The word environment encompasses more than the trees and air that surround us – it also means our cultural heritage and achievements that should garner as much respect as the fight for clean air and water. New York is a unique place that has a history all its own. South Street Seaport is no exception and the environment created on that plot of land should be protected as a part of our collective identity.
Robert LaValva’s epiphany came early one February morning in 2005, as he watched London’s Borough Market come alive.
“The Market was not just a place of business but a calling,” he said over coffee recently in Lower Manhattan. “It felt of tradition, the haggling over produce, the sellers of eggs who had been selling for generations, the 88 butchers.”
Suddenly, Mr. LaValva understood where his entire life had been leading him: to open a public food market.
Back home. In New York City.
But where? And how?
The answers to those questions led Mr. LaValva, now 49, to where he is today: engaged in a contentious public battle with the Howard Hughes Corporation, a major developer, over the fate of the buildings that once housed the Fulton Fish Market. The company leases the South Street Seaport from the city and wants to redevelop the area, including the landmarked Tin Building and the adjoining New Market, neither of which it currently leases, and which sit just north of Pier 17, to the east of South Street. Under its plan, the New Market would be razed and the Tin Building would be moved 30 feet northeast, so that a 50-story hotel-residential complex could be built.
Mr. LaValva wants instead to repurpose both the Tin and New Market buildings as the city’s premiere public market, in keeping with a mercantile history dating to the 1600s. A shy, private man, he has nevertheless rallied significant community and citywide support in his fight against Hughes. “Through its redevelopment, Hughes would obliterate the Fulton Fish Market, compromising the integrity of this historic district,” said Mr. LaValva, who founded the New Amsterdam Market Association to push forward his own plan.
“We are an advocacy group, promoting a public market on city-owned land,” Mr. LaValva said. “We model ourselves on the visionaries behind the High Line, constructed mostly with public funding. The High Line does not make a penny. But its impact is enormous, bringing shoppers and diners to West Chelsea, and generating tax revenues. We say that the repurposed Fulton Fish Market, like the High Line, will bring people to this part of the city.”
A graduate of New York University and the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Mr. LaValva spent much of his life seeking his purpose. This included 10 years promoting recycling at the Department of Sanitation, where his former boss, Thomas Outerbridge, gave Mr. LaValva high marks for “persistence and patience to develop a vision, engaging a broad spectrum of people behind his ideas.” He followed up with two years at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, helping design subway stations to improve pedestrian flow.
Neither position, however, soothed Mr. LaValva’s soul. And so in 2005 he found his way to a London cheese shop — Neal’s Yard Dairy — to learn the business, hoping to open his own place, a plan that morphed again after his vision outside the Borough Market.
Upon his return to New York, Mr. LaValva had an idea, but not a location.
Then, in November 2005, the Fulton Fish Market relocated to the Bronx from Manhattan, abandoning both the Tin Building, which was built in 1907, and the New Market Building, inaugurated by Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia in 1939. With no one else looking to occupy the buildings, Mr. LaValva charged in, organizing fishmongers and produce and cheese vendors to create, on however small a scale, New York’s answer to the Borough Market.
True, New York had other indoor public markets, including the Essex Street Market, the Moore Street Market in Brooklyn and the Hunts Point and Fulton Fish Markets in the Bronx. None, however, combines large size with a central location. Nor do those markets focus on local agriculture and small businesses. “Other markets include industrially produced meats from feed lots in Texas,” Mr. LaValva said. “Our mission is to promote small producers in New York State.”
And while city greenmarkets serve some of the same purpose, they are limited to farmers and producers who sell their own products. “Our market is one of small businesses who can be farmers or butchers, cheesemongers or fishmongers or green grocers,” Mr. LaValva said.
To put his vision into effect, however, Mr. LaValva still had to cut a deal with the Economic Development Corporation, which controlled the buildings and which, because of liability issues, refused to greenlight his proposed market.
But his dozen years inside the city’s bureaucracy had taught Mr. LaValva how to negotiate. Instead of insisting on a spot inside, he proposed to rent space under the steel awnings in front of the buildings. The development corporation said yes.
