Hearing on DUMBO’s Empire Stores and Tobacco Warehouse set for Thursday

Considerations: Equal land value, environment, archaeology

June 19, 2013 By Mary Frost Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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It’s the public’s turn to review and comment on the environmental impact of the proposed redevelopment of the historic Empire Stores and Tobacco Warehouse in Brooklyn Bridge Park in DUMBO.

A hearing on the proposals’ Environmental Assessment (EA) will be held Thursday, June 20 at 6 p.m. at NYU-Poly, 6 MetroTech Center, Room RH116 in Downtown Brooklyn. (More details below.)

The Empire Stores and Tobacco Warehouse, currently part of the public park, would be converted to private use as part of a deal that would swap the often-photographed structures and the land connecting them for a smaller parcel of municipal land under and abutting the Manhattan Bridge.

The plan for the crumbling Empire Stores — a complex of seven connected, historic brick warehouses — includes a mixed-use development with office, retail and commercial space. Ten design firms have submitted proposals for the development of the Empire Stores, currently in complete disrepair and closed to the public.

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The roofless Tobacco Warehouse would be converted into a new home for St. Ann’s Warehouse, a theater company.

Structurally sound and regarded as “monumentally beautiful,” the Tobacco Warehouse has been a draw for photographers and tourists, and the site of countless performances, fundraisers, film shoots and community events, including the popular “Smorgasburg” food festival on Sundays.

Both structures, on more than two and a half acres of parkland, would be swapped for .863 acres of city-owned land bordered by Adams Street, Plymouth Street and the Main Street section of Brooklyn Bridge Park. This parcel includes a streetbed, a city water meter