South Street Seaport’s Pier 17 set to become simpler, more orderly

TRD New York /
Apr.April 20, 2012 10:30 AM

Regarding Pier 17, that misbegotten pile that opened in August 1983 on the East River and dominates the South Street Seaport, the most recent “AIA Guide to New York City” (dated 2010) says it best: “What was intended as a time capsule of the early 1800s has become an inadvertent time capsule of the early 1980s. … The best thing about it is the East River lapping cheerfully about the foundations and the cry of gulls overhead. The worst thing about it is everything inside.”

Designed by the defunct firm of Benjamin Thompson and Associates, this unlovely pavilion has always had the feel and appearance of a mall, from its kitschy shops selling scented candles and commemorative T-shirt to its various mediocre eateries. Its shed-like structure of steel, glass and wooden boards was the culmination of two decades of hesitant and half-hearted urban renewal that had begun in 1967, when Peter and Norma Stanford, realizing that the Manhattan docks of old were becoming obsolete, founded the South Street Seaport Museum and undertook to redeem the entire area.

Though the seaport in general and the pavilion in particular were intended to serve as a destination for New Yorkers, it has long been recognized that this ungainly warren of shops and escalators is frequented overwhelmingly by tourists and by urban planners looking for object lessons in how not to design urban renewal zones. And though the place does earn some money, it has also been recognized that it could earn much more.

To this end, the Howard Hughes Corporation, which owns and runs the retail spaces of the South Street Seaport, has commissioned the ever-so edgy SHoP Architects to reconceive the pavilion. Because the pavilion exists within an historic district, the architects recently had to go before the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which is now considering the matter.

The proposed renovations consist of preserving the frame and footprint of the existing structure. The plan is to move and expand the retail area to the second and third stories, while opening up the ground floor to form a vast open space. The roof is to be landscaped for further recreation space. In the process, the architecture firm would remove the atrium that accounts for much of the interior.

To judge from the recently published renderings, the new building will be cleaner, simpler and more orderly, rejecting the vague postmodernism of the original in favor of a neo-modern design. On paper it surely looks to be much more elegant and much more functional. It will be bigger, with greater space devoted to retail and more light.

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