South Street Seaport, a district built around a collection of weathered 18th-century buildings and tucked among Manhattan’s skyscrapers, saw its best days decades ago, but developers hope a few high-profile projects will transform the former working port into a top destination for condo buyers and renters.
Despite fitful moves toward a makeover, including the long-sought relocation of the Fulton Fish Market to the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center in the Bronx, and the creation of a maritime museum and a seaside mall several decades ago, the East River enclave northeast of the Financial District has never quite hit a sustained period of development into a more complete residential and commercial neighborhood.
Several new residential developments are planned for the Seaport, and they are expected to benefit from this year’s final departure of remaining vendors at the Fulton Fish Market, as well as possible changes to the seaport itself and full-blown renovation of the East River waterfront.
A year ago, only about 575 residential units had been added to the 12-block seaport area since the 2000 census, but in the neighboring financial district, about 5,800 units were created or under construction. Sciame Development, currently the seaport’s largest developer, would like to bring Downtown dwellers to the Seaport.
“You see in the financial and insurance districts a real critical mass of residential activity,” said John Evans, vice president of Sciame Development, which is bringing its first large project to market in March. “What we’re hoping is that the seaport becomes the living room for that community. It’s where they find their open space and their sense of scale and sense of place.”
Sciame’s Historic Front Street project will restore 11 buildings and add three new ones, creating 96 rental units. Mostly one- and two-bedroom rental apartments, they will range in size from 600 square feet to 1,400 square feet. Other developers, including Zuberry Associates LLC and the Durst Organization, which are working with Sciame, believe the one-bedroom units may pull in $2,400 to $3,000 a month, while two-bedroom apartments may go for $3,500 to $5,500 a month.
There will be four penthouses, and several of the units have 500 to 700 square feet of outdoor space. The 18th-century warehouse facades have been maintained and strengthened, and the interiors have preserved timber framing, masonry walls and industrial hoists in spaces once used by merchants, sail makers and ship chandlers.
But the buildings also have “green” geothermal heating systems, hardwood floors, stone counters, marble baths and stainless-steel appliances, Evans said.
The project will also add 13,000 square feet of retail space.
“We’re going to have East Village-style eclectic restaurants and neighborhood services,” predicts Rob Frischman, a broker with JDF Realty.
Frischman said he is currently talking with restaurants like Two Boots Pizzeria, Hearth and Petrosino about opening branches, and has also spoken with a veterinarian and a jewelry store. Rents are $60 per square foot for an interior space or $100 per square foot for the two corners at Front Street and Peck Slip.
Sciame is also developing an innovative project designed by prominent architect Santiago Calatrava, an 835-foot-high tower at 80 South Street called “Townhouses in the Sky.”
Calatrava’s design is showpiece architecture, with 10 of the planned 12 stacked cubes designated for residential use and running as much as $35 million for 2,300 square feet of space, each with a 45-foot ceiling. The cubes will be 100 percent raw space that can be designed any way the buyer desires since each cube is structurally independent, Sciame said. If the bold design gets built, it will be the Seaport’s first super-luxury development.
“He’s pushed the limits of engineering today just the way they pushed the limits of engineering when they built the Brooklyn Bridge, which this overlooks,” said Sciame’s principal, Frank Sciame.
The future of another planned residential project remains uncertain. The Milstein family wants to build a 23-story building with 450 rental units at 250 Water Street, the Seaport’s largest vacant lot. Height restrictions in the historic zone bound by the Brooklyn Bridge down to Fulton Street and from South to Pearl streets limit construction to 120 feet. The zoning rules, passed in 2003, represent a 25 percent increase over the tallest building in the seaport, which is 91 feet.
The Milsteins sued to block the rule, but a judge in September ruled in the city’s favor. The Milsteins appealed in December, but face a possible city claim to the lot as a school site, a move that would be done under eminent domain.
Adding to neighborhood uncertainties is a planned overhaul of the East River waterfront so far a nebulous list of fixes that include building a wading pool among the cobblestones of Peck Slip, an esplanade under the FDR Drive and narrow residential towers in the center of the eight-lane highway.
Also uncertain is the direction of the South Street Seaport Mall, a recent acquisition of Chicago’s General Growth Properties, the largest mall owner in the country. Their recent buyout of the mall’s operator since the 1970s, combined with the departure of the fish market, leaves the tourist attraction’s future development open to speculation. The new owners have said nothing of their plans other than that they will “reflect the ambiance of the area,” according to company spokesman David Keating.
City officials remain mum on whether a rumored collaboration with The Related Companies, which proposed bringing the Cirque du Soleil to the seaport, may be dead.
The Real Deal