Decision Nullifies Legal Permission for Seaport Project to Move Forward
Opponents of the plan to build a large residential tower in the South Street Seaport district won a significant victory on January 12, when State Supreme Court Judge Arthur Engoron handed down a stinging rebuke to the City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), and by extension, to the entire proposed project.
At issue is the Certificate of Appropriateness (COA) that the LPC issued for the project, in May, 2021. This was needed because the proposed 324-foot building greatly exceeds the “as of right” zoning limits on height and bulk for 250 Water Street (a 1.1-acre parking lot bounded by Pearl, Beekman, and Water Streets, as well as Peck Slip), which falls within the legally protected South Street Seaport Historic District.
Judge Engoron decried what he termed “an impermissible quid pro quo” under which LPC was influenced to issue the COA based on other public benefits that the developer, Howard Hughes Corporation (HHC), has promised in exchange for permission to build the tower, such as funding for the South Street Seaport Museum, and the creation of at least 70 affordable apartments within the new building. While Judge Engoron does not dispute that such benefits would be valuable and important, he does conclude that consideration of them falls outside of the LPC’s legal authority. The Judge also slammed what he called “extensive coordination, over a period of more than three years, between LPC and [HHC] on how to provide ‘political cover’ for the project,” going so far as to note that “representatives of [HHC] met and communicated with LPC staff continuously from January 2018 through (and beyond) October 2020, when [HHC] filed its application for a COA,” and that “the week before the first public hearing, LPC senior staff met privately with [HHC] representatives to conduct a ‘practice hearing.’”
The decision also finds fault with the Commission’s departure from its own longstanding precedent by issuing a COA for a large tower at the site (“in at least three of its previous denials for high-rise buildings at 250 Water Street, LPC unambiguously asserted that approving such projects would ‘visually [confuse] the present clear boundary of the district’”) without stating any rationale. (The decision suggests that LPC is theoretically authorized to overturn its own precedents, but is required by law to acknowledge that it is doing so, and explain why.)
Judge Engoron concludes his ruling by reflecting that “the Citizens of New York City are entitled to feel confident that a controversial, counter-intuitive decision to allow a skyscraper to be built in a low-rise historic district, after repeated decisions disallowing such a structure, and without a coherent explanation, was made solely on the merits, and not because of a quid pro quo, even one with the laudable purpose of museum funding. The… record does not justify any such confidence.”
At a rally held outside of the construction fence surrounding 250 Water Street on the day following this decision, a series of speakers voiced their approval for the decision. City Council member Christopher Marte said, “when we come together and fight for justice, we can win. We all thought the LPC was colluding with developers. We saw the language that the City, the LPC commissioners, and the developer were using was all the same. And sometimes, we would ask, ‘are they all reading from the same book? Are they all meeting behind our backs? Or is it just our imagination?’ That is exactly what they were doing. They were working as one team against the people they are supposed to represent, the people they are supposed to protect. They were literally organizing for profit over people.”
State Assembly member Grace Lee said, “I am standing here today as a mother and as a member of this community. You fought for years to demonstrate the inappropriateness of this tower, to protect our Seaport, to protect our communities, to protect our families. This decision demonstrates that it doesn’t matter how much money you have, it doesn’t matter if you’re a developer—you are not above the law.”
Community Board 1 (CB1) chair Tammy Meltzer, observed, “this is great day for our community, a great day for advocacy. You can’t have a historic Seaport area without the history. We are for housing and for affordability. But we are not for selling out to developers. We welcome development within the Historic District of a building that fits here. We just don’t want to be taken advantage of.”
Paul Goldstein, who chairs CB1’s Waterfront, Parks & Cultural Committee, acknowledged, “this has been a long battle. I was hired by CB1 in early 1980s, and this was one of the first projects that came up. When LPC designated this a Historic District [in 1977], it was because this area stood in dramatic contrast to the high-rise buildings throughout Lower Manhattan. The LPC over the years turned down buildings as short as 12 stories, saying they were too tall for a district with mostly four-story buildings. It’s a special part of New York and we don’t have to give that up to greedy developers.”
David Sheldon, a co-founder of the advocacy group, Save Our Seaport, recalled, “the Historic District was created to protect it from encroachment by developers. This isn’t the first tower that had to be defeated here. And there will be those who come after us who will have the same fight.”
District leader Vittoria Fariello reflected, “this victory is a win for our community, which has fought for years to maintain the character of this Historic District. This is also a win for democracy, because we are holding our agencies accountable to the law, and to the public they are supposed to serve.”
Kathryn Freed, a Lower Manhattan resident who previously served on the City Council and as a State Supreme Court Judge, said, “there is no other place in the City like this. And any City that doesn’t remember its past and where it came from is going to lose part of its soul.”
While the State Supreme Court decision marks a victory for opponents of the plan to build a large tower at 250 Water Street, the battle appears to be far from over. An HHC spokesman replies that, “we respectfully disagree with Judge Engoron’s decision and believe that the Appellate Division will overturn this decision in due course.”