More than two decades after it was first proposed, the construction of a controversial skyscraper at 250 Water Street in the South Street Seaport district may finally be approved.
The City Council met again December 15th to vote on the proposal to begin construction in what is currently a nearly 50,000-square-foot lot. The vote passed with a majority vote of 45-3 at the last City Council meeting of the year, as council members voted for continued progress towards a residential tower at 250 Water Street.
The property’s location in the historic South Street Seaport district means tight regulations complicate any new development. However, Texas-based developer Howard Hughes Corporation purchased the lot in 2018 for close to $180 million, announcing plans to construct a tower well over the height limits for the district.
“[The vote] passing was a forgone conclusion,” says Megan Malvern of Children First, a community group in opposition to the tower. “Disappointed, but not surprised.”
Several community groups have shared their concerns about the proposed building.
“There was little discussion on the floor of the stated meeting,” says Michael Kramer of the Seaport Coalition. They and other concerned parties voice objections to the idea of a skyscraper in that location, citing health hazards to children as well as zoning violations.
According to Children First, the lot in question was formerly the site of several 19th-century thermometer factories. They state that a 2015 soil sample test demonstrated the presence of mercury, lead and other toxins in the ground.
“Despite the presence of elemental mercury and other hazardous materials, the lot is currently safe and poses no health risk as long as the contaminants are left undisturbed underground,” says the home page of the Children First website. The issue at hand, of course, is that construction on the property would dredge up the soil and any chemicals it may contain.
“If these hazardous toxins are released into the air,” it continues, “our children and our community would continue to be severely negatively impacted even after construction is completed.”
“HHC entered into the Brownfield [program] in a very surreptitious manner. Since then, HHC have publicly tried to embarrass the community leaders who have genuine concerns and unanswered questions,” says Malvern. (The proposed building at 250 Water Street is in the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) Brownfield Cleanup Program.)
Malvern said she asked at a 2019 meeting if an environmental firm had tested for elemental mercury since it was a former thermometer factory location, and she claimed they said it was such a small amount of total mercury that it didn’t matter.
Another concern is that the building proposed by HHC would far exceed the current height limits in the Historic Seaport District.
“We have no problem with someone building something that respects the rules,” says Kramer. However, the proposed building will stand at above 300 feet, nearly three times the Historic Seaport District’s height limit of 120 feet for new construction.
But the Howard Hughes Corporation and proponents of the project claim it would represent investment in the local economy and rid the neighborhood of an unsightly lot which has long been vacant.
“At a time when New York City is under so much stress from the pandemic and the economic downturn, this project is an exciting vote of confidence in the future,” reads a quote in an HHC press release dated October 22, 2020, attributed to Community Board 1 member Catherine McVay Hughes.
A spokesperson for the Howard Hughes Corporation said that the concerns mentioned related to mercury and other toxins do not pose a health risk, stating that “Construction would disturb hazardous substances below grade, and this can be done in a safe and protective manner that will not cause any health risk to the community – just as it’s done every day on construction sites all over the city.”
“There is simply no factual basis for [the] assertion [that toxins will be released by construction work] nor that the State departments of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and Health (DOH) would allow a remediation that would create such an effect. We will continue to work closely with the community and are pleased that DEC and DOH have approved our proposed Remedial Action Work Plan, noting that ‘the remedy is protective of public health and the environment.’ We look forward to implementing that plan under State oversight and in close coordination with the community’s environmental consultant.”
In response to allegations that HHC left some community members’ questions unanswered, the spokesperson said that HHC has participated in many public meetings and has “not objected to numerous requests by community members for more time for public comment.”
Despite the affirmative council vote on December 15th, some of those against the tower’s construction are not giving up.
“Nothing is done until the building has all the approvals and has cleared any legal hurdles,” clarifies Malvern.
“We know of at least two [council members] and maybe as many as five in opposition,” agrees Kramer. “We remain vigorously opposed to any development at that site which exceeds the 120-foot height limit.”
This story has been updated to add comments from a spokesperson from the Howard Hughes Corporation, and a correction about the Brownfield program, which is a New York State and not a federal-level EPA Brownfield.
“Nothing is done until the building has all the approvals and has cleared any legal hurdles.” Megan Malvern of Children First