General Growth backs school as it readies for landmarks

October 9, 2008 at 4:11 pm Leave a comment

General Growth’s design by SHoP Architects for retail buildings and a boutique hotel less than 120 feet tall will go before the Landmarks Preservation Commission this month. The commission will also consider the firm’s plans to move the Tin Building to the end of Pier 17, but will not take up the 495-foot tower because it will be built outside the South Street Seaport Historic District,

General Growth Properties made its first firm promise last week to build a school in the Seaport, as long as the city is on board.

If the School Construction Authority determines that Lower Manhattan needs more school seats, “I’ll do it,” said Michael McNaughton, a vice president with G.G.P. “I’ll do it.”

The school would be one piece of the community amenities package General Growth is offering in exchange for its South St. Seaport project. G.G.P. hopes to demolish the Pier 17 mall, build a 495-foot condo and hotel tower just north of Pier 17, build lower-rise retail and a boutique hotel on the pier and move the historic Tin Building to the pier’s tip.

Margie Feinberg, spokesperson for the Department of Education, would not comment directly on McNaughton’s commitment to build a school. She said the D.O.E.’s next capital plan in November would have details on the needs for school seats.

Julie Menin, chairperson of Community Board 1, said she was pleased to hear about progress on the school, but she said the offer did not mean C.B. 1 would sign off on the rest of the project. The board’s approval is advisory. The Seaport would be a good location for a new school because it is on the East Side, Menin said. The board will also look for other possible locations for a school, so as not to be dependent on General Growth.

“It’s not like this is the only site [for a school],” Menin said.

McNaughton and project architect Greg Pasquarelli spoke with Downtown Express last week about G.G.P.’s proposed Seaport development and the landmarks and community hurdles that lie ahead.

The Seaport school would go in the three-story Fulton Market building just west of Pier 17, which currently houses the Bodies exhibit. General Growth previously offered the 30,000-square-foot second floor of that building as a community center. Now, McNaughton is thinking the school and community center could share the building, possibly expanding onto its first and third floors.

McNaughton and Pasquarelli, a principal with SHoP Architects, considered putting the school on the pier and platform that will house General Growth’s new development, but they decided it was too dangerous for children to cross South St. under the F.D.R. Drive. An advantage to putting the school in an existing building is that its construction could begin earlier, so the school could be the first piece of the larger project to open.

But that does not mean G.G.P. would start working on the school the moment the city decided it was necessary. First they would have to receive all of the government approvals they need for the project — everything from the city Landmarks Preservation Commission to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — along with the community’s support. G.G.P. would also need to have its construction loans in place.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission will be the first government agency to formally review General Growth’s project, with the first hearing set for Oct. 21. General Growth needs approval for three actions in the South St. Seaport Historic District: to demolish the Pier 17 mall, to build low-rise retail and a boutique hotel on the pier and to move the Tin Building from the base of the pier to the water’s edge.

At first glance, the move of the Tin Building looks like the biggest landmarks obstacle — McNaughton calls it a “radical thought.” But a 1995 fire heavily damaged the Tin Building, leaving it uninhabitable, and then much of the original tin was replaced with fake fiberglass pieces, Pasquarelli said. Moving the building actually means salvaging the few historic elements and using old photographs to recreate what the Tin Building once was.

“We’re really moving the idea of the Tin Building, because there’s so little that’s still original,” McNaughton said. He said the Landmarks Preservation Commission sees the logic of moving the building, which will once again put it right on the East River. Moving the Tin Building also allows the Beekman St. corridor to continue onto Pier 17 instead of dead-ending at South St. and allows the East River Esplanade to run uninterrupted along the waterfront.

The waterside Tin Building would house a restaurant or market on the first floor — possibly something like Seattle’s Pike Place — and event space on the second and third floors.

The Landmarks Commission may not have much objection to the demolition of the 1983 Pier 17 mall (unless there’s an “I love Pier 17” protest group, Pasquarelli joked). The third landmarks action — the new buildings in the Seaport Historic District — could pose more of a problem. The four retail buildings and the boutique hotel that sits atop them are within the 120-foot height limit imposed by the historic district, but the buildings will still be taller than those on the uplands.

“It’s definitely going to be back and forth,” Pasquarelli said of negotiations with the L.P.C.

The community board plans to give an advisory opinion on the landmarks applications Oct. 15, and they will likely weigh the landmarks questions in the context of the overall project.

But the 495-foot hotel and condo tower, which the board considers the most objectionable piece of the plan, can go forward with or without landmarks approval of the rest of the project, because it sits on a separate site outside of the historic district. Downtown Express previously reported that if the Tin Building stayed in place, General Growth would not be able to build the tower, but that is incorrect. McNaughton said General Growth would still look to develop the tower site, a platform currently occupied by the New Market building, even if the rest of the project fell through.

At previous community board meetings, members have voiced concerns that General Growth’s tower would set a precedent for high-rise development along Lower Manhattan’s waterfront. But McNaughton sees the tower site as one-of-a-kind. No one is allowed to build new platforms over the water, and much of Lower Manhattan’s waterfront is already protected as park space.

The tower will come before the community board next spring, as part of the city’s land use review. Menin, the board chairperson, has listed three preconditions for even discussing the project: a larger community center, a school and open space.

General Growth appears amenable to all three. The company’s initial proposal more than doubled the amount of open space on the pier to 4.9 acres.

The tower is almost 150 feet taller than the 350 feet General Growth can build as of right, so G.G.P. will need a zoning variance from the Board of Standards and Appeals, in which they will have to prove financial hardship.

However, McNaughton describes the height as an aesthetic concern, not a financial one. The 495-foot tower is slimmer than the 350-foot one would be, so the taller building blocks less light from the project and fewer views from surrounding apartments, McNaughton said.

The community board would like the tower to stay narrow but be shorter, reducing the building’s square footage. That would mean a reduction in General Growth’s profits, and an accompanying reduction in the community’s amenities, McNaughton said.

“If that’s a discussion that has to be had in order to get their support, I think we’re willing to have it,” McNaughton said. “But right now we haven’t heard anything of the sort. It’s ‘We want, you don’t get.’ And I say, ‘How can I pay for it?’”

Menin said it was too early to start talking about tradeoffs, since the board needs more information about the amenities General Growth is offering.

The first community amenity to come on line will be a 16-stall specialty food market in the Fulton Market building, where fishmongers once sold their wares. The stalls will include both produce and prepared food and will be open Wednesday to Sunday, as soon as General Growth gets the city’s approval.

 

By Julie Shapiro
Downtown Express

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