New Yorkers who have never been closer to their seaport than the Oyster Bar restaurant at Grand Central Terminal are in for a briny surprise today. That's when the new South Street Seaport unfurls the first phase of a $350 million revitalization of the crumbling red brick ghetto known as the Seaport District. When completed next year, the complex will include a sophisticated mix of restored 19th-century warehouses, restaurants, and cafes, a multimedia theater, an expanded maritime museum, dozens of retail and specialty shops, a three-story glass and steel pavilion in Victorian style, an office tower, and, of course, the Fulton Market that started it all.
An important part of Phase 1 in the Seaport project is the new Fulton Market, built on the site of the old Fulton Fish Market, a whiff of which has been known to make strong men blanch.
A visitor to the construction site this summer found that the unmistakable perfume of the past lingered in the air: a top note, as the perfume people might say, of overripe shrimp, plus a heady bouquet of old clams, shad, and sole, mingled with a hint of bluefish. Some of the old fish shops - Reliable Fillet Company, Messing Fish Company - still linger in a row of old stores where a white cat sits licking its whiskers happily in a window. Puddles of water rich as fish stock stand on streets inlaid with new Belgian block where the new market rises at a furious pace.
This will be the fourth market on the site where the first one rose in 1822, as a vast whitewashed area of stalls for, as Harper's Weekly described it, not just ''the buying and selling of the piscene tribes'' but also a butcher's shop, fruiterer's area, oyster counter, coffee shop, and poultry yard. After that market burned in 1878, a second one replaced it in 1882. It was a red brick Victorian conceit with a dash of Renaissance and Queen Anne motifs, a glass and steel roof, refrigerated storerooms, a telegraph office, biological laboratory, and museums stuffed with the collection of the state fish commissioner.
The Victorian building was leveled in 1951 and replaced with a functional garagelike structure for wholesale fish merchants.
The New Fulton Market, a three-story maroon brick and granite building designed by Benjamin Thompson & Associates, will be far more festive-looking than the old garage. It looks rather like a big brick boat, flying colorful flags from its decks, with a metal canopy, picture windows, and gabled pavilions.
Wholesalers will continue to sell fresh fish there, but there will also be a return to the 19th-century custom of stalls for fresh vegetables and fruits, meat, poultry, bakery goods, and retail fish. The rest of the 60,000 square feet of space in the market on its second and third floors will be filled with specialty food shops, restaurants, and cafes.
To give you an idea, it will include two restaurants plus special stalls each devoted to just one taste sensation: a pickle shop, a sausage world, raw seafood bar, nooks for just dim sum, chicken and ribs, croissants, the infamous New York egg cream (which contains neither eggs nor cream), yogurt, nuts, sushi, a pastrami factory, Philadelphia steaks, Pacific salmon, empanadas, and pizza.
The merchandising talent behind the market belongs to the Rouse Company, working through its affiliate, Seaport Marketplace Inc. The whole Seaport project is a unique combination of public and private backing, as a joint undertaking by South Street Seaport Museum, the City of New York, New York State Urban Development Corporation, and Rouse's affiliate. Some 83 percent of its funding is private, the rest public.
It is expected to rejuvenate a long-blighted area that's a 10- to 15-minute walk from a captive audience at the World Trade Center, City Hall, and Wall Street. The official Seaport District is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and occupies a section given over to dilapidated piers along the East River, south of the Brooklyn Bridge.
The concept of South Street Seaport is similar in many ways to successful Rouse waterfront renewals like Faneuil Hall in Boston and Harborplace in Baltimore. It renovates and glamorizes seedy harborfront areas, luring visitors and buyers with an enticing mix of recreational shopping, areas dedicated to noshing on exotic foods, entertainment, historic and cultural attractions, and the public promenades that are an urban version of the old village square.
Rouse has anchored its New York headquarters at the Seaport. Literally. You walk up an iron gangplank to reach its offices, which float on the East River in an old coffee barge just off Pier 19. They look just like any other white-walled contemporary offices with modern decor - until a big wave hits the side and the office suddenly rocks.
From the barge window you can see the gothic silver curves of the Brooklyn Bridge, gulls swooping, the dark red stack of the tugboat that guards the barge, and, of course, the river.
On the day of this visit, the river was a stormy gray-green needled with heavy rain, and the waves slapped hard against the barge. Steel chains anchoring the boat creaked against wood as it rose and fell. A model of the project listed precariously. Small-craft warnings were up, as Rouse spokeswoman Lori Kranz led the way down the gangplank for a tour of the seaport renovation.
We nipped through the Fulton Market, avoiding the cement mixer, welding arcs, dangling beams, and the hoots of the guys in hard hats, then scrambled through a pile of gravel to Schermerhorn Row, full of historic orange brick warehouses built by developer Peter Schermerhorn between 1810 and 1812.
Lori Kranz, a history buff, murmurs about these being ''streets where Herman Melville and Walt Whitman walked'' as we step inside a building under reconstruction. It is like an archaeological dig, full of bricked-up old entrances with layers of brick in various shades and vintages from peach to rose to rust.
''Under this building is a ship,'' says Bob Bayley (of the architectural firm of Beyer, Blinder & Belle) to indicate how many layers of history are embodied here. In a recently uncovered courtyard, there are 19th-century cast-iron shutters on the windows.
The Schermerhorn Row block will contain retail stores, clothing stores, two restaurants - Sweets and Sloppy Louie's - familiar to the neighborhood, and a marine antiques store. It's to be run by a man who identifies himself only as Captain Hook, wears a beard, nautical cap, and a whale's tooth pendant, and keeps a thick scrapbook of his press clippings.
A third segment of Phase 1 in the Seaport plan is the museum block, including 14 historic buildings - one dating back to 1797. The block includes existing museum operations with a seaport gallery; model ship shop; a renovation of Bowne & Co., a 1775 stationery shop; and a clutch of trendy retail shops and restaurants. Restoration is being done under the direction of architect Jan Hird Pokorny.
It was the museum, with its 10,000 members, that spearheaded the drive to save and restore the historic buildings and ships and that chose the Rouse Company for the seaport redevelopment.
Its prize ships bob in the East River at Piers 15 and 16: the four-masted 1911 bark Peking; the Ambrose lightship, built in 1907; the sloop Pioneer from 1885; the 1885 full-rigged ship Wavertree; and the 1893 fishing schooner Lettie G. Howard.
Those ships are berthed south of where the new Pier 17 pavilion will rise next year with its 120 retail stores, restaurants, and cafes in a Victorian glass and steel pavilion with public promenades.
As the project progresses, some criticism has arisen in the community. Norman Brouwer, marine historian for the South Street Seaport, sums up the arguments on balance. ''As a historian I feel the Seaport was interesting as it was, with all the history still there. You lose a certain amount in cleaning the buildings down and you lose the remains of signs, layers of paint . . . .''
However, he says, ''The buildings were in danger of collapsing, of being ruined by neglect, the upper floors weren't being used, the windows were broken, floors rotting out, walls being weakened. It was clear a great deal of work had to be done, money had to be spent on the building. . . . You can't freeze things. The neighborhood was going to change or be leveled or be replaced by skyscrapers or office buildings.''