Saturday, June 28, 2008

Future Prospects at South Street

General Growth Management, which became the owner of the retail spaces at South Street Seaport when it bought the Rouse Corporation in 2004, has a new plan for rejuvenating the Seaport with a high-rise building, stores, and other amenities. Like Rouse before it, General Growth uses the rhetoric of community and history to sell its flawed vision. The new plan, we're told by the company's Web site, will reconnect the neighborhood with the city. But on whose terms? And for what purpose?

Decades ago, a major selling point of Rouse's "festival marketplace" at South Street was that it would create a secure financial base for the South Street Seaport Museum. Instead, the presence of the marketplace overwhelmed the museum. Then the museum shrunk to a fraction of its old self. And now the festival marketplace is revealed as a failed mall.

Already, the new plan has been criticized as a private enclave that throws a few crumbs of access to the public. That objection is a good starting point. But we need an even stronger vision of the neighborhood and of the South Street Seaport Museum, which has emerged as something of a weak orphan in discussions of the Seaport so far.

I've worked at the Museum as a consultant, and it angers and saddens me that the biggest attraction down there is the "Bodies" exhibit, which has nothing to do with the city or the seaport and its history. For all of New York's history as a port, it deserves better.

As New Yorkers contemplate the future of South Street, they should remember that the neighborhood was deemed worth saving as the home of a museum and a historic district--not as a site for a mall or 42-story apartment and hotel tower.

Any plan for South Street should keep public access, history, and the Museum in the foreground.

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