All sides hail deal ending Tobacco Warehouse controversy

May 23, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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By Raanan Geberer

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

BROOKLYN — The controversy over the Tobacco Warehouse in Brooklyn Bridge Park, which led to legal action and to debate in the pages of this paper last year, has now been resolved.

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A deal between neighborhood groups, government entities, elected officials, and preservation and cultural groups, which was made public on Monday, would add 38,000 square feet of parkland near the northern end of the park. This would compensate for the anticipated loss of the Tobacco Warehouse and Empire Stores buildings within the park, which will lose federal protection as parkland when they are developed.

Both the Tobacco Warehouse and the Empire Stores are 19th-century buildings that have seen better days. Indeed, the Tobacco Warehouse has lost several stories and its roof, although it is a popular venue for outdoor performances and parties.

In November 2010, the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation, after reviewing several proposals, gave the go-ahead for the St. Ann’s Warehouse theater group to renovate the Tobacco Warehouse and use it as a performance space. A new roof would have been installed over part of the structure, although part would still have been preserved as open-air.Empire Stores. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

However, in January 2011, the Brooklyn Heights Association, the Fulton Ferry Landing Association, the New York Landmarks Conservancy and the Preservation League of New York State filed suit, saying that the National Park Service had illegally removed the Tobacco Warehouse from federal protection as parkland. At the time, the National Park Service had argued that the Tobacco Warehouse was too deteriorated for use as public park space.

The Brooklyn Heights Association (BHA) and other plaintiffs said they were not against the St. Ann’s Warehouse proposal as such, but that proper proceedings needed to be followed under state and federal regulations.

In April 2011, Brooklyn Federal Court Judge Eric Vitaliano vindicated the BHA’s stance, saying the historic structure could not be removed from public park space for the purpose of development. And in December, a state court also ruled in a parallel action that the city and state governments erred in transferring the Tobacco Warehouse and Empire Stores buildings from park use.

The new agreement allows for the re-use of the Empire Stores as a mixed-use retail and commercial development, and of the Tobacco Warehouse as a venue for cultural and community use.

The agreement also mandates more community input on the decision — for example, the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation’s Community Advisory Council will now contain subcommittees dealing with the Empire Stores and the Tobacco Warehouse. Decisions will be made only after an open public process. The public would also have input on arts programming for the Tobacco Warehouse.

Jane McGroarty, president of the Brooklyn Heights Association, said, “We are quite proud that our work over the past few weeks ends the litigation, brings us back together with park officials and allows the work of building the park to proceed.”

She reiterated that the BHA’s stance did not target St. Ann’s Warehouse: “In fact, today’s resolution gives St. Ann’s Warehouse a lawful process that it may use to get the necessary approvals for re-use of the Tobacco Warehouse.”

Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, said that the structures were allowed to deteriorate when the state had jurisdiction over what was then Empire State-Fulton Ferry Park, which has since been absorbed into Brooklyn Bridge Park. “They both need to be restored and redeveloped,” she said. She added that it was her organization that saved the warehouse in 1999, when it brought in its own engineers, who came up with a plan to stabilize the deteriorating structure.

“At the end of the day, everyone came together and agreed on the importance of process. All of the state and federal legal protections for parks and historic sites will be respected,” Breen added.

One of the reasons St. Ann’s Warehouse applied for a new home at the Tobacco Warehouse was the fact that it needed to move from its longtime home at 38 Water St. to make way for a condo development. In November, the theater group will move to 29 Jay St.

Speaking to the Eagle, St. Ann’s Warehouse Executive Director Andrew Hamingson referred to 29 Jay St. as a “temporary home,” and indicated that moving to the Tobacco Warehouse is still a possibility.

“It’s a fantastic space,” he said. Now, he said, “We’re back where we were 14 months ago.”

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