At the November 27 meeting of Community Board 1 (CB1), chair Anthony Notaro observed that the City’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC), “says that building is falling apart, it’s condemned, and it has to come down. They’ve budgeted for it and they’ll preserve whatever historic elements they can.”
“But they’re going to leave that platform,” he continued, in a reference to a deck adjoining the East River waterfront that supports the structure. “It will be an empty pier with a chain link fence around it and a guard at night. This is unacceptable.”
“That type of real estate asset has to be developed for community advancement,” he added. “It is in the public realm. We all need to have an open and direct conversation about the possibilities here. The East Side has been neglected in many ways, in terms of community centers, and open space. Issues like this need to have a major focus and that’s where our commitment is.”
Naima Rauam’s painting of the Fulton Fish Market activity before it closed
Earlier this year, CB1’s Waterfront, Parks, and Development Committee considered the issue. Committee chair Paul Goldstein noted that the New Market Building was erected in 1939, “as one of the original fish market buildings, at a time when the South Street Seaport was the largest fish distribution center in the world.”
In 2013, the Howard Hughes Corporation, which has been designated by the City to redevelop the South Street Seaport, announced plans to demolish the structure and erect a 60-story residential tower there. This plan inspired bitter opposition among preservationists, community leaders, and elected officials, which eventually scuttled to proposal.
Even with the planned skyscraper’s cancellation, however, the New Market building has long faced an uncertain future. Decades of neglect have compromised the structure, raising the prospect that it may collapse. “It’s been a source of controversy for a number of years,” Mr. Goldstein recounted. “And the latest controversy is that we got a call from EDC, informing us that they are planning to demolish the building.”
“In fairness to EDC,” Mr. Goldstein said, “we were aware that this building had structural issues, and that something had to be done, at a minimum, to stabilize it. But none of that stabilization took place. Instead, they just told us, ‘okay, we’re pulling it down.'” He also noted that the building is listed in both State and Federal registers of historic sites, but does not enjoy City landmarks status, which means that it is not legally protected from demolition.
“This is a troubling development for a number of reasons,” Mr. Goldstein continued. “One is that we just heard about it and they didn’t consult with the community board prior to announcing this final decision.”
Second, Mr. Goldstein said, “this is actually very consistent with a pattern that EDC has had in running the Seaport for a number of years. They do things behind the scenes, behind closed doors, and do not inform the public about what’s going on until they make a decision. And it’s also my understanding that they treat our local elected officials in the exact same way. That they, too, are having an impossible time gaining information out of EDC.”
Mr. Goldstein interjected that, “EDC says they have no more plans for a high rise building. Take that for what it’s worth. But Borough President’s office was adamant that the City and the developer have heard the message that we, the community and the elected officials, will not tolerate something like that on this site.”
Committee member Bob Townley said, “having worked with EDC closely years ago, I think they’re going to sweeten the pot. This could be an example of the Community Board workings at its best. There may be deal-making on this site, and that’s why they are not saying anything yet.”
The area of the deck beneath the New Market Building is nearly 40,000 square feet, or almost one acre. A parcel of that size could accommodate one or more facilities such as a park, new school, a community center, a library, affordable housing units, or other civic amenities.
Mr. Goldstein reflected that, “CB1 has a history of negotiating deals that have brought us schools, parks, and community centers.”
An historic photo of workers at the Fish Market
But not everyone is resigned to the demolition of the New Market Building. The preservation group, Save Our Seaport, notes in a statement that, “in 2010, an inspection report commissioned by the Economic Development Corporation detailed the decay, concluding that approximately $10 million was needed to stabilize and repair the building. Those repairs were never made.”