Howard Hughes Corp.’s Seaport tower fiasco

 In its latest quest for a Seaport tower, the Howard Hughes Corp. (HHC) – in addition to promising all sorts of community benefits – is promoting a visual narrative that would, in its words, connect the historic Seaport with the rest of lower Manhattan.

    At the last of 3 stakeholder workshop’s that HHC held on March 3, 2020 – under the guise of gathering community input to plan for the future of the Seaport, HHC presented what many knew was the purpose of the meetings from the start – justification for a tower at 250 Water St, HHC’s current parking lot site within the Seaport historic district that is contextually zoned to a 120 ft height limit, which aligns the zoning to the low-scale landmarked area.

The pitch, as promoted by a Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM) planning rep. hired by HHC, as a schematic showing 4 possible tower scenarios was displayed: — since HHC’s 250 Water St. site lies at the western edge of the district, a taller structure wouldn’t really be an intrusion that undermines the low-scale buildings in the interior of the historic area.   

It was hard to miss the marketing ploy of tower options set against the backdrop – not of the low-scale historic Seaport area, but of towering skyscrapers to the west.

As the SOM rep. placed a toy wooden tower in the allotted Seaport 250 Water Street site of a Lower Manhattan mockup, he had to acknowledge: “It is a tower, its absolutely a tower” – as if any might think otherwise.

    The rep. continued the spiel by pointing out a base that would be designed to relate to the Seaport district’s surrounding 19thcentury infrastructure for context and built to the 120 ft height limit, while a tower set back and rising above the pedestal base would complete HHC’s vision of a transitional gateway that would unite the Seaport to the towering Financial area to its south and west.

(At followup table discussions, workshop participants were encouraged to pick the tower of their choice. Noticeably skirted around: no 120 ft. height choice, and the fact that HHC does not have air rights it would need for any such options.)

The problems:

–           The Seaport is unique in part because it stands apart from the modern skyscrapers beyond its borders. The Brooklyn Bridge, the East River and the open sky are its setting, not skyscrapers.   It’s the dramatic change in scale between the Seaport and Financial area that makes the Seaport immediately identifiable.   

To purport that the Seaport is lacking a needed connection to the modern skyscrapers outside its bounds, and that placing a tower within its bounds is appropriate to accomplish this linkage had many eyes rolling.

–           250 Water St. is not alone along the Seaport’s western border. It shares the common Pearl St. demarcation line with many 19thand early   20thcentury buildings – from the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses – 334-338 Pearl Street on the northerly edge of Pearl St. near the Brooklyn Bridge to  117 Beekman St. at Pearl St. to the south.   Both visually and literally, a tower will do nothing but break an important Seaport protected boundary.

–           Finally, overriding the 120 ft height limit would set a terrible precedent, both in terms of what it would bode for future development requests in this protected area, and for undermining hard-fought for protections that can be dismissed when public assets become bargaining chips set against one another.

Another battle is clearly underway.