Future of New Amsterdam Market is Cloudy

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

If you’re a fan of the New Amsterdam Market, here’s something you’ll want to be following in the next few days and weeks.  Events now unfolding in city government may very well help determine whether the popular event stays or goes at the Seaport — and whether the dream of a vastly expanded food market in the former Fulton Fish Market buildings can be realized.

As you may know, the Howard Hughes Corp. is redeveloping the widely maligned South Street Seaport Mall.  Tomorrow morning, a City Council committee will weigh whether to approve the land use application, including neighborhood zoning changes, that would clear the way for the project to begin.  The proposal does not include the fish market buildings, two structures that have languished since 2005, but due to a related agreement with the city, Hughes has the right to come back with a plan for those properties (the company has a June deadline to make a pitch).

Robert LaValva, founder of the New Amsterdam Market, and the Save Our Seaport Coalition are arguing that Hughes should not have the inside track for the historic market buildings but that the sites, as well as many other publicly owned buildings in the Seaport District, should be the subject of a transparent community visioning process.  Now is the time, they say, to press the issue with the New York City Economic Development Corp., which controls the Seaport.

The Sunday-only New Amsterdam Market has been encamped outside the fish market buildings for the past eight summers, but the goal has always been to reactivate the vacant facility, creating a full-time food production and distribution center on the site.  In a conversation last night, LaValva said he does not expect the EDC to simply hand over the keys to the 1939 New Market Building and the 1907 Tin Building.  But before investing in another season at the Seaport, LaValva asserted, the New Amsterdam Market needs to know that there’s a commitment to preserving, rather than demolishing, the buildings.  If there’s no glimmer of hope, he suggested, it may be time to come up with a new vision at some other location.

LaValva said it only makes sense to involve the local community in a plan for the Seaport.  He drew comparisons to the Seward Park Project, a mixed-use development that is finally coming to fruition after 45 years thanks to a three-year community planning process.  He and the Save Our Seaport Coalition launched an online petition and recruited some of the city’s most well known chefs to star in an online video.  Today New York Times columnist Mark Bittman joined the campaign, arguing that, “the fish market site… would make an ideal permanent New Amsterdam market, something that could become our city’s version of the Borough Market, Pike Place, Reading or even Barcelona’s incredible La Boqueria.”

Christine Quinn, Margaret Chin, Robert LaValva at the New Amsterdam Market in 2010.
Christine Quinn, Margaret Chin, Robert LaValva at the New Amsterdam Market in 2010.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn is already on the record in support of the idea. In an appearance with City Council member Margaret Chin at the Seaport in 2010 she said,  “We love this market, right? But when it’s cold, we can’t be at this market, which is why we have to turn that building (interrupted by applause)… We don’t like that Seattle has Pike Place and we have nothing. We’re going to make that (gesturing to the abandoned 1939 building) our indoor, 12… month, 365 day a year market.”

Yesterday, Chin’s communications director, Kelly Magee, said both Quinn and Chin remain supportive of the New Amsterdam Market’s eventual expansion in at least one of the fish market buildings.  But she said the current land use process for the Seaport Mall is not the appropriate place to press the issue. If the Howard Hughes Corp. decides to make a proposal for the old buildings, Magee noted, there would be a separate (ULURP) land use process, including public hearings and an opportunity for the Council to approve or reject the plan and also to seek modifications.

In a separate interview, a spokesperson for the Economic Development Corp. made the same point, saying there’s no linkage between the mall project and the future redevelopment of the Fulton Market site.  Several years ago, a much more ambitious Seaport proposal called for demolishing the New Market Building and moving the Tin Building to the end of Pier 17, as well as building a 40 story residential tower.  Howard Hughes has given no indication what it hopes to do with the old buildings, although the firm is planning to create a food market in what’s known as the “Link Building” on Pier 17.  So it seems unlikely that it would have interest in establishing a second market in the fish market structures.  The EDC spokesperson said the Tin Building was always part of a long-term lease Howard Hughes acquired from another firm, General Growth Properties.  The status of the New Market Building is somewhat murkier. But Hughes signed a letter of intent for both buildings.  If it chooses not to pursue redevelopment by a June deadline, the spokesperson said, the city would “evaluate how to proceed.”   What about LaValva’s contention that a community visioning process should guide the redevelopment of the market buildings?  The analogy between the Seaport and Seward Park doesn’t hold up, he argued, because unlike Seward Park, a private entity already holds a long-term lease.  On the Lower East Side, no private firm had development rights on the long-dormant parcels near the Williamsburg Bridge.

Howard Hughes did offer LaValva space in the new mall for the New Amsterdam Market.  He declined, holding on to the dream of one day restoring the fish market buildings.  The problem now, LaValva said, is that there’s no guarantee of a future at the Seaport.  The market has grown tremendously in recent years, but he said it’s just about reached its full potential in the makeshift site alongside the Fulton Market buildings.  “I have never considered any other location. But we don’t want to start another season, investing in a place if we don’t know that investment” could eventually pay off, resulting in a permanent home at the historic Seaport.