Rouse-ification of Lower Manhattan

By , Jane Holtz Kay is architectural critic of The Christian Science Monitor.

Is there life after sandblasting? Can you trust your appetite to a place called the Pastrami Factory? Will towers that promise ''new prestige'' provide mere livability?

As corners of the past are gussied up to become chic new urban marketplaces, such questions arise.

The latest example is New York's South Street Seaport complex - Phase 1 of an eventual 11-block, $400 million enterprise. It typifies what might be called the Ghiradelli Square syndrome - that 1965 revamping of San Francisco's 1965 brick-warehouse district which has become a hallmark of gentrification coast to coast.

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Many of those familiar with the architectural pattern as it appears in the East Coast, along water edges from Boston's Faneuil Hall Marketplace, south to Baltimore's Harborplace, and soon to Norfolk, Va., feel squeamish about the process.

''Rouse-ification,'' from founder and developer James Rouse, is the tag given the urban-design phenomenon.

Yet, despite one's distrust of the exaltation of cute food and adorable architecture, the South Street Seaport's four blocks of carefree streets, restored buildings, and interior marketplaces have created a new place, and even a new experience, for this city of infinite experiences.

It is an irony that only in architecture - that most urban, most collaborative art - has Manhattan come in second, if not third or fourth, in trendsetting.

Only in the last weeks since South Street Seaport opened have New Yorkers been able to visit an urban environment that allows daily street milling, crowd collecting, and food grazing. And only the Seaport, beside the Brooklyn Bridge and a 10-minute walk from Wall Street, has truly invited Manhattan islanders to the water's edge.

Still, Seaport's architecturally programmed way of heading down to the sea to consume is controversial.

A consortium of cityVP- - M/ /Oal, and Rouse Company forces, under the South Street Seaport Museum, has spent 16 years to establish this island of affluence in Lower Manhattan.

Something was lost as well as gained in converting a blue-collar neighborhood into a kind of outdoor mall. In some ways, the loss of ''real life'' surroundings is a cause for mourning; in others, the revitalization of the area is preferable to the state of ''shabby chic'' which existed before, and which, in the end, is a self-destructive mode.

Looking at these alternatives and surveying the Seaport pattern of architectural renewal, the critic can only lament the lack of other options, and that city life, 1980s style, so seldom allows any other way.

One's judgment is equally mixed on the specific, building by building, architectural work at Sux Ot. The des yo/os of more than a decade has produced the good, the bad, and the so-so.

Master planner Benjamin Thompson & Associates (BTA), which did the markets in Baltimore and Boston, has created the most appealing building in the complex. Fulton Market, with its blend of granite, glass, and bricks, its double roofs - really one undulating canopy below and a jagged zinc roof above (''tutu,'' they call it) - its old tin-roofed fish stalls on Front Street, flags flying outside, and lively food stalls inside, is fine.

It is typical of the congenial and festive style that the firm has made its own.

Here, as at Harborplace in Baltimore, the architecture is at once alive in the present and comfortable with the past. It is neither an artificial Williamsburg nor a modernist outrage to historic or environmental sensibilities.

More problematic, but acceptable in the new-old urban marketplace, is the New Bogardus building. The structure by Beyer Blinder Belle is a lively steel-columned facade recalling a dismantled cast-iron building by that name which was stolen from a nearby lot.

Although the light-toned facade needs dimming, its massing and fragmentation avoids too-stiff deference to the past or a too-jarring touch of today.

Unfortunately, the two other major architectural elements in the complex veer off to just those extremes.

Somehow, Schermerhorn Row, the 1811 fleet of stores once touched by the hand of time, not to mention dozens of merchants, received a steam cleaning. It looks embalmed.

The Museum Block, on the other hand, has a tucked-in quality and a sense that all times, present included, have value architecturally and humanistically.

The high-rise Seaport Plaza is distressing on all counts, however. The tower, an air-rights exchange by developers Jack Resnick & Sons, is a blight - a box encased in a post-modernist granite doodle by Swanke Hayden Connell. The developers capitalize on history (''The past is but prologue,'' they advertise). But their siting of the building, so that it blocks the sun from noon through the afternoon during the fall and winter months, is a disgrace.

Moving away from this architectural assault, one can enjoy not only individual buildings, but the myriad of design details that define Seaport Plaza - the street furniture and signs, cobbled streets and push-cart inhabitants.

With Phase 1 in place and popular, BTA now is enlarging the singular, low-scale seaside neighborhood with what looks to be a lively three-story, steel-and-glass Pier 17 heading into the East River. The Seaport Museum, which owns much of the immediate surroundings, will commission a ''gentle'' rehabilitation, according to the architects.

And so, as 20th-century crowds repopulate the place, there is a welcome vitality. Is it soft-headed then to pine for a return to a more roustabout 19 th-century seaport style?

The fact that tourists in docksiders now outnumber real-life laborers in work shoes is a price we seem willing to pay to restore the sign of the sea and the cobble-to-cobble street life. But it is still, for all the architectural excellence, a price.

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