BY THE SEAPORT COALITION AND SAVE OUR SEAPORT | On Wed., May 5, we learned from Howard Hughes Corporation spokesperson James Yolles, “that the firm had originally proposed a (one-shot) $50 million endowment for the Seaport Museum, but now the final amount would be determined in the upcoming land-use process.”
It is no shock to see HHC wriggling off the hook as they have from other community commitments. Remember the open green rooftop space on Pier 17 and 10,000-square-foot public Fulton Stall Market? But the timing is as brazen as the deal.
Under the pretense of a philanthropic donation, all along the intent was the private purchase of publicly owned air rights, allowing them to exceed the height limit for their planned project at 250 Water St. They only needed the museum for political cover in order to gain government approvals. The city’s Economic Development Corporation would then be expected to fund unspecified community Seaport benefits from the proceeds of the sale.
Let’s do the math…
With the first HHC Seaport tower proposal, slated at 757,400 square feet, an air-rights transfer of 445,000 square feet was needed. Valuing those air rights at $112.36 per square foot, the sale would produce $50 million. On Tues., May 4, the Landmarks Preservation Commission approved a 540,000-square-foot building, requiring only 227,600 square feet of air-rights transfers. Under this revised scheme, the city would then only receive around $25 million.
If the allowable bulk is reduced further by the Department of City Planning, funding would be even less. A far cry from HHC’s specious claim of a magnanimous donation; a cruel irony, given billionaire activist investor Bill Ackman’s influential seat on the Howard Hughes board. With a flick of the pen, he could save the museum forever.
But the real price? The endangered 11-block low-scale South Street Seaport Historic District, birthplace of modern-day New York City, a living museum of 18th- and 19th-century buildings. Nothing less is at stake!
The museum, originally mandated as the caretaker of the entirety of the historic district, was left without the means to do so, and finally opted to sacrifice its charge in order to try to save its own skin.
Now New York City could lose both, and a dangerous precedent would be set.
L.P.C. sent the message that a characterless monolith, hundreds of feet higher than the surrounding buildings, is appropriate if the developer gives enough to a favored charity.
“I think I heard cash registers ringing as soon as the decision was laid down,” said Megan Malvern, a resident of the area for 15 years and member of the Seaport Coalition, a group that opposes the HHC’s proposed tower. “As long as you can come in with enough other bells and whistles, you can ignore all of the precedent and the law that has protected these really important places for so long.”
David Sheldon, a founder of Save our Seaport, said, “We have already identified alternative ways to fund the South Street Seaport Museum that would result in a recurring revenue stream of $2 million to $3 million per year with a reserve fund of $15 million to $30 million. These revenues would enable the museum to properly conduct its mission and achieve long-term financial and organizational stability.”
Sheldon added that this financial plan was unanimously endorsed by Lower Manhattan’s Community Board 1 at its April 2021 full board meeting.
Enough with the backroom deals that allow greedy developers to break our historic trusts and dissolve our precious public assets. It is time for our elected officials to rescue both the Seaport Historic District and the South Street Seaport Museum before this soulless Texas developer jumps ship, leaving both to go down forever.