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RESTORATION

The Seaport Mall

by Shane Skowron

Upon entering the boundaries of the South Street Seaport historical district today, one will find many remnants of a 19th Century seaport: preserved Federal-era architecture, an authentically-restored schooner, and a small print shop still in operation. Despite the attractions that hearken back to the glory days when South Street was a major American seaport in the early 19th century, the largest and most popular destination within the seaport today is a historical anomaly. A full-scale Seaport Mall sits atop Pier 17, replete with gift shops, restaurants, a food court, and retail stores. Visually, the mall dominates the seaport. With its relatively large size in comparison to the Federal-era buildings and its colorful facade, the mall tends to catch the eye more than any other building in the seaport. How, then, did a mall come to be on the Pier?

In 1973, the South Street Seaport Museum had a redevelopment plan created for Schermerhorn Row and the surrounding area. One of the goals of the plan was to turn South Street Seaport into an “open-air museum,” where the public could see Federal architecture and enjoy historically-themed shops and entertainmenti. The Seaport Museum soon hired the Rouse Company to carry out the development. In turn, the Rouse Company employed architects Benjamin Thompson & Associates to create the architectural plan. Both Rouse and Thompson had been involved in the redevelopment of historic Faneuil Hall in Boston a few years earlierii. For the seaport, Thompson recommended a threefold plan: make Fulton Street a pedestrian walkway, build a new Fulton Market, and produce a shopping pavillion on Piers 17 and 18. In total, about 250,000 square feet of space would be allocated for this pavillion complexiii. The complex would be made of glass and steel, although was designed to be historically-compatible with the surrounding buildings. Though the pavillion would be built using modern engineering and architectural techniques, it would not look dissimilar in comparison to the preserved seaport buildings that surrounded it. When the official agreement was signed in 1979 between the Museum, the City of New York, the Rouse Company, and the New York State Urban Development Corporation, it was decided that a new Pier 17 would have to be constructed. The City of New York planned to help with the “festival” feel by allowing pushcarts and vendors to sell their goods in the seaport, even on roads that were closed to trafficiv.

The Seaport Mall – the festival pavillion of South Street Seaport – was opened in September 1985, several years after its inception. It had originally been set to open a year earlier, but the requirement to reconstruct the pier required extensive underwater construction. The mall opened with 120 stores and restaurants divided across three stories. It contained a food court and many national retail stores within a glass-and-steel structure. This new pavillion was similar in design and function to Rouse's previous project in Baltimore, the Harborplacev.

However, immediately after the Mall opened, people began to realize that the end product was not what was originally intended, that is, to provide an open “festival marketplace”vi. With all the space being rented in the mall, there was no area designated as public space. Most of the space was leased to commercial vendors, meaning that businesses had control over what the public could do in their space. This often meant that members of the public had to be patrons of a certain establishment in order to use the space, unlike in a public park where the space is available to everyone. Even the City Planning Comission's vice-chair Martin Gallent conceded, “it did not come out exactly the way we wanted it.” Other city officials reflected similar sentiments. Despite these concerns, there is evidence to suggest that the city was partly responsible for the failure to provide for public space. The city did not protest the lack of inclusion of public space in the design, and in fact even contributed to completion of the design. After many complaints, the Rouse Company did add several public areas overlooking the waterfront, though the footprint of the three-story building atop the pier remained unchangedvii.

Today, the mall continues to thrive, serving as South Street's prime shopping and eating destination. However James DeFillippis, professor at Rutgers University, points out that the mall is not a place that everyone can enjoy equally, perhaps one of the consequences of its lack of public space. In 1996, 60% of patrons were tourists, 25% were employees of the nearby Wall Street financial center, and only 15% were other New York City residentsviii.

After the mall opened in 1985, South Street created a police force, ostensibly to control the drunken noise of the nightlife. However the police force was also designed to prevent the nearby homeless from entering the festival marketplace. The mall itself was also conventionally-designed, with a food court and retail stores like those found in suburban society. Thus James DeFillippis, professor of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, suggests that the mall caters mostly to a middle-class populationix. John Metzger, professor of Urban and Regional Planning at Michigan State University, also shares a similar view, bluntly stating that the festival marketplace has failed because it did not provide for the public space as the Seaport Museum had originally intended. Additionally the idea of festival marketplaces which had become common across American cities led by the Rouse Company in the 1980s eventually proved economically unsuccessfulx.

In early 2007, however, General Growth Properties had announced that it was considering destroying Pier 17 to create a residential tower and increase public space. GGP had acquired the Rouse Company in 2004 and thus became responsible for its development. According to the initial proposal, General Growth Properties would raze the mall over Pier 17, build a 50-story building with mixed-use zoning. The building would have to be tall and thin so that it would make a smaller footprint, so that more space would be available to playgrounds, schools, parks, and other public areas. On a meeting between GGP and local residents on February 27, 2007, local residents expressed mixed reactions over the initial proposal. GGP has yet to announce publicly any concrete plans for the redevelopment of Pier 17xi.

Bibliography

AM New York, “South Street Seaport's Pier 17 Likely to be Demolished,” PlanNYC, February 27, 2007; http://www.plannyc.org/project
-119-South-Street-Seaport-Redevelopment (accessed 9 December 2007).

Barnett, Jonathan, The South Street Seaport Development Plan. (New York: South Street Seaport Museum, 1974), 1-40.

Defilippis, James, “From A Public Re-Creation To Private Recreation: The Transformation of Public Space in South Street Seaport”. Journal of Urban Affairs 19 (1997): 406-410.

Metzger, John, “The Failed Promise of a Festival Marketplace: South Street Seaport in Lower Manhattan.” Planning Perspectives 16 (2001): 25-46.

Endnotes:

i Defilippis, James, “From A Public Re-Creation To Private Recreation: The Transformation of Public Space in South Street Seaport”. Journal of Urban Affairs 19 (1997): 407.

iiMetzger, John, “The Failed Promise of a Festival Marketplace: South Street Seaport in Lower Manhattan.” Planning Perspectives 16 (2001): 32.

iiiMetzger, John, “The Failed Promise of a Festival Marketplace: South Street Seaport in Lower Manhattan.” Planning Perspectives 16 (2001): 34.

ivIbid.

v Defilippis, James, “From A Public Re-Creation To Private Recreation: The Transformation of Public Space in South Street Seaport”. Journal of Urban Affairs 19 (1997): 410.

viIbid.

viiIbid.

viii Defilippis, James, “From A Public Re-Creation To Private Recreation: The Transformation of Public Space in South Street Seaport”. Journal of Urban Affairs 19 (1997): 411.

ixIbid.

xMetzger, John, “The Failed Promise of a Festival Marketplace: South Street Seaport in Lower Manhattan.” Planning Perspectives 16 (2001): 42.

xiAM New York, “South Street Seaport's Pier 17 Likely to be Demolished,” PlanNYC, February 27, 2007; http://www.plannyc.org/project
-119-South-Street-Seaport-Redevelopment (accessed 9 December 2007).

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