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Landmarks Commission Promotes Appropriate Development

Preservation isn’t perfect. But preservation has contributed to New York’s economy, tourism, identity, and livability for the last 56 years. Since historic districts cover only four percent of the City’s buildable areas, it’s hard to claim preservation has “covered the City in amber” and prevented the development of affordable housing – though some continue to try.

250 Water Street Rendering – East Elevation facing East River (Courtesy SOM/The Howard Hughes Corporation)

Recently, the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) sent the Howard Hughes Corporation back to the drawing board, after rejecting the Corporation’s proposal for 250 Water Street, within the South Street Seaport Historic District. The design included some affordable units, and Howard Hughes promised a large contribution to the Seaport Museum if the proposal passed, but a pair of 470-foot towers was not appropriate for the low-rise district. The Corporation is welcome to submit another design to the Commission.

Last week, the ArchPaper printed an op-ed denouncing the Commission for its decision and criticizing the Commissioners personally. The writer questioned the process apparently unaware that the Commissioners are appointed by the Mayor and that the City Council has the final say over designations.

The paper printed my reply this past Monday entitled “The Landmarks Preservation Commission promotes appropriate development.” It’s included in full text below.

To the Editor:

The Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) is not “safeguarding a parking lot” by asking the Howard Hughes Corporation to redesign its proposal for a high-rise building within the South Street Seaport Historic District. It is doing its job, protecting a low-scale oasis of 19th-century masonry buildings that anchor the City to its earliest beginnings as a port.

As we testified at the January Commission hearing on this project, no one wants to keep a parking lot. In fact, the Commission did approve an earlier proposal that was never built. But the lot is fully within the district. A building here should honor its history. The Howard Hughes proposal at 250 Water Street did not, seeking to blend with the larger buildings to the west.

The applicants tied the project to community benefits that are not typically part of the LPC’s purview. Affordable housing is a vital issue. But it would be addressed in the City’s ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure) review if a redesigned proposal gains LPC approval. There is no guarantee, however, that LPC approval will yield the promised number of units and affordability levels. We agree that a successful Museum enhances the entire Seaport. Since Howard Hughes has tied a major donation to the South Street Seaport Museum to getting approval to build on the parking lot, it is all the more reason for Howard Hughes to bring back an appropriate design.

The recent op-ed on this topic failed to note that the LPC routinely approves new construction in historic districts and that many recent historic districts cover majority-minority neighborhoods. The LPC website features a story map highlighting buildings, sites, and historic districts significant to African American history throughout the City. It also failed to note that the City Council has final determination over designations.

Historic Districts take up only four percent of the City’s buildable lots. But they have been powerful economic engines – providing jobs, attracting residents and tourists, as well as small businesses and tech companies.

The LPC has shown a willingness to approve a new building that respects and completes the South Street Seaport Historic District. Now it is up to Howard Hughes.

Peg Breen, President
The New York Landmarks Conservancy

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