Save Our Seaport: Preserving Public Food Markets in Cities

On a chilly March morning, a mass of over 100 people jostled into a beige room for a zoning meeting of the NYC City Council. When it became clear that the room and additional overflow room would not be enough, the meeting was moved across the street to the upper chambers of City Hall. There, crowds packed into the aisles and balconies, sharing copies of a Bittman editorial and waving posters emblazoned with the iconic Fulton Fish Market and the plea, “Save Our Seaport!”

We at Element Seafood are long-time supporters of Robert LaValva and the New Amsterdam Market, and believe in his vision for a year-round public wholesale & retail food market in the historic Fulton Fish Market buildings. In an area that has long been depressed and suffered unprecedented damages from Hurricane Sandy, we believe that New Amsterdam Market is an economically and environmentally robust business model that should be expanded as a permanent anchor for the South Seaport neighborhood.

Yesterday, a zoning hearing was held to discuss the future of South Seaport’s development. Hot on the docket was the future of Pier 17, located adjacent to the New Amsterdam Market site and leased by Howard Hughes Corporation (HHC). They operate a shopping mall on the pier and plan to tear down and rebuild the mall, with construction beginning on June 30th. While they have not announced any plans yet for the neighboring Fulton Fish Market site, HHC does have the option to develop or reconstruct the site, which would push out the New Amsterdam Market. This has raised many questions from community residents and tenants, and the tension was palpable as City Council members grilled representatives from HHC and NYCEDC, which leases the property to HHC.

Council member Margaret Chin expressed concern that long-time tenants would be pushed out by rent increases and forced to relocate. “What kind of rent are you looking to charge?” asked Chin. Christopher Curry, representative of HHC replied, “As much as we can get. I’m not trying to be funny.” Chin said that she spoke to a dog grooming business who had been told that they would not be able to afford the rent increases after the mall was rebuilt. Curry dismissed her questions and said, “Our leasing people are talking to our tenants, and some tenants will be coming back to our project and some won’t.” After the discussion was closed, chairman Mark Weprin joked, “Thank you, Ms. Chin. Don’t get her mad, I’ve seen it and it’s not pretty.”

After the presentation by HHC, LaValva spoke on behalf of New Amsterdam Market. He highlighted the market’s successes (bringing over 50 local vendors and 50,000 customers each year to South Seaport) and drove home the importance of today’s meeting for the market. “Some people will try to tell you that the proposal has nothing to do with the fish market site. I’m here to tell you this is not the case…If we wait until these plans are proposed, it will be too late.”

There is a pressing need for alternative distribution methods for small and independent food producers in New York City. New Amsterdam Market has proven its success as a distribution outlet for consumers, and we hope to see it grow to serve restaurants and retailers as well. The market creates substantial economic flows for businesses, supports job creation and keeps dollars circulating in our local economy. And for the long term success of the market, it needs to be housed in a permanent indoor space, where it will continue growing and attracting businesses, residents and visitors.

While it cannot be quantified, it is no less important to mention the social value of New Amsterdam Market. The market inspires a vibrant and welcoming community, where questions flow freely and education sparks new ideas and innovation. As vendors at the market, we overhear and contribute to passionate conversations among strangers. Shoppers are not passive consumers, but co-producers, taking an active interest and role in the production of their food. That atmosphere is well-worth preserving and fostering in our urban society.

Yesterday’s hearing did not lead to any conclusive votes, and the city will likely hold additional hearings in the next month. If you’d like to support New Amsterdam Market by taking action, visit the site to find out how you can make your opinion heard: