Back in Business at New Amsterdam

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:14

Less than a month after shutting down the popular downtown market, its founder plots a comeback

Seemingly rejuvenated by an outpouring of community support, New Amsterdam Market founder Robert LaValva is actively planning the future of the market just three weeks after he abruptly announced its closure.

In an interview with Our Town Downtown, LaValva said his surprise announcement three weeks ago that the market had ended - which board members had no prior knowledge of - came from the growing frustration of running a minimally funded organization that was wrapped up in a years-long land use fight with developer Howard Hughes over their plans to develop the historic Seaport District.

Relinquishing his role as head of the New Amsterdam Market is one component of this new phase of the organization, which started in 2007 offering locally sourced food and goods in front of the New Market Building on South Street. LaValva has stepped down as president of the market but will retain his membership on the board.

Another component is separating the market from the community's effort to fight Howard Hughes' plan, which involves building a luxury residential tower at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge and rehabilitating other areas of the Seaport.

In a major blow to these efforts, which LaValva said contributed to his decision to end the market in mid-July, Howard Hughes was granted approval last year to re-develop Pier 17 into a shopping mall.

"Essentially we mounted a very huge campaign along with a couple of other organizations?to preemptively protect the fish market and the rest of the Seaport," said LaValva.

Two-hundred people packed a city council hearing, which required a change in venue to accommodate the crowd, and 5,000 people signed a petition against the plan, while hundreds wrote emails in support of preserving Pier 17. Famous chefs lent their support in a video, and it wasn't enough.

"There was clearly a very big showing of support citywide, as well as beyond the city, for preserving the old fish market. And instead it was not only not preserved, but it was essentially tied into being a part of a future development," said LaValva, referring to another round of Seaport development that Howard Hughes is trying to pass. "So yes, it seemed to me at that time that there was no point in crying over spilled milk, maybe it's time to move on."

But the Seaport wouldn't let him go. LaValva said when he made the announcement that the market had ended, he "received almost 500 emails. It was shocking to me personally. I knew people liked the market but I didn't know there was that level of appreciation for it."

Support from people inside his circle, like market vendors, as well as from other food organizations and personalities in the city made him realize the value of the New Amsterdam Market and the niche it had carved out for the local food scene in the city.

"I was quite exhausted from these 10 years of battling and dealing with no budgets and so on and so forth, and feeling like I couldn't go on any further," said LaValva. "But seeing that kind of encouragement made me see things in a different light."

But LaValva said the New Amsterdam Market needs to have an identity separate from the struggle against what those in the community see as over-development of the Seaport. Most people, he said, regard the market as synonymous with the fight against Howard Hughes.

"People began to see the market in that light only, and that's what I feel is important to make people begin to distinguish," said LaValva. "And it's not an easy thing to do, people don't necessarily want to figure out the complexities of a situation. I myself had a hard time separating the market from the campaign at the Seaport."

So what would that separation look like?

For one, a possible change in location. LaValva said he had a hard time securing funding for the market because benefactors who might otherwise be inclined to lend their support didn't want their names attached to a contentious real estate battle under the Bloomberg administration.

"I had people literally telling me it's too controversial and they don't want to be seen supporting it," said LaValva, who worried the market's location was a threat to its existence.

Roland Lewis, board chair of the New Amsterdam Market, said they'd like to stay on South Street in front of the New Market Building, but aren't ruling out other possibilities.

"The market can and may live elsewhere other than the Seaport depending on how things work out around the Seaport," said Lewis, who noted the board is glad that LaValva is continuing to lend his expertise on the market. "I've been talking to officials from community boards and elsewhere about other possibilities downtown, but right now we're not changing course."

There are issues other than location to figure out as well, like new programming, financial backing and staffing the market. But the board, and LaValva, are by no means hanging up their spurs when it comes to fighting Howard Hughes.

"That's our first priority right now, to re-staff and re-tool," said Lewis. "That said, [the market] is still a voice for what we hope will be a better version of the re-development and preservation of the historic Seaport district."

LaValva agreed that the market would always be tied to the fight, but said the Seaport's future is dependent on the level of community support it has.

"If people want to do something about the South Street Seaport, they have to begin speaking up, and be very loud about it," said LaValva. "It can't just be me leading this campaign, it can't be one person or one organization. It has to be many, many people and they have to come together."

Howard Hughes is set to unveil a new proposal, possibly in the fall, that takes into account several suggestions from the Seaport Working Group, a coalition of residents and elected officials that acts as the voice of the community when it comes to the Seaport.

"What I myself do as a person I'm not a hundred percent sure yet," said LaValva of the fight against Howard Hughes. "I know that I'm very tied to that fight so people look to me and see me as a proponent of that so I don't think that I can lock the door and walk away and never look back, and I don't intend to."

In the short term, Lewis and the board are hoping to hold a market in the coming months.

"How many markets and when they start again is still an open question," said Lewis. "I'm hoping for the fall, that's our intention."