Will New Amsterdam Market Survive and Flourish?
Hundreds of people showed up at City Hall on Thursday morning in support of the New Amsterdam Market and the South Street Seaport Museum and in opposition to a proposal by Howard Hughes Corporation (HHC) that would transform Pier 17 and the nearby historic New Market and Tin buildings into a site for high-rises, hotels, and a concert arena—leaving the Market’s future in jeopardy. Ultimately, the question at stake was: is New York City a place that values small business and community, or does it favor big money and big development?
Not only were people there to oppose the general plan for developing Pier 17, but they also voiced enthusiasm for New Amsterdam Market founder and president Robert LaValva’s vision of the Market being housed in the two vacant fish market buildings at the pier. LaValva and co-authors have explained that “A permanent, year-round market at this site would host not just local fish sellers but also the regional cheesemongers, produce sellers, butchers, purveyors and distributors of all stripes that are beginning to proliferate in New York”; they cite the Highline as an example of how repurposed infrastructure can be socioeconomically beneficial. As Mark Bittman wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed advocating for LaValva’s vision to be made a reality: “There is nothing like a grand urban food market, which can anchor a neighborhood and even a city.”
Many of the supporters of New Amsterdam Market are members of the Save Our Seaport coalition, which has an online petition with over 4,000 signatures to either reject or amend the HHC development plan.
Throughout the day’s public conversation (which had to be moved from its original location at 250 Broadway to City Hall because so many people turned up and wanted to speak), speakers recognized that the New Amsterdam Market has been a main attraction to the South Street Seaport, bringing people there to work, shop, and socialize. Sara Williams, the owner of Fresh Salt, a restaurant located near the South Street Seaport, said that she came to the City Council meeting because LaValva’s plan “would bring so many people down there, which obviously we need.”
Alen Agaronov, a 24-year-old market hand, said that it has “been amazing working at the New Amsterdam Market for over three years,” and added that many of the market hands were low-income minority youth. LaValva’s vision of the market had been rapidly giving it new purpose; in the 7 years since it opened, it has expanded to focus on procurement and distribution in addition to vending, said Agaronov.
An architect named Morgan Fleisig said that the Tin Building and Fulton Fish Market Building (both city-owned; the latter was commissioned by LaGuardia) had sat vacant for too long, and that “the market would have stronger connections to the seaport and the East River if they were opened.
But the support for the market was not just among the general public. Council Member Margaret Chin* was one of several City Council Members who articulated their concerns about the benefits of the HHC proposal as well as an interest in ensuring the Market’s long-term success. After HHC presented their plan for Pier 17, other Council Members expressed concern about the future of the New Amsterdam Market.
A second important concern expressed by Council members related to the severe damage caused by Hurricane Sandy of fall 2012 and particularly the storm’s effect on the area’s small businesses. The HHC plan calls for all tenants of the Seaport to vacate this spring and for construction to begin in June 2013. Council Members and other speakers urged HHC to wait until the end of summer to begin construction so that area businesses could recoup some of their losses.
LaValva spoke to the Council, revealing several points about the HHC plan: (1) it would “cause the City’s existing Lease with Howard Hughes to be amended so that the City would no longer be obliged to maintain the two remaining, historic Fulton Fish Market buildings as a market at all”; (2) “only office uses will be permitted in the . . . Tin Building”; and (3) that “the EDC and Howard Hughes have a Letter of Intent to redevelop the Fulton Fish Market site as a luxury residential high rise, hotel and retail complex. The proposed rezoning therefore enables a development that has never been revealed to the public or reviewed by the Council.”
What would any city be without markets? British scholar Carolyn Steel writes in Hungry City that pre-industrial cities “all [had] markets at their hearts, with routes leading to them like so many arteries carrying in the city’s lifeblood.” Cities were always nexuses for the transport of food, and markets were considered vital rather than accessories. The New Amsterdam Market’s proposal asks that it be allowed to continue serving its loyal customers and bringing business to the surrounding restaurants and bars, but it also positions itself to take New York City back to pre-industrial days when community mattered and cities were about exchange, not just consumption.
Bittman is right: this market plan could be something we New Yorkers didn’t even know we were missing. Just picture the most amazing, expansive indoor food markets you may have had the pleasure of visiting in cities like Valencia, Barcelona, Dakar, Paris, or Detroit—and now imagine that market right in Lower Manhattan. Isn’t that simply more appealing than some extra high-rises and hotels clogging up the skyline?
*Addendum, by Christine Rico: The problem is that the scope of the LOI and zoning changes being acted on go far beyond the pier 17 redevelopment. If the council acts without insisting on a full development plan for the entire parcel then the council is giving up their oversight role. The issue is therefore a question of “good” governance and participatory urban planning. While Chin did voice general support for the New Amsterdam Market; she also stated several times that in her view this zoning application has nothing to do with the New Amsterdam Market since it focuses on development of Pier 17. Pier 17 is the property adjacent to the current location of the outdoor New Amsterdam Market. The Save our Seaport Coalition respectfully disagrees with this view since the zoning application goes far beyond the boundaries of Pier 17 and changes the permissible uses for the waterfront area from Maiden Lane to the Brooklyn Bridge. Furthermore, the Letter of Intent between HHC and NYEDC would give HHC effective control of the two historic market buildings that NAMNY is seeking to protect and ultimately re-establish as a public market and economic development engine. For these reasons supporters of the New Amsterdam Market ask the NYC Council to limit the zoning changes to Pier 17 only; or to postpone approval of the zoning changes until the full scope of HHC plans for the site have been publicly vetted.