Opponents Sue Landmarks Commission Over Seaport Tower Approval

Standing outside the parking lot that occupies the 250 Water Street site, members of the Seaport Coalition, petitioners in a suit against the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission, show their oppostion to the Howard Hughes Corp.'s proposed tower. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

May. 20, 2021

Reeling from the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s approval this month of a 324-foot tower in the South Street Seaport Historic District, opponents of the project are taking their battle to court.

The Seaport Coalition, a group aimed at preventing the Howard Hughes Corp. from building its proposed 540,000-square-foot tower at 250 Water Street, filed a lawsuit against the commission this week. They claim the LPC ignored its preservation mandate when it voted 6-to-2 on May 6 to approve the structure, which would be nearly three times taller than zoning in the district allows. The tower’s low-rise base would house offices, a community facility, and ground-floor retail. 

“The Coalition’s litigation challenges the decision to grant such a grossly out of scale and clearly inappropriate project an LPC Certificate of Appropriateness,” the Seaport Coalition, an alliance of Children First, Save Our Seaport and Southbridge Towers, said in a statement. The suit also claims that the Howard Hughes Corp.’s promise of affordable housing units in the tower and financial help to the struggling South Street Seaport Museum influenced the commission’s decision.

With its Landmarks approval, Howard Hughes Corp. is now going forward with a required six-month land use review, its first stop next month before Community Board 1. The developer needs special city permission to exceed the zoning limit as well as to transfer air rights within the historic district, from its leased properties on Pier 17 and the Tin Building to the full-block 250 Water Street site, now a parking lot. 

In a statement, the Howard Hughes Corp. said it was confident a court would dismiss what it called a “deeply out of touch lawsuit, which is nothing more than a desparate stunt on behalf of a handful of project opponents.

An LPC spokeswoman said the commission does not comment on pending litigation. In summing up its lengthy set of findings in support of the project, the commission said the development “will enhance and strengthen the contribution of the site to the historic district, and will not diminish the special architectural and historic character” of the district. 

In part, the commission said it determined the tower to be appropriate and would “not call attention to itself” because of its siting closer to the Pearl Street side of the lot, away from the historic buildings and in the context of tall buildings to the west. 

That’s an argument that does not hold water for opponents like David Shelton, an activist with the coalition group Save Our Seaport. Standing on the Peck Slip side of the parking lot, he motioned to the small historic buildings to the east that he said would be obscured by the development. “You’re not going to see that, and you’re not going to see that,” he said, sweeping a pointed finger from one structure to the next. “And yes, it’s always shown [in renderings] against the tall buildings in the background,” he added, “because that’s where it belongs.”

Howard Hughes Corp.’s plans have the key support of Councilwoman Margaret Chin and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who leave office at the end of the year. So the possiblility of legal delays until then is not lost on the opponents. Most City Council candidates have said they oppose the project. One of them, Christopher Marte, sent the Trib a statement of support for the coalition’s lawsuit, as did Manhattan Borough President hopeful Lindsey Boylan.

“It would be advantageous to have fresh eyes,” said Megan Malvern, co-founder of Children First, a member of the coalition. “Just a fair shot at being reasonable.”

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