A vital link to the city's past is in danger of slipping away.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation last week included Lower Manhattan's South Street Seaport district on its annual list of America's 11 Most Endangered Places.
The trust correctly worries that a 43-story residential highrise proposed by the Dallas-based Howard Hughes Corp. would wreck the Seaport's unique relationship to the waterfront and compromise one of Manhattan's last intact 19th-century neighborhoods.
Hughes reasonably argues that without the luxury condo tower, it might not be able to pay for the $300 million in community improvements it has promised. The list of amenities includes a new public school, a rescue for the financially troubled Seaport Museum and some affordable housing. Hughes says it's working on a redesign to make the tower less intrusive.
But here's the problem.
Since the late 1950s, when more than half of Lower Manhattan's building stock dated to the mid-19th century or before, City Hall has relied on developers for preservation of New York's original waterfront district. The builders were tremendous at raising triumphant office towers on massive superblocks, and their works kept Wall Street competitive as one of the world's best-known business addresses,
But they failed to incorporate the city's irreplaceable oldtown into the new neighborhood they were creating. So between 1960 and 1972, the old seafaring district was decimated. In its place came more than 50 million square feet of new commercial space.
And today the South Street Seaport Historic District totals a mere 11 blocks.
Most newspaper accounts from the 1950s and '60s waxed nostalgic as wharves and bars and shops along the old waterfront disappeared. They lamented the loss of a neighborhood where bankers, stockbrokers and millionaires democratically rubbed shoulders with sailors, longshoremen and fishmongers.
Yet New Yorkers ultimately seemed to accept the Hobson's choice; too bad about the old neighborhood but hooray for the new one.
One of the few who didn't was New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable. In 1970 she gave developers credit for securing Lower Manhattan's standing as New York's "solid banking and financial heart." That's no small thing. The work of these builders set a "standard of urban distinction" that will make New York "the world's prime stone and steel city," Huxtable allowed.
And for the next couple of decades, their work kept Lower Manhattan in the game as the financial services industry edged toward Midtown and beyond.
But Huxtable refused to let developers off the hook for their aesthetic crimes.
"An expatriate New Yorker with Lower Manhattan memories of small buildings redolent of coffee and spices and the graces of the Greek Revival would be lost (in the new downtown)," she said. "The handsome five-story, red-brick rows that survived the eighteen-thirties and forties virtually intact along the East River are almost all gone. So are slips and streets with historic names ... What has been lost is New York's past, and that part of the story casts no glory on the city or its developers. It is full of sordid insensitivities."
Which brings us back to Hughes.
The tower that it may or may not build would go smack in between what's left of the graceful low-rise Greek Revival neighborhood Huxtable remembered and the waterfront that was its lifeblood. Then there's talk that Hughes wants to put affordable housing in some of the historic buildings on Schermerhorn Row, the city's first global marketplace.
And the company meanwhile is spending $425 million to replace the old Pier 17 tourist mall with a new glass-enclosed structure meant to lure neighborhood residents as well as tourists.
We'll see how that works. Nobody's arguing with Hughes' right to rebuild Pier 17. But at some point the city must find a new, less conflicted, sponsor for saving the district.
Preservation isn't what developers do best.
This is our last chance to save the old East River seafront. Its remnants are down to almost nothing. City Hall shouldn't bargain away the last few blocks of the city's heritage for a fistful of amenities.