Residents and community groups in lower Manhattan are celebrating a court ruling that temporarily blocks a tower from rising on a parking lot in the South Street Seaport Historic District.
Last week, state Supreme Court Judge Arthur Engoron granted the Seaport Coalition a temporary restraining order that suspends construction at 250 Water Street until the Coalition’s separate lawsuit against the city Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) goes to a Dec. 1 hearing.
In their suit, the Coalition alleges that Landmarks approved construction at the site — currently a hole in the ground — without a sufficiently thorough review.
In an opinion that accompanied the order, first reported by Tribeca Trib, Engoron stated that the Seaport Coalition has a good chance of prevailing in the case because the plaintiffs “have successfully demonstrated that the LPC approved the subject Tower after decades of denying proposals for similarly high buildings on the same lot, and that the LPC failed adequately to acknowledge, much less explain, its departure from previous rulings.”
Picking up on another complaint from opponents, Engoron also raised an eyebrow at a $40 million commitment from developer Howard Hughes Corporation to help fund the nonprofit South Street Seaport Museum. (The city would commit an additional $10 million.)
“This court is all in favor of funding for museums, but not as a quid pro quo for approval of a massive skyscraper in a historic district that would otherwise be prohibited,” he stated.
Howard Hughes says the $850 million development will include 270 housing units — 190 condos and 80 “below market rate” apartments — plus retail and mixed-use spaces along with office space. In all, the project would rise 324 feet and contain 547,000 square feet.
Neighbors who have balked at a high-rise coming to the low-slung historic Seaport district cheered the ruling.
“Our Seaport Coalition is grateful to the Court for maintaining the integrity of the low-rise, landmarked, South Street Seaport Historic District while the Court considers the merits of our case,” Seaport Coalition President Michael Kramer wrote in an email. “Common sense, as well as past LPC decisions, tell us that construction on this scale at this very site would ‘dominate and overwhelm’ the 18th and 19th century buildings that make up the historic district.”
He added that based on a review of internal Landmarks emails, which the Coalition contends show improper influence by Howard Hughes, members are confident that the LPC “abused its discretion.”
Something Doesn’t Smell Right
A Howard Hughes Corp. spokesperson told THE CITY that the lawsuit is just a temporary roadblock.
“We firmly disagree with this ruling,” said spokesperson James Yolles. “Regardless of this decision, we remain confident that this lawsuit is meritless, and the courts will agree that the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s approval of our project was proper and made in full accordance with the Landmarks Law.”
Yolles noted that Engoron’s decision allows them to continue site cleanup in accordance with the state’s Brownfield Cleanup Program.
But that cleanup has itself disturbed many locals, according to City Councilmember Christopher Marte (D-Manhattan), who said complaints about foul odors from constituents, including parents at two neighborhood schools, had been ignored.
“You can smell the petroleum almost a block away,” he said. “No one should have to work or be educated in an environment that bad. We felt like the consultants of developers and the construction crews weren’t doing their job in mitigating the effects that people experience.”
Opponents have cited the site’s history as a reason to stop construction. At various times, it housed a factory, a printer, a chemicals and glue company, an oil company, a metal works, a machine shop, a gasoline service station, a garage that included underground storage tanks, and thermometer factories and workshops. The site’s cleanup stopped for a while in May when a monitor detected a high amount of mercury vapor, and other toxins, in the soil.
The Landmarks Preservation Commission’s rejections of proposals for the site go back to 1983 when it declined a proposal for a 23-story office building. The following year the commission rejected a proposal for a 43-story apartment building. Since then, the LPC rejected two different proposals for a two-tower apartment building, a 15-story office building and a 12-story office building.
The latest Howard Hughes proposal, submitted late in the administration of former Mayor Bill de Blasio, finally did the trick.
“The LPC’s determination was lawful and reasonable,” said New York City Law Department spokesman Nick Paolucci. “The LPC determined that the project was appropriate for the South Street Seaport Historic District after multiple public hearings and meetings. We are confident of prevailing when the merits of the case are heard.”
Marte, however, said, “I think the plaintiff should win this lawsuit because Landmarks didn’t do their job that they’re legally bound to do.”