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BY TERESE LOEB KREUZER | The leadership of Community Board 1 is intent on trying to save the South Street Seaport Museum and its ships. Save Our Seaport, a coalition of South Street Seaport stakeholders and individuals, wants to see the museum thrive but it also has a larger agenda — to save the historic Seaport from being developed into a shopping mall interspersed with hotels and luxury apartments.
The Howard Hughes Corporation, a Dallas-based developer, has a long-term lease on parts of the Seaport. Hughes has a Letter of Intent in place with the New York Economic Development Corporation (E.D.C.) that would give it an option to develop other areas of the Seaport not currently in its lease.
The Save Our Seaport steering committee has proposed replacing the E.D.C. as the “master leaseholder” in the Seaport with a new “East River Trust” local development corporation. It points out that L.D.C.’s have been established for Brooklyn Bridge Park, the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Governors Island among other places in New York City, so the concept is not untried.
The two agendas collided at a meeting of C.B. 1’s Seaport Committee on July 16 and in a subsequent exchange of emails between C.B. 1 chairperson Catherine McVay Hughes, Save Our Seaport leadership and Matt Viggiano, director of land use and planning for City Councilmember Margaret Chin in whose district the South Street Seaport is located.
Save Our Seaport members thought that someone from the new interim board of the South Street Seaport Museum would be present at the July 16 meeting. All the seats were filled in the community board conference room to hear an update, but no one from the South Street Seaport Museum’s board showed up.
C.B. 1 chairperson Catherine McVay Hughes said that the museum’s interim president, Jonathan Boulware, would be present at a special meeting on July 29 to answer questions about where the museum stands since the Museum of the City of New York, its steward for 21 months, pulled out on July 5.
Then she tried to move on to another subject — a neighborhood development grant sponsored by the E.D.C. for areas hard hit by Superstorm Sandy. She thought this grant of up to $18 million per neighborhood might provide some money for the South Street Seaport Museum.
C.B. 1 public member Michael Kramer, who is also a member of the Save Our Seaport steering committee, interposed. “Weren’t we promised that someone from the board of trustees would come to this meeting?” he asked. “By Matt Viggiano?”
Viggiano had chaired a meeting about the South Street Seaport Museum on July 3 to which only a select group of community board members had been invited. The Save Our Seaport group thought that the July 16 meeting would fill them in on what had happened on July 3 and what might happen going forward, not just to the museum, but to the Seaport in general.
Viggiano said that he had asked that a commissioner or a “knowledgeable staff member” come to the Seaport Committee meeting, but no one was able to make it. “I’m not sure why,” he said.
In an email from Kramer to Viggiano dated July 17, Kramer said that he understood that Viggiano works for Chin and not for the Department of Cultural Affairs and therefore could not be held accountable for D.C.A.’s absence, however, he said, there were many unanswered questions.
The first question on his list was “Why was the Museum of the City of New York with its wealth of ideas and resources so discouraged by their experience downtown to walk away from the South Street Seaport Museum? (hint, it wasn’t Sandy)?”
He was pointing a finger at The Howard Hughes Corporation. The remaining questions on Kramer’s list also concerned The Howard Hughes Corporation, directly or indirectly.
“Why does the Howard Hughes Corporation feel that they have ‘no responsibility’ to ensure the success of the South Street Seaport Museum?” he inquired. He also wanted to know what had happened to money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that would have helped to bail out the museum, and whether The Howard Hughes Corporation will “wait the requisite six months and then exercise their option to take over all South Street Seaport Museum buildings?”
On behalf of Councilmember Chin, Viggiano has scheduled a meeting of Seaport stakeholders and elected officials for July 25 to focus mainly “on urban design considerations,” as he said in a July 17 email to those invited.
This meeting is not likely to answer any of Kramer’s questions.
“Ideally we will break off into groups to talk about the different aspects of the neighborhood that we like, don’t like, what is good but could be better, what isn’t good and needs to be reworked,” he wrote. “Out of those conversations we should be able to identify a host of urban designs that the stakeholders love, like, or don’t like at all.”
The Save Our Seaport steering committee thinks that this conversation would be redundant with “Seaport Speaks,” an extensive analysis of the Seaport dating from 2006 in which all of the stakeholders participated. S.O.S. maintains that a discussion of all the important issues is embedded in the Seaport Speaks document.
“Your agenda outline and approach are excellent,” said Michael Yamin, a former chair of Manhattan Community Board 6, an attorney and a member of the S.O.S. steering committee, to Viggiano in an email on July 21. “But,” he continued, “My concern is that you may be trying to reinvent the wheel. My suggestion is that you make copies of the Seaport Speaks charrette available in advance to each participant and use it as the jumping off point: what ideas and proposals should be changed in it or added to its ideas and suggestions, based on the seven years since it was completed?”
Yamin said that a consideration of the Seaport’s governance was urgent.
“Events are moving rapidly at the Seaport and an extended planning effort without some immediate guidelines may make the planning meaningless by the time it is completed,” he said. “In that connection I hope you will indicate at the start of the [July 25] meeting what time frame do you see for completion and how do you see it being implemented? What is the Councilmember’s ‘action plan’?”
At the July 16 C.B. 1 Seaport Committee meeting, Michael Kramer tried to bring up the subject of the East River Trust.
“I think it’s fair to say that we’re all less than happy with E.D.C.’s performance in the Seaport district,” he said. “We’re looking to consider some alternatives for the body that would plan for the Seaport and/or that would administer and maintain the leases and the lease revenues, so we are exploring a concept called the ‘East River Trust,’ which would be a local development corporation.”
He added that Save Our Seaport would like to bring more information about this idea to Councilmember Chin’s meeting.
Seaport Committee chair John Fratta responded by saying that items such as this could not be appended to the agenda at the last minute. The Community Board will not meet in August, but he indicated that Save Our Seaport could put the East River Trust idea on the agenda for September.
Viggiano also indicated a willingness to discuss the idea. “I would be happy to provide time at the close of the [July 25] meeting that we are organizing here to discuss the concept,” he said in a July 17 email to Yamin. “However, I think that this idea would also require a whole meeting unto itself.”
He said that he thought that “a formal presentation to the Community Board and elected officials at another meeting would be ideal.”
In the meantime, proponents of the East River Trust have established a website at http://www.eastrivertrust.org/ to explain what the proposed local development corporation would do and how it would work.