LaValva’s Seaport Market Vision Coming Into Focus

New Amsterdam Market, last year.

When City Council Speaker Christine Quinn proposed a large scale regional food market at the South Street Seaport in her State of the City Address last month, no one was listening more intently than Robert LaValva.  After five years of hard work pursuing his vision for the Seaport, her announcement was music to his ears.  LaValva, the founder of the highly regarded New Amsterdam Market, had been invited to attend the speech by the Speaker, and was right there in City Hall’s Council Chambers for the occasion.

Robert LaValva, founder of the New Amsterdam Market

Recently, I walked through the South Street Seaport Historic District with LaValva and talked with him about Quinn’s proposal, as well as his plans for the upcoming season of the fledgling Amsterdam Market.  It’s important to note that the idea is, for now, just that – an idea. And, even though Quinn’s office has been consulting LaValva, the Amsterdam Market would not be the de facto operator at the Seaport. The city would almost certainly be required to entertain proposals from multiple organizations in an open bidding process. But there’s no denying LaValva has been a driving force behind the concept — and has plenty to say about the future of one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods.

A written summary of Quinn’s preliminary proposal acknowledges what’s already been accomplished at the Seaport:

As a testament to the area’s suitability for this kind of market, a temporary outdoor market has taken root there.  This event, the New Amsterdam Market, in 2009 occurred on four weekends in the fall.  On each of the four days, approximately 65 vendors from New York City and the surrounding region sold local products from Hudson Valley milk to raw chocolate.  Nearly 7,000 people flocked to the market to meet the vendors, spend time with friends, and try new foods.

The New Amsterdam Market is different from the city’s many conventional green markets, where farmers sell directly to consumers. At the Seaport, a lot of different kinds of regional producers (butchers, bakers, cheesemongers, wineries, etc) are represented.  The market was dedicated to regional, seasonal and sustainable products long before those were hot buzz words. In declaring it the best outdoor market of 2010, New York Magazine said the New Amsterdam Market has become a “highly anticipated phenomenon.” At its heart, the event is about craftsmanship, an appreciation of our natural environment and quality.

As passionate as LaValva might be about what the market represents, he says the importance of where it is taking place cannot be underestimated.  As we sat on a bench overlooking the Brooklyn Bridge, he unraveled old drawings and maps, indicating the presence of the first markets along the East River in 1642. The New Amsterdam Market is staged in the same area as the original South Street markets that thrived for decades before vanishing 100 years ago. LaValva is convinced the concept – so central to the life of the city back then – would not only pay homage to a part of New York’s history that has long been forgotten but also reinvigorate a neighborhood battling to retain its authenticity. Notably, he calls the New Amsterdam Market an “economic development organization.”

Historic preservation is not a new idea in this section of Lower Manhattan. In 1977, the South Street Seaport Historic District was established, protecting 11 blocks just to the west of the Brooklyn Bridge.  In 2003, residents led a successful campaign to limit building heights in the historic district to 120 feet. And in 2006, community organizations and residents came together for a process known as “Seaport Speaks,” a visioning exercise. Their report, which was never acted upon, stressed the importance of retaining the historic character of the district and of ensuring that any future development respects and complements the existing low-rise character of the neighborhood.

Architectural rendering. Proposed Seaport complex.

Two years ago, General Growth Properties, the firm that runs the South Street Seaport, proposed a massive redevelopment plan. It called for building a 42-story residential tower (just outside the historic district), replacing the much maligned Pier 17 shopping mall with a boutique hotel and retail shops, relocating the historic Tin Building and creating a large park and recreational area. The plan, which encountered opposition from residents, preservation groups and the Landmarks Preservation Commission, was shelved after General Growth declared bankruptcy last year.

For much of this time, as the debate about the waterfront raged on, LaValva was quietly creating something impressive on the waterfront — proving the power of an idea in actions rather than words. In some ways, he seems like an unlikely champion of this neighborhood. Raised in New Jersey, LaValva has a Masters in Architecture from the Harvard School of Design and he was once a city planner in the Department of Sanitation. He’s lived in the Village View apartments on the Lower East Side for many years. So while the Seaport District might be a bit far afield for an east side guy, LaValva finds it strangely alluring. He finds himself drawn to its old streets and distinctive buildings in ways he can’t fully explain.

What started as a one-shot “demonstration project” in 2005 has now become one of this food-obsessed city’s signature events. The last couple of years, the market has maintained a monthly summer/fall season at the Seaport.  LaValva counts among his supporters Mario Batali, Alice Waters and Dan Barber, the chef of Blue Hill at Stone Barns. He helped encourage Anne Saxelby to open a regionally-focused cheese shop in the Essex Street Market. She, in turn, has been a fixture at the Seaport market from the beginning.

Dick De Marsico/New York World-Telegram and Sun Newspaper Collection, Library of Congress. 1963 photo of Fulton Fish Market.

The New Amsterdam Market takes place in front of the old Fulton Fish Market buildings, which have been vacant since 2005. The question of what do do with those structures is a major issue for the future. General Growth Properties had proposed moving the 1907 Tin Building, reconstructing it at the end of Pier 17, and demolishing the “New Market Building,” erected in 1939. Not surprisingly, a lot of preservationists, are opposed to this plan. LaValva says they are a unique part of the city’s food heritage.  It would be fitting, he believes, to give the buildings a new lease on life, as grand food halls, in the spirit of those iconic markets of the 19th Century.

LaValva told me it’s not simply about nostalgia. The Seaport is not just a reflection of “old New York,” he says. The neighborhood, and especially those buildings, embodied the city’s culinary culture. LaValva contends that’s not a trivial matter, especially given today’s renewed focus on “food policy” here in New York and nationwide. Mayor Bloomberg, Speaker Quinn and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer have all been promoting greater emphasis on nutrition and improved access to fresh food in the city. More than a century ago, LaValva notes, public markets were one of the main vehicles government used to improve public health. He is convinced a vibrant market at the Seaport could serve a similar purpose today.

LaValva is encouraged by recent developments. At a City Council hearing a couple of weeks ago, Seth Pinsky, head of the NYC Economic Development Corp., said, ““we definitely agree that a regional market is a good use for the South Street Seaport.”  General Growth Properties appears to be emerging from bankruptcy. Shortly after that occurs, Pinsky says,  he expects the project will move forward. The company has always agreed that a market in its new mega-development at the Seaport would make sense. In fact, the past couple of years, they’ve experimented with a small outdoor market of their own on the weekends.

Quinn’s office has indicated the market blueprint would likely become part of a revised plan for Seaport redevelopment. A press event to outline the next steps is planned in the near future.

Meanwhile, LaValva is moving forward with plans for this year’s New Amsterdam Market. One of his big priorities is making it accessible to a wider group of people. In the past, food enthusiasts have flocked from New Jersey, Brooklyn and many other locations. Around 70% of the attendees have come from outside Lower Manhattan. LaValva would love to see more local residents visit the market, especially those people living along the East River waterfront. In recognition of the fact that many of them are low and middle income, the market will be accepting food stamps in the fall.

The 2010 season will begin in June, and return to the Seaport every month during the summer.  And, if the city approves, it will be back on a weekly basis during the fall. As far as those grand plans for the future, LaValva is content to let the political process proceed at its own pace. He’ll continue to do what’s worked so well up until now — growing the market organically month by month and watching a good idea take root along the shore of the East River.