Unseen City: The Myth of Public Engagement

By Genevieve Belmaker, Epoch Times


Some might even say that the legions of high-rise towers that dominate New York City’s glittering waterfront skyline are the inevitable result of progress. Yet there are questions over the future of one tower. It doesn’t exist yet; only in the largely secret plans of the developers, the Howard Hughes Corporation (HHC). 

HHC wants to build its high-rise behemoth in the heart of Manhattan’s last bastion of low-rise historic waterfront buildings, South Street Seaport. Therein lies the problem—for HHC and the public. The corporation holds the lease on a number of buildings in the area and is intent on what it calls the “revitalization” of the seaport. 

As landlords, they have faced huge questions over their intentions. Key details of plans obtained by the community through a Freedom of Information Law request were initially redacted. Behind significant portions of blacked-out text was legal jargon describing a multiuse high-rise tower and a food market. Yet the developer revealed the plans to the public piecemeal. 

It wasn’t the last time. 

In 2013, as rumors based on those documents and other choice pieces of gossip swirled among community members, the plans were given on a platter to a sole media outlet. An artist rendering of the proposed tower was published in the New York Times on the same day as a scheduled public meeting on the seaport. 

It wouldn’t be the last act of political theater. 

With the backing and tacit support of City Council member Margaret Chin and other elected officials, earlier this year the HHC joined the Seaport Working Group, which was established to address community concerns over the proposed development. The group, which met many times over the course of 11 weeks and will soon present a final assessment, is comprised of numerous individuals and organizations. 

However, what is most telling is who wasn’t included. 

The Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, an umbrella organization of over 700 member waterfront- and maritime-vested groups throughout New York City, was not invited to join. 

Representatives from Chin’s office told Epoch Times that they wanted to include stakeholders relevant to the seaport. They said the MWA wasn’t relevant because they are a “citywide organization.” But founding members and participants in the working group represent myriad interests far beyond the seaport. They include a congressman, a state senator, the Manhattan Borough president’s office, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce. 

The MWA’s executive director, Roland Lewis, told Epoch Times, “They would have loved to have been invited to participate.”

Another notably absent entity is the New Amsterdam Market. The market runs an outdoor farmers market-style venture in the South Street Seaport and its supporters are fierce advocates for historic preservation. In fact, the market is held on the very location HHC wants to build its high-rise tower. The market, set against the backdrop of the old Fulton Fish Market building, is more than a market, though. Under the guidance of the man who runs it, Robert LaValva, it has become a de facto advocacy group for the preservation of the seaport’s unique character. LaValva’s status as a passionate, yet measured and rational, leader and advocate on the issue is so widely recognized that his presence at community meetings draws crowds of supporters. 

Representatives from Chin’s office explained to the Epoch Times that the New Amsterdam Market and LaValva were not invited to take part in the working group because of a “conflict of interest.”

What seems more likely is a good old-fashioned case of bad blood. LaValva has gone toe-to-toe in public forums over the development with HHC’s Chris Curry. On more than one occasion, he has refused cow and demanded the simple truth from HHC and the city. 

He has done no less privately.

A series of emails from 2012 between LaValva and Curry obtained by the Epoch Times show that Curry repeatedly offered LaValva space as one of the developer’s tenants. The offer was to be part of a planned deluxe food market at the site of a landmarked structure called the Tin Building, right next door to the old Fulton Fish Market. 

“Our intention is to preserve and revitalize the site of the old Fulton Fish Market, which as you know includes the Tin Building and the New Market Building,” wrote LaValva in an email to Curry in April 2012, definitively refusing the offer. He has kept good on his promise. 

With or without LaValva, on June 2 the working group detailed the myriad issues they tackled and asked about 120 community members for input on post-it notes. According to Chin’s office, 530 comments were collected that night. Then there were 122 more comments gathered from three days of public comment online. A summary of the responses and a final document are forthcoming.

Sadly, it is all beginning to seem like an enormous ruse to fool people into thinking they’ve had a say in the seaport’s future. 

The truth is, HHC submitted the most recent version of its development plans to the city’s EDC on Feb. 28. A Freedom of Information Law request for the plans from Epoch Times, submitted on March 1, has elicited only vague responses that the plans will be available at a future date. 

In the end, every development—even this one—will have to go through the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). Unfortunately, the enormous efforts the community has already put in might make it hard to put up much of a fight when the plans go to City Hall.

CORRECTION: In a previous version of this article Epoch Times inadvertently implied that City Council member Margaret Chin’s office lied in stating that the New Amsterdam Market and Robert LaValva were not invited to take part in the Seaport Working Group because of a “conflict of interest.” The opinion article was also mistakenly published in NY News. Epoch Times regrets the error.