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An (actually) real history of the South Street Seaport Museum

BY CAPTAIN JONATHAN BOULWARE | We read the Seaport Coalition’s recent talking point in The Village Sun (“The real story: The Seaport Historic District, South Street Seaport Museum and the Howard Hughes mega-proposal”) about the project at 250 Water St. with some dismay; reasonable people can disagree on the proposals for 250 Water St., but the factual history of the Seaport Museum — and the historic district it made possible — speak for themselves.

How can there be a fair and clear land-use process if errors are allowed to run rampant? We felt that this necessitated setting the record straight.

How did the South Street Seaport Museum get into this precarious position?

First, some history: When the Seaport Museum was formed in 1967, it saved the Seaport, specifically its buildings, many of which had fallen into disrepair. The historic district was designated a decade later, with the museum as its champion and official “unassisted sponsor.”

The historic district was created with an intended interrelationship: the sales of air rights were always supposed to go to support the museum, so that it could perform its historical and educational mission, including caring for and programming the historic buildings.

Numerous attempts (air-rights transfer in 1972, Rouse deal in 1981, and several other major interventions by the city) all ratify this central premise. And though these various attempts never managed to produce a dollar for the museum, it has persevered nonetheless. Indeed, with vigorous fundraising, broad volunteerism and creative entrepreneurship, the museum has funded itself and been a programmatic leader both here in New York and internationally.

Our lack of a stabilizing endowment, though, has meant we have always been just one step ahead of financial calamity. The Seaport Museum stewards some of the most expensive-to-maintain properties in the city — some of Gotham’s oldest buildings, and historic ships that live in saltwater exposed to sun, rain, freeze and thaw. Without an endowment, these capital obligations have always been a precious but heavy burden.

The past 20 years have made it worse. Both 9/11 and the financial collapse of 2008 cooled our district to tourists for a decade in a one-two punch; Hurricane Sandy buried our institution in water and river silt. Our escalators still don’t work from the impact of the superstorm. Now COVID has put us in a more precarious position still, shrinking our staff from 100 to just 18, and cutting our operating budget in half.

With key funding sunsetting next year, we have under 18 months before the museum is finally completely financially nonviable and has to permanently close its doors.

What’s in the 250 Water St. project for the Seaport Museum? Simple: long-term stability. Specifically, the funding that was planned to come from projects just like this one when the museum and district were founded.

Stable museums rely on a diverse portfolio of funding, typically grouped into earned income, contributed income and interest income. The last category, interest from invested endowment funds, is what separates financially sustainable institutions from those living hand to mouth. It’s likely that there will be a high correlation between institutions that have endowments and those that survive the current COVID crisis.

But what about the new building? Isn’t that a priority?

The Seaport Museum does intend to expand; the proposed building at John St. has been a museum plan for decades. But financial stability must come first. To grow before being stable is to invite collapse later. We’ve seen this play out across several cultural institutions in New York in recent memory. The museum is prioritizing the endowment over a new building, not the developer. It’s sound financial thinking and the only responsible way forward.

Does the South Street Seaport Museum really have access to $12 million dollars from FEMA?

Yes. More specifically, the museum is eligible for reimbursement for up to 90 percent of the $12.4 million FEMA 428 disaster-assistance grant awarded in 2015. These funds will of course not be available for running the museum; they are to repair damage from Hurricane Sandy. As we write this, an R.F.Q. (request for quote) is being finalized that will allow that work to proceed.

Numerous obstacles have stood in the way of this work occurring, and we will still need to identify $1.25 million (the 10 percent that won’t be reimbursed) in order to make it work. An investment from Howard Hughes Corporation would unlock these funds immediately.

So what’s the bottom line here?

It comes down to this: Nobody disagrees that the Seaport Museum needs major support to remain the beating heart of the district, telling the story of our city on the sea and preserving our neighborhood’s — and our city’s — history for generations of New Yorkers and visitors. And our district needs our museum. The 18th- and 19th-century buildings of the South Street Seaport Historic District exist today because the South Street Seaport Museum exists. And their long-term future as anything other than a shopping destination, in other words as a real Seaport, relies entirely on a strong Seaport Museum.

This is the best, most real opportunity we have to get the support we need, and it is entirely consistent with the founding principles of the museum, the district and its accompanying urban renewal plan. Indeed, the museum’s own master plan of the late 1960s identified tall buildings on 250 Water St. as one of the key projects that would generate funding.

Opponents claim that we could simply make another arrangement (like financing from the city’s Economic Development Corporation) appear. We’d love their help in doing that.

Another narrative suggests that transferring development rights elsewhere can generate funding for the museum, but so far there’s no real, actionable plan.

There is, however, a history of trying this in our district: The air rights transferred in 1972 were only finally used up recently. If we modeled our plan after that example, the museum could at best hope for dribs and drabs of funding, delivered over decades. It wouldn’t solve the fundamental crisis the museum faces; we have less than 18 months. The clock is ticking, and we have been advertising our financial needs to anyone who would listen for a very long time without “another arrangement” ever coming through.

Yes, the South Street Seaport was placed on the National Trust’s 2015 (annual) list of most endangered places. But what would really destroy the unique and magical South Street Seaport Historic District is not the construction of buildings very like the ones intended to be built to support the museum, but rather the loss of the museum itself. Without the beating heart of the district, it would cease to be the South Street Seaport in any real sense.