Mr. LaValva’s market opened in December 2007, its attractions including the chef Mario Batali selling traditional Italian porchetta sandwiches of roasted pork, herbs and spices. Mr. LaValva first promoted it as a winter market. And it was certainly that as sleet, wind and freezing rain hit on the first Sunday. Thousands came anyway, said Mr. LaValva, and that spring the market was held every Sunday. It later began operating only seasonally, as Mr. LaValva sought to build his organization and move inside the old fish market buildings.
“This was a forlorn area, abandoned, a place you didn’t want to go,” Catherine Hughes, president of Community Board 1, which covers the seaport, said in a phone interview. “Robert transformed it into a place where you can bump into your neighbor while making great finds.”
The latest attempts to redevelop the area began in 2008, when the company that then controlled the lease to the seaport, General Growth Properties, introduced a plan that included a 42-story apartment tower. That plan was rejected by the landmarks commission. General Growth eventually declared bankruptcy. Howard Hughes was spun off from that company and took over the lease on the seaport in 2010. Much of the area was inundated by floodwaters from Hurricane Sandy, though the Pier 17 shopping mall was spared. It was closed, pending redevelopment, in September.
In an email, Christopher J. Curry, senior executive vice president for development at Hughes, said that his company wanted to “create a one-of-a-kind experience, which incorporates the best of what New York has to offer” at the seaport site. Mr. Curry estimated that it would cost up to $120 million to replace the rotted pilings in order to build the tower and move the Tin Building, among other tasks. “Any proposed project must be able to absorb these significant infrastructure costs,” he wrote.
SHoP architects designed the Hughes plan. Gregg Pasquarelli, a principal at the firm, said in an email that relocating the Tin Building would “showcase its restored front facade, which has been hidden since the F.D.R. was built in the 1960s, and will also allow the East River Esplanade to extend in front of the building, creating a continuous pedestrian connection between the South Street Seaport and the neighborhoods to its north and south.”
Raised five feet against flooding, the restored Tin Building will revert “to its original market use, with a world-class food hall occupying the first and second levels seven days a week,” he said, and a gardened rooftop extension providing “flexible event space.”
But for Mr. LaValva, a privately run market misses the point. “Private developers cannot be trusted to maintain a true public market, which may not generate the revenues they seek,” he said. “Hughes is proposing something today, but there is no guarantee they will build or maintain it tomorrow.”
The Rouse Corporation, the seaport’s original developer, included a “public market” in its Festival Marketplace on Pier 17 when it opened in the 1980s — and later replaced it with a Gap clothing store, he said.
Mr. LaValva’s nonprofit group, the New Amsterdam Market Association, has stayed alive by renting out market stalls at $75 to $200 each. It has also received private donations, held fund-raisers and received grants, including $250,000 from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation in 2012. But that’s nowhere close to what it would cost to rehabilitate the market buildings.
“We cannot raise money to repair a city property if the city has not agreed to restore it,” Mr. LaValva said. “As of now, the city considers the Fish Market a real estate redevelopment site. We are saying it is a public asset which needs to be preserved and rehabilitated. We first want to convince the city to preserve the buildings, and then find funding from a variety of sources.”
In 2011, the Howard Hughes Corporation offered to collaborate with Mr. LaValva. He turned them down. “Hughes suggested we be part of the Pier 17 renovation,” Mr. LaValva said. “But we wanted to preserve the market.”
His position has garnered followers in the neighborhood. Hundreds turned out for a recent Town Hall meeting on the issue put on by Community Board 1 at Pace University; a vast majority of speakers were against the Hughes plan. The Community Board has only an advisory role in the approval process, which requires Hughes to wend its way through the Landmarks Commission, the City Planning Commission, the Manhattan borough president’s office and, ultimately, the City Council.
That may be a difficult path, in part because of Mr. LaValva. “Robert is a strong advocate, and way ahead of his time in his vision,” said Gale Brewer, the newly elected Manhattan borough president. Her office will review the redevelopment plan and make a recommendation before it goes to the City Council. “He loves the seaport, and understands that it should not be squandered for a parking lot or a big building.
“We definitely need more of what the old New York felt like,” she added. “There are a lot of unknowns in terms of funding, but his concept is a good one. We should pause and plan on this one.”