Op/Ed: LaValva’s Perspective on the Seaport Market Deal

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

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

Editor’s note: The following opinion piece was submitted by Robert LaValva, president and founder of the New Amsterdam Market:

The Lo-Down’s two recent articles regarding the New Amsterdam Market and the Fulton Fish Market contain a number of incorrect statements by Council Member Margaret Chin’s spokesperson Kelly Magee.

In the March 13 article (“Future of New Amsterdam Market is Cloudy“), Ms. Magee stated that the current land use process for the Seaport Mall is not the appropriate place to press the issue, referring to our proposal to preserve the Fulton Fish Market Tin Building and New Market Building as public markets. In fact, as I stated at the Council’s hearing on March 14, and subsequently at meetings with staff members for Council Member Chin and Speaker Quinn, the Pier 17 ULURP process was the moment to advocate the preservation and future use of these historic public spaces for several reasons. 

First, the Letter of Intent signed by Howard Hughes and EDC in December 2011 lists two redevelopment projects: 1) the renovation of Pier 17; and 2) a Mixed Use Project, the site of which includes the historic Fulton Fish Market buildings. The requested rezoning approved by the Council on March 20 spans the entire East River waterfront between Maiden Lane and the Brooklyn Bridge, and includes both of the above-listed development sites. Yet the public was presented plans for only one of these sites (the Pier 17 renovation); the public has never been informed about the plans for the Fish Market, which lies within the rezoned area. Thus, the ULURP that the Council just voted to approve changes the zoning for the site of the Mixed Use Project in advance, before the public has even a clue about what those plans are (and might have objected to the rezoning if they knew). Because a central purpose of the ULURP is to let the public review and approve any changes to zoning especially as they relate to city property, it was without question appropriate to discuss the Fish Market site during the Council’s only hearing on the Pier 17 ULURP.

Second, as I stated repeatedly in testimony to Community Board 1, the Manhattan Borough President, and the New York City Planning Commission, the Pier 17 renovation proposal includes a number of encroachments onto the Fish Market site, including the loss without replacement of the Fulton Fish Market’s “Working Pier” (site of the current Beekman Beer Garden), thereby permanently severing the historic relationship of the Fish Market to the water; and also the installation of a taxi lay-by lane in front of the Tin Building, which quite possibly limits the building’s usefulness as a market but more importantly connects the approval of the Pier 17 renovation to use of a property outside of the Pier 17 project premises. For these and other reasons, approval of this ULURP seems to me to be inescapably improper, because the Council has approved land-use changes that directly affect the Mixed Use Project without any public review or debate about that (still mysterious) project. This sets a dangerous precedent whereby zoning changes are being approved for public sites without the public knowing what is being planned for those sites.

Ms. Magee also stated that because the Tin Building is part of a long-term lease held by the Howard Hughes Corp., the City was in no position to simply transfer it to some other entity.  But that misses the point. Yes, the Tin Building is mentioned in the 1981 Marketplace Lease, but that lease would not have precluded the City from continuing to use the Tin Building as a public market. In fact, the way the Marketplace Lease was worded from 1981 until now, Howard Hughes would have had an option to lease the Tin Building only if the City began using it for anything other than for food-market-related purposes. So it was perfectly reasonable for New Amsterdam Market to advocate that the Tin Building be rehabilitated for public market use, with the City of New York as its landlord.

Unfortunately, even though we repeatedly warned the Council to prevent this, the recent ULURP approval will now cause the Marketplace Lease to be amended such that the City of New York can lease the Tin Building only for office uses (and not as a public market or for other food uses) without approval by Howard Hughes. This means that if our next Mayor recognizes the iconic value of the Fulton Fish Market Tin Building, which is owned by the People of New York, to serve as a public market that is a platform for urban food policy, the City itself will not be able to create such a market without gaining approval from the Howard Hughes Corporation. Only a fundamentally flawed land- use-review process could give away such valuable property rights; indeed, the ULURP application never mentioned much less sought approval of this amendment of the Market Place lease that directly affects the City’s rights regarding its own property.

The March 20 agreement between the Council and Howard Hughes now requires Howard Hughes to include 10,000 square feet as a market, but this will happen only if the Mixed Use Project — described (though concealed from the public) in the Letter of Intent Howard Hughes has signed with the EDC — actually gets built. There are two critically important facts here: (i) if the Mixed Use Project never happens, the City itself will be unable to use the Tin Building (which it owns!) as a public food market without gaining approval from Howard Hughes; and (ii) if the mysterious Mixed Use Project is approved then any market operated in the Tin Building will be pursuant to a lease with Howard Hughes, and not the City. What we — and many — think New York City needs is a true public market in the Tin Building and the adjacent and equally iconic New Market Building. But the Council has determined to entrust this task to a suburban shopping mall developer, a private, profit- maximizing entity that only the naïve think will have the historical integrity and cultural vibrancy of a public market in the old Fulton Fish Market. The shopping mall developer will probably want hotels, condos, more shopping, and more parking. The City deserved a truly open, deliberative, comprehensive and fair land use review. It did not get one here.

Finally, in the March 21 article (“New Amsterdam Market Mulls Future; This Summer’s Location Uncertain“), Ms. Magee notes that New Amsterdam Market did not provide the Council with development or financial plans for the Tin Building. I will note that it was never our intention to do so at this stage. As we have stated repeatedly — and as corroborated by the 200 New Yorkers who attended the March 14 hearing and 100 constituents who wrote supportive emails to the Council — the Fulton Fish Market Tin Building and New Market Building are iconic, publicly owned assets of tremendous intrinsic value to Lower Manhattan and all of New York City. Our central goal is to preserve these buildings intact and in place, in the same way that other such uniquely historically important assets deserve protection. We also asked for a community-led planning effort to determine how these and other public assets should be used, and investigate how their renovation could be funded. Council Member Chin has always understood this need and in fact proposed to me in person at a meeting last month that she would seek $25 million in Council capital funds to initiate repair of both buildings in the coming fiscal year. Council Member Chin may well have found good reason to not seek this allocation; but it is incorrect and unfair for Ms. Magee to imply we had not given this matter serious consideration.

To read Kelly Magee’s response to this op/ed, click here.