Let’s not prioritize a parking lot over preserving the very real history of our district. And let’s not let alternative facts ruin our valid community discourse.

Boulware is president and C.E.O., South Street Seaport Museum.


  1. J. Gorman J. Gorman March 24, 2021

    Re: “An (actually) real history of the South Street Seaport Museum” – The Village Sun, March 24, 2021

    Dear Captain Jonathan Boulware,
    It might just be the time to reach out to some real allies who ask for nothing in return but to save both our Historic District and our Seaport Museum

    From your op-ed:
    – “the sales of air rights were always supposed to go to support the museum”
    No argument there. But just in case you may have forgotten:
    The Howard Hughes Corp. (HHC) bought the last of the remaining Seaport 1972 Transfer Mechanism air rights in Dec. 2014 for close to $31 million. Which Museum Board representatives fought to insure that the Museum got its fair share to establish that so necessary endowment fund that HHC now proposes to save the Museum with – provided of course, that HHC gets approval for an out-of-scale development within the district in exchange.
    And just a reminder – the air rights in question are city-owned public assets. They are not there to advance a private developer’s agenda at the taxpayers’ expense, and over the public’s interests.

    – 2015, FEMA $12.4 million: “an R.F.Q. (request for quote) is being finalized that will allow that work to proceed.”
    With funds that have an expiration date, and which could have advanced the reopening of the Museum, was it too enticing to put the funds on hold, while buying into a trade of a 10th of the historic district for a possible $50 million lottery ticket?

    – “fundamental crisis the museum faces; we have less than 18 months…” … “An investment from Howard Hughes Corporation would unlock these funds immediately.”
    The Museum’s financial planner might want to rethink that ‘immediate’ reference.

    – “long-term future as anything other than a shopping destination” –
    Hmmm; and who would be behind that ‘destination’.

    – “founding principles of the museum, the district” –
    were never meant to eat away at one to save the other.

    – “Another narrative suggests that transferring development rights elsewhere can generate funding for the museum, but so far there’s no real, actionable plan.”
    There is an actionable plan, but some term-limited elected officials chose to ignore it as they worked behind a curtain of secrecy to plan with the Museum and HHC – at the same time that community advocates were reaching out (perhaps you can recall some of those 2019 meetings before HHC’s Stakeholder Workshops took place.)

    – “And our district needs our museum.”
    — and our museum needs our district.

    – and yes, “Let’s not let alternative facts ruin our valid community discourse,” nor let a developer attempt to control the fate of our valued public assets.

    J. Gorman
    Co-founder, Friends of South Street Seaport

  2. Mary Mary March 24, 2021

    So wait, Mr. Boulware, your museum has been suffering and twisting, dying slowly, drying up for years, looking for ways to survive and you, the C.E.O., President, Grand Poobah, could not figure out a way to access $12.4 million of FEMA funding that was given to reopen the museum in 2015?!? Why would you let that happen?

    Almost six years ago — the museum was awarded the FEMA grant. But you are only just now, “as we write,” beginning the request for bids for repairs that should have started half a decade ago.

    In City documents referencing the museum’s recent request for its help with the grant, it is clear the museum is close to losing the funding for failure to hit deadlines. This inaction hardly seems like a genuine effort to reopen the museum. Some may argue it would be a dereliction of duty to have allowed fragile pieces of the museum’s collection to be exposed to less than favorable conditions inside a poorly ventilated space for these many years.

    Surprisingly, your news is news to your most stalwart volunteers, who are only now learning about the need to raise matching funds to unlock the federal grant. These men and women literally mopped, cleaned, mucked out and rolled up their sleeves to try and reopen the museum after Sandy devastated the area. Pretty sure they would have done one heck of a job securing donations that could have opened those doors back then. But no, you hid the opportunity and stacked the “sob story” to support the bailout by the Howard Hughes Corporation. Waiting for a handout to get another handout does not bode well for a future success story at the museum, Mr Boulware. Your elevators could have been working for years.

    And I gosh-darn-sure guarantee you, if the area residents had been asked, this community would have helped raise a million dollars to get TEN times more for the museum! As you’ve come to learn, we are a dedicated group of people who fight like hell for their neighbors.

    To be fair — I hear from professionals in the actual business of fundraising that accessing federal money can be very detailed and require a highly skilled administrator who has special training in grant writing. This basic requirement for an institution is part of any nonprofit’s fiscal planning. Not sure how many of us would still have a job after leaving $12 million on the table, during a time you describe as “financial calamity.” How long have you been banking on the premise that, “An investment from Howard Hughes Corporation would unlock these funds immediately”?

    Beside your Board’s inability to access money waiting in the bank since 2015, at an organizational level, has the executive staff been asked to tighten their belts? Does running a museum that has been shut for 8 years still earn its President over $200,000 in compensation? Recent tax documents for your nonprofit haven’t shown otherwise. You’ve been very clear, however, that it was necessary to lay off other staff to make ends meet.

    Meanwhile, across the country millions of people have taken cuts to keep businesses afloat through these tough times.

    But your plan, as stated above, is to ask the families who live here and the kids who go to school at the doorstep of 250 Water Street to suck it up, so you can continue to look for handouts. We’re fighting for the kids, the community, the law and the historic district.

    Tell me, Mr. Boulware, who exactly are you fighting for again?

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