, is now on track for land use and environmental reviews, with consideration by Community Board 1 expected in June. Months of public wrangling over the project still lie ahead.

This was HHC’s third try before the commission, led by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill architect Chris Cooper. The first attempt, twin 470-foot towers on a five-story base, was deemed too massive when presented in January. But most commissioners last month warmed to the revised design, a single tower shortened to 345 feet. Some relatively modest changes to that redesign—including an additional 21-foot height reduction—won over the majority of the commissioners on Tuesday. They especially lauded the building’s base, to house offices and ground-floor retail, which LPC Chair Sarah Carroll said “will enhance the pedestrian experience of the district.” 

“I find the building will reinforce the district’s boundaries and I have found it to be appropriate to this historic district,” Carroll said, arguing that the tower, closer to Pearl Street, would be viewed in the context of taller buildings outside the district.

Commissioner John Gustafsson, one of two commissioners opposing the project, said he was put in the “unenviable position of having to choose between the obviously detrimental parking lot and a building that has…a tower on it.”

“There are literally thousands of appropriate alternatives,” he said. “We are not being offered one of them.”

In a statement, the Seaport Coalition, a group opposing the plan, said the LPC “turned its back on its mandate to protect historic districts from overdevelopment by finding ‘appropriate’ the dramatically out-of-scale building…”

Saul Scherl, HHC’s president for the New York tri-state region, said in a statement that the approval paves the way for the developer’s promise of 70 below-market units in the new building and financial help to the struggling South Street Seaport Museum. “The Seaport’s best days are ahead and this project will play a vital role in New York City's inclusive post-pandemic economic recovery,” he said.

Carroll said the commission heard 15 hours of testimony and received nearly a thousand letters, for and against, the project. More than 800 people signed a petition opposing it. Many more hours of testimony were presented to Community Board 1, which rejected both versions of the design.

Much of the support, which included Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Councilwoman Margaret Chin, has come from advocates for the museum, who see largesse from the developer as key to the institution’s survival. The first proposal came with a $50 million endowment to the museum. Now, with s smaller-scale tower going forward, the amount will be determined in the coming land use review, an HHC spokesman said. 

During that seven-month review, the developer will be seeking the city’s permission to build higher than zoning allows, and receive the transfer of air rights from its leased properties on Pier 17 and the Tin Building, also currently not permitted. 

“The Seaport Coalition will continue to fight this inappropriate project,” the group said in a statement, adding, “We are looking at litigation and working with an attorney to that end.”

Comments? Write to