Alexandra Lange | Essays

Fixing South Street Seaport: Is New Architecture Enough?

South side of Pier 17 now (top), and as it would appear under the redesign (via New York Times)

Among the first essays I wrote for DO was a meditation on the festival marketplace, in January 2009. “Rebooting the Festival Marketplace” was inspired by my work with Jane Thompson on Design Research: The Store that Brought Modern Living to American Homes and my new knowledge about her and husband Ben Thompson’s pioneering work with adaptive reuse, waterfronts, and curated retail, long before that was a cliché. It was also inspired by the debate of the previous fall over then-South Street Seaport owner General Growth Properties’ plans for the uplands and Pier 17, designed by SHoP Architects in a medley of contemporary maritime references (hulls, sails, joists). Here’s an Architectural Record story on that plan from 2008.

I argued then that the festival marketplace was not a flawed concept, but that New York didn’t need one. New York acts as its own fair generator. In a later essay, “When Shopping Was Sociable,” I expanded my definition of Ben Thompson’s contributions to retail, and pointed out how and where I see his version of marketplace recurring.

SHoP's 2008 plan for South Street Seaport (courtesy General Growth Properties)

Well, here we go again. Howard Hughes International, the new owner of the Seaport, would like to replace the Ben Thompson Associates-designed Pier 17 building, with its colorful gables and supergraphic legend (inside a dim and dirty, albeit crowded-with-tourists mall) with an elegant SHoP designed glass box, keeping the structure but eliminating the gables, the first floor, and those t-shirt and jewelry boutiques and instead offering two 60,000-square-foot floorplates. In round one, Nordstrom was mentioned, and I imagine that’s still the developers’ dream. In a New York Times CityRoom post last week, longtime real estate reporter David Dunlap asks (sympathetically, I believe): “Does Pier 17 Deserve Another Chance?

Jane Thompson, as you might expect, believes it does. She and the Historic Districts Council argue that there is nothing wrong with the old building that a thorough renovation and programming reconsideration could not fix, and that it is an important architectural artifact of its era (the mid-1980s). I remember it fondly as a nighttime establishing shot in “Friends,” where it appeared gaily lit and as if about to sail away. She wrote,

“From seeing only early images of the proposed replacement for Pier 17, one has the impression that this building is not conceived as a public place,” she said. “Big box is the notorious no-window operation — it is controlled space entirely turned inward behind blank walls. No matter how exciting the view, big boxes will turn their backs on the river. Shouldn’t we ask what justifies this here? Evidently it is an owner’s ability to capture more premium square footage.”

SHoP's design for Pier 17, seen from somewhere on the Brooklyn Bridge (via Capital New York)

Gregg Pasquarelli, one of SHoP’s principals, told the Times that the new plan would offer more public, outdoor space around those big boxes, both at ground level, where the new pier is pierced through the middle with a passage, and up top, where there will be a lawn. He told Dunlap,

“We’re just taking away the po-mo and making it a real waterfront market building,” Mr. Pasquarelli said in an interview on Monday. “It’s more pier-shed-like, more historically correct, than the current design. We believe it has a connection to waterfront morphology.”

He said the time had passed for the “festival marketplace,” as the Thompsons’ projects — Pier 17, Faneuil Hall in Boston, Harborplace in Baltimore, Union Station in Washington — were known.

“Pier 17 was meant to create a city environment in which one doesn’t engage with the city,” Mr. Pasquarelli said. “It was meant to safely harness tourists and visitors through a historic district and funnel them into a three-story, enclosed shopping mall.”

I like SHoP’s work in general, and I thought their General Growth Properties-era plan for the seaport showed an appropriate level of architectural and urban ambition. I don’t think I am blinded by my affection for Ben and Jane Thompson. But if the criterion for demolition in a historic district is a new building of equal significance, I do not think the new Pier 17 rises to that level. It lacks distinction, it lacks typological specificity, and I fail to see how a pair of big-box stores and more waterfront seating will attract more real New Yorkers, or even more tourists, to this site. I also think Pasquarelli is too glibly dismissive of both Pier 17’s flourishes (doesn’t he realize postmodernism is back? And what’s wrong with a little color?) and the Thompsons’ contributions to waterfront activity. They were hardly afraid of the city.

Ben and Jane Thompson on Fulton Street in Manhattan, ca. 1981

As I wrote in 2009, there’s a problem at South Street Seaport, and a problem on Pier 17, but I don’t understand how this project would fix it. It looks contemporary, but that’s about it. It could be a museum, it could be a mall, it could be a welcome center. It could be by any number of architects between the ages of 35 and 55. I think SHoP is smarter than this and I think, before we throw the postmodernism out with the bathwater, we need a real programming plan, one that can include big shops and small shops, cheap food and expensive food, but more importantly something other than retail. There need to be more opportunities to see the Brooklyn Bridge and get out to the water, there need to be more opportunities not to spend money. But that’s a project for a planner, a curator, and some other specialists that the refreshment of glass walls can’t solve.

Inside the new Pier 17 structure (via Capital New York)

As Dunlap reports, at the landmarks hearing,

another commissioner, Frederick A. Bland, wondered if the problem was more fundamental than architectural design. “Do people shop on piers?” Mr. Bland asked. “Is putting a bunch of global generic shops on the pier the answer?”

There are also already empty, SHoP-designed contemporary spaces for retail and food at the seaport. Earlier this spring I took my NYU students on a tour of SHoP’s adjacent East River Waterfront esplanade, led by Pasquarelli and the project architect Cathy Jones. When the student reviews came back, they all loved the get-downs to the water and the hull-like pink plastic underbelly of the new Pier 15, the different types of seating and the view from the pier’s upper bridge. But they all wondered where the people were. Granted, it was an unseasonably warm day in February, and the three new glass pavilions had yet to get their tenants, but it was clear that the chief wanderers were tourists. Pier 15 is really a miniature test case for any redevelopment of Pier 17. Couldn’t we wait a season and see if the restaurants can survive? Will people go upstairs to sunbathe? How long do they pause at a view? (Ben Thompson was in fact a master at getting people to go upstairs to shop.)

Pier 15, by SHoP Architects (via A Weekly Dose)

I could be convinced that Pier 17 should go. But it should go for something special, something smart, and something interesting, that could make the seaport into a neighborhood, a real riverfront neighbor, and a destination for something more than bridesmaid dresses. SHoP could do this, if their client was willing to think harder about the whole. But in the short term, I hope someone enterprising will come up with a plan to reboot BTA’s Pier 17, gables and all.


Posted in: Architecture, Planning, Social Good

Comments [4]

I couldn't agree more, Alexandra. Neither tourists nor New Yorkers need another shopping mall. They have those back home and we have SoHo. We all need easily accessible spaces from which to enjoy the waterfront. It would be an unfortunate missed opportunity to lose this precious vista to the purely retail. Its purpose should be a bit more noble. After all, this IS New York.

I'm thinking of starting DoCoPoMo. We would spend half our time lobbying for the preservations of buildings like this one, and half our time protesting and lbbying against the efforts of DoCoMoMo.

I haven't been down to the SSSP since the late 60s, but I remember it as one of the first places we New Yorkers could go to get a sense of the city as an island and as a port. I know retail is important both to provide cash flow for the project and to lure visitors, but those big glass boxes don't give much of a sense of place. They could be anywhere. Of course, the reality is in the street level details.

I appreciate their arguments in that video for a historic but useful fabric. Although given their paean to keeping the original fish vendors and gritty businesses, and not developing them out it would be interesting to know if any of them are still there?...

Jobs | July 14