Curated Redevelopment: Breathing new life into the South Street Seaport

Over two decades’ worth of annual trips to New York City, I’ve had a good chance to see how the city has changed over the years – even better than locals, I think, who might not notice the gradual changes from day to day. I have had the opportunity to reflect on the changes, from store openings and closings, to fashion trends and the broader sentiment among American people with a unique political landscape.

When I was last in town, I wandered downtown from The London (free calls to London), on the south end of Central Park where we were staying, to the South Street Seaport to visit one of my favourite shops for buying unique and beautiful stationery, Bowne & Co. Stationers. The area has been undergoing a complete overhaul following decades of being known as a ‘tourist-only’ zone to become a multi-purpose centre of culture, much like the changes at the Barbican and Somerset House in London. I generally don’t frequent it, as most interesting and unique retailers are located in other parts of the city, such as the West Village and near Canal Street.

Browne & Co. Stationers at the South Street Seaport

The Seaport’s steward, The Howard Hughes Corp, has been looking to make the area more popular with locals. The company has been working to redesign the historic site with Pier 17, where Tommy Hilfiger showed his fall collection in collaboration with Gigi Hadid during New York Fashion Week, as the area’s centrepiece, signing best-in-class retailers and dining experiences into the collection of retail spaces in the area. Says The Howard Hughes Corp CEO David Weinreb: “Even right now with the pop-up food that we have, it’s about making it relevant so when you come down there, you don’t feel like it’s a tourist destination.”

Although the project is ongoing, you can already see the impact taking place. In one of its seven buildings, which have a total floor space of 400,000 sq ft, is an outpost of the famous Brooklyn-based Smorgasburg, with pop-up stalls including lobster rolls, tacos and sushi. Other dining spots include Café Patoro, dedicated entirely to Brazilian cheese balls, and Dorlan’s Tavern, which evokes feelings from the area’s illustrious (and long) history. Soon to join these will be celebrity chef David Chang’s Momofuku, undoubtedly marking the space as officially ‘cool’ and back on the radar of trendy New Yorkers, and former fashion editor and publisher Carla Sozzani’s ‘living magazine’ 10 Corso Como, centred around a gallery and a bookshop, will be opening soon as well.

Tommy Hilfiger transformed Pier 17 for his SS 2017 show

Similarly, the Seaport’s retail space is being developed into a destination. Tommy Hilfiger’s September show set the stage – and now there are stores such as the Rialto Jean Project, which sells hand-painted vintage jeans; Northern Grade, a roving marketplace with its flagship at the Seaport that sells American-made items; and Brother Vellies, a boutique selling handmade boots, shoes and sandals from South Africa, Kenya and Namibia. No longer a collection of high street-type stores – though Abercrombie & Fitch is still in the mix – the South Street Seaport now has potential to become a major cultural centre of the city, drawing trendsetters in from near and far.

“It’s about making it relevant so when you come down there, you don’t feel like it’s a tourist destination” – David Weinreb, CEO, The Howard Hughes Corporation

Aside from a lot of inspiration all in one place, I found this journey exciting because it draws the focus of New York back to what it originally was. I’ve often found that what starts as an exciting neighbourhood with interesting boutiques and propositions can become bland over time as landlords look to draw in higher rents for their spaces and locals start looking to new places to spend their time and money.

South Street Seaport before renovations began

The ’Town Centre Investment Zones’ report from earlier this year notes that the British high street is suffering due to fragmented ownership and poor asset management. It recommends solving this through taking a more structured approach via pooling property assets into an investment vehicle and allowing the assets to be managed and curated with a particular goal in mind. This model, apparent across a number of London locations including Covent Garden, Regent Street and Tottenham Court Road, can react to consumer behaviour and demands – but more importantly, it can create a coherent image on the high street, reflecting a local community and a thriving business environment.

It may be the case that that the effort being undertaken at the South Street Seaport is not right for everywhere – who could imagine Picadilly Circus or Times Square full of artisanal shops? But the guiding philosophy is an important one: companies are at their best when they operate with their customers in mind. I love seeing the different cultures reflected in our clients from all over the world and the neighbourhoods in which they operate – it’s what makes them unique, no matter how big or small. | @MoiraBenigson | @TheMBSGroup