Whose Historic District Is It, Anyway?

Local leaders want the City to expand legal protections for the South Street Seaport northward, as far as the Brooklyn Bridge.
Community Board 1 (CB1) is pushing to expand the legally protected Historic District that covers much of the South Street Seaport neighborhood, in order to put the brakes on development in areas currently not regulated by the City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.

While the Seaport neighborhood is recognized as an historic treasure by City, State, and national authorities, it is only the local designation that carries with it legally enforceable limits on demolition and development.

This is crucial, because while the State and federal maps of the South Street Seaport Historic District are identical, the City’s is smaller. In particular, the City’s less expansive boundary saw-tooths around the New Market Building, which left it vulnerable to the demolition that is now slated to commence within weeks.

The New Market Building awaiting demolition
The site has been a focus of controversy in recent years. 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 faced an uncertain future. Decades of neglect compromised the structure, raising the prospect that it may collapse.

Although the demolition of the New Market Building now appears to be a fait accompli, community leaders still want a voice in whatever kind of development make take place at the site in the future. These concerns have become especially acute in recent weeks, after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan to use landfill to extend the East River shoreline, between the Brooklyn Bridge and the Battery, as a resiliency measure.
If this project moves forward, the site of the New Market Building may end up being two blocks inland from the new waterfront. These dozens of acres of new land could accommodate millions of square feet of development. This prospect gives new urgency to the proposal to expand the border’s of the Seaport Historic District, even if it is now too late to protect the New Market Building.

At an April 26 meeting, Roger Byrom, who chairs CB1’s Landmarks & Preservation Committee, explained, “the Mayor has come out with this resiliency plan for this area, and we can see these crazy real estate plans popping up left and right, such as detention centers or marinas. And we agree that we should keep a very close eye on this.”

CB1 then voted unanimously to enact a resolution calling upon the City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to, “urgently expand the South Street Seaport Historic District to match the Federal Historic District Boundary.”

The same measure also urged City government officials to work with Save Our Seaport, a local advocacy group, to consider a separate, broader proposal, to include within the protected zone a swath of the East River, extending north to the Brooklyn Bridge.
Matthew Fenton

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