Pier 17 is an example of an idea that looked great on the drawing board but failed miserably in the real world. In the 1970s/ 1980s, when the mall craze first hit New York, enclosed, multilevel shopping pavilions were sprouting up all over the city. The five boroughs were touting their latest and most marvelous shopping pavilions that allowed for consumer-oriented, more secure ways to shop.
At the same time, the South Street Seaport, the city’s famed but terribly neglected seaport, was being overhauled; its historical and cultural significance finally recognized. What better way, it was believed, to attract visitors (while turning a profit) to the newly renovated historic seaport but with a shopping mall featuring old world charm; it came to be known as Pier 17.
“An instant urban landmark,” said the “A.I.A. Guide to New York City” in its fourth edition (2000). “A pier large enough to moor a dirigible in. Conceived in a grand manner to bring back some of the vernacular waterfront architecture that was once ubiquitous along South Street. Gigantic, playful, adroitly detailed.”
It’s been nearly thirty years now and Pier 17 has been a white elephant rather than an urban landmark. In spite of its “gigantic, playful, adroitly detailed” ambiance, it’s really nothing more than a mall; in spite of itself, it functions like any other mall: “to create a city environment in which one doesn’t engage with the city.” (Gregg Pasquarelli, a principal in SHoP Architects) But do visitors, be they tourists or native New Yorkers, come to the city not engage with the city?
“One might argue there were many good reasons to do that in the New York of the 1970s and 1980s,” he continued, “but fortunately, the city is now a very different place. Being in an enclosed mall that could be anywhere in the United States, yet occupies this incredibly special and precious site for our city, is an unfortunate result of some of those planning ideas.”
In the end, Pier 17 is a nice place to visit but many of us wouldn’t want to shop there.
- South Street Seaport (Pier 17) shows announced (initial lineup) (brooklynvegan.com)
- Chic Renovations for South Street Seaport Met With Mixed Reaction (wnyc.org)