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Proposed South Street Seaport development under fire.

A new housing development proposed for the South Street Seaport by Milstein Properties is encountering major neighborhood opposition. Located under the Brooklyn Bridge off the East River, the Seaport is Manhattan's oldest neighborhood, and was recently immortalized in Martin Scorsese's new film Gangs of New York. The Seaport Community Coalition, representing residents in the area, claims that the twin towers proposed by Milstein -- one proposed at twenty-five floors, the other at fourteen floors threatens to overwhelm the intimate quality of this Historic District.

At a time when the development of lower Manhattan is being hotly debated, switching to a high-rise strategy in the area just six blocks from Ground Zero seems ill considered. The rare (for Manhattan) mixture of cobblestone streets, three- and four-story 19th century brick buildings and small restaurants, cafes and shops would be destroyed by the Milstein's oversized proposal.

"We're in favor of the type of development that reflects the scale of this community," says Gary Fagin, a founder of the Seaport Community Coalition. "But the scale of the Milstein's proposal is grotesquely out of sync with the scale of the Historic District."

The Seaport has been engaged in a long-running battle with the Milsteins, who purchased the parcel at Water and Peck Slip in 1979 - two years after the neighborhood had been designated a Historic District. For nineteen years the Seaport community has been engaged in a struggle to accompany that designation with a clear down-zoning of the area, attempting to put legal teeth into the historic designation of the area, and thereby limit the height of developments in the district. A meeting of the City Planning Commission on January 22nd will make a pivotal decision on down zoning, a critical legal tool necessary to ensure that a historic designation is based on more than pure sentiment.

Twenty years ago, the New York City Landmark Commission explained its historic designation by asserting the importance of preserving "...the small scale brick buildings which contrast dramatically with the soaring skyscrapers nearby (in the Financial District.)" That contrast has not changed over twenty years, in fact it has intensified. In a city marked by rapid development of such areas as Soho, Chelsea and Tribeca, the Seaport remains one of the last refuges of small-scale, intimate living in Manhattan.

The Seaport Community Coalition asks that the Planning Commission approve Community Board No. l's application to downzone 10 blocks in the Seaport Historic District to C6-2A and not permit the destruction through high-rise development of the last vestiges of old New York, a neighborhood evoked by Herman Melville's opening passage in Moby Dick and celebrated by New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell in Up in the Old Hotel. That tradition lives on in the abundance of artists, writers, new media creators, musicians, and businessmen and women who contribute significantly to the city's cultural and economic life, and who have supported the coalition's preservation campaign by contributing toward Community Board No. l's study assessing the financial and environmental implications of different forms of zoning for the neighborhood.

The study recommended a zoning that would encourage appropriate low-rise development and renovation in the historic district, including Milstein's parcel, 250 Water St. Also completed last year was a study by the New York City Economic Development Corporation that concluded that development on 250 Water St. under the proposed zoning would produce a hefty twenty percent to thirty-five percent return on the developer's investment.

That strategy is now being threatened. The city Planning Commission's hearing on Jan. 22 will decide whether to recommend approval of the proposed down zoning to the City Council. The community's struggle has been endorsed by Manhattan Borough President Virginia Fields as well as all the elected officials in lower Manhattan, an overwhelming majority of the property owners, businesses and residents in the Historic District, and The Alliance For Downtown New York, the Lower Manhattan Business Improvement.
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Publication:Real Estate Weekly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 29, 2003
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