In a surprise move, New Amsterdam founder announces end of popular monthly market
Robert LaValva appears to have given up.
The founder and director of the New Amsterdam Market announced via email last week that the market is closing effective immediately, and that the last one was held in its location on South Street on June 21. LaValva said he couldn’t secure the necessary financing to make the market thrive, and blamed City Council-member Margaret Chin for contributing to its demise.
“We were dealt a mortal blow in 2013 when Council Member Chin, who had long professed to support our cause, betrayed the community in favor of a suburban shopping mall developer, Howard Hughes,” wrote LaValva.
Chin’s camp fired back, accusing LaValva of going rogue and saying she has a great relationship with members of the New Amsterdam Market board and looks forward to working with them “in order to keep the market going for the good of our community.”
A Chin spokesperson later said the council-member was instrumental in securing $115,000 in city council funds for the market from 2011 t0 2013, as well as $250,000 in funding from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation.
LaValva’s email came as a surprise – and a blow – to the market’s board of directors, who said they had no prior knowledge of his decision. “The board of directors found out at roughly the same time as everyone else,” said Roland Lewis, chair of the New Amsterdam Market board. Lewis is also the president of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance.
In his farewell email, LaValva said the market began in December 2007 and “grew in frequency and scope while nurturing an evolving community of small businesses dedicated to sustainable food production, regional economies, and fair trade.”
LaValva also said his organization held 88 markets with more than 500 food entrepreneurs and created more than 350 jobs along the way.
LaValva didn’t respond to telephone messages, and said in an email that he would have no comment.
While LaValva has become known for his work at the market, he also has a long history of fighting Howard Hughes’ plan to develop the aging seaport. In January the company announced its proposal to build a 600-foot residential tower on the north side of Pier 17, a project it said would subsidize the rest of its development plans in the area, which include reconstructing and moving the landmark Tin Building, and building a marina at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. The New Amsterdam Market sits in front of the New Market Building, and would be displaced if Howard Hughes’ original proposal went through.
Opponents of the plan say the residential tower will block views of the Brooklyn Bridge, is out of character with the seaport, and that the last thing Lower Manhattan needs is more luxury housing.
That resistance resulted in the Seaport Working Group – a coalition that was formed of downtown elected officials, CB1 members and community stakeholders – issuing a series of guidelines to Howard Hughes, one of which is their wish that the company keep its proposal for the residential tower at under 12 stories, according to John Fratta, a CB1 member on the Seaport Working Group. Fratta is also chair of the board’s Seaport Committee.
LaValva was once at the forefront of this fight and was perhaps the most visible hardliner against any development by Howard Hughes. If the initial development plan went ahead, the New Amsterdam Market would get displaced. But in prior interviews with Our Town Downtown, LaValva said he sees his resistance to Howard Hughes as part of a larger push to preserve the seaport as public space, not just in the context of saving his market.
LaValva’s initial strategy with the New Amsterdam Market was to hold it in the New Market Building and Tin Building, but that idea was nixed by the city’s Economic Development Corporation because of the condition of the buildings.
Instead, he asked to rent space in front of the New Market Building on South Street, in the shadow of FDR Drive. That plan was allowed to go forward, and the New Amsterdam Market has been operating there since 2007.
In January, LaValva told The New York Times he planned on trying to convince the city to regard those buildings as public space as opposed to a city-owned real estate development opportunity. Once that mindset changed, he told the Times, funding to rehabilitate the buildings could be found from a variety of sources.
That plan, as far as LaValva is concerned, appears to be dead. Fratta said he believes LaValva simply got weary of fighting Howard Hughes.
“I think he was burnt out,” said Fratta, who also praised LaValva for the work he’s done on the market. “I was just disappointed at the way he did it.
Fratta also said he thinks LaValva’s attack on Chin was misguided.
“I think he did a disservice. Between the [Lower Manhattan Development Corp.] and city council funding, he got over $300,000 from [Chin’s office]. That doesn’t sound like somebody that was looking to not work with him. I really think that was misplaced criticism, and I’m surprised that he took that stand.”
As for the future of the New Amsterdam Market, Lewis said he and the board are keen to find a way for it to continue, but that all events at the market are now on hiatus.
“To Robert’s great credit, he’s created a wonderful civic institution, it has a great mission,” said Lewis. “And like all good civic institutions, the market can and should survive any one individual.”
Lewis said he doesn’t know what LaValva motivations were for sending the email announcing the market’s closure.
“It was surprising and a little disappointing the fashion he let us and the world know. It is hard to fight city hall but I don’t want to speculate,” said Lewis. “Certainly with the previous administration, and we’re not sure about this administration, but there’s been a difference in opinion about the larger vision of the Seaport district.”
Fratta echoed Lewis’ desire to see the market continue, and said CB1’s Seaport Committee is committed to finding a solution at the traditional site or a different one.
“The New Amsterdam Market was Robert’s baby, but he seems to be stepping out now,” said Fratta. “So what we want to do is meet with the board and see how we could be helpful in getting that market restore.”