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City’s Historic Public Market Buildings: An Endangered Species

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The 1939, "New Market Building," at the South Street Seaport.

In Friday’s story looking at how the Essex Street Market might be impacted by the Seward Park redevelopment plan, we mentioned another controversial proposal — the rebuilding of the South Street Seaport. In 2008, General Growth Properties outlined plans to build a huge retail and housing complex and to demolish the historic “New Market Building,”home of the Fulton Fish Market until 2005. The plan was shelved after the real estate market and the company collapsed later that same year.

The city was supportive of General Growth’s proposal back then, and now, in the case of SPURA, they seem prepared to support demolishing the Essex Street Market. It’s interesting to note, these buildings share a common history. For one thing, they were designed by the same architects, Albert W. Lewis and John D. Churchill.  They were constructed in the same time period, 1939-1940. Both facilities were part of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s campaign to modernize New York City’s public markets.

What we did not mention the other day, however, is the much more recent history surrounding another city-owned facility, the Moore Street Market in East Williamsburg. 

The observant commenters on local message board SPCOMM have been talking about the following New York Times piece, published three years ago. It begins:

Inside the red brick shoe box that is the Moore Street Retail Market lies a tiny patch of Latin America. The stalls of this Brooklyn public market on the edge of Williamsburg explode with Caribbean colors and sounds, as local shoppers buy everything from yams and peppers to maracas and mystic potions. What they can’t buy is time. After winning a one-year reprieve from their landlord — the City of New York — the market’s 13 merchants may find themselves forced out by June if the city moves forward with a plan to demolish the building and replace it with housing. Although the merchants have been offered buyouts and the option of relocating their shops to a strip of storefronts in a public housing development, they want to stay put. The city’s Economic Development Corporation, which oversees the market, said low rents and high overhead have resulted in a deficit of more than $1 million over the last four years.

Sound familiar?

The merchants fought back, gathered 25,000 petition signatures and won the support of powerful local politicians, including Rep. Nydia Velazquez (who also represents the LES). A few months later, the EDC signed a five year lease with the Brooklyn Economic Development Corp., which now operates the market.

There are major differences between the two markets, of course.  As we noted in our earlier story, the EDC seems committed to the Essex Street Market, whether SPURA is redeveloped or not.  Last week, we asked EDC spokesperson Julie Wood what she thought of the argument that the market buildings should be retained due to their historical significance. She acknowledged there’s frequently tension between historic preservation and new development. But she did not elaborate.

One foot note: In early 2009 the Municipal Art Society reported a victory in protecting the New Market Building at the Seaport:

…we received word that, at our behest, the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) has agreed to list the New Market Building as a contributing element within the State and National Register Historic District. Upon reviewing research we submitted, the SHPO concurred that the La Guardia-era New Market Building is a significant resource within the South Street Seaport and will now be afforded the same landmark protection as the rest of the district.

Last year, General Growth Properties spun off many of its holdings (including the much-maligned Seaport mall) into a new company, the Howard Hughes Corp.  The new firm is apparently dusting off and revising its redevelopment plan for the new Seaport.

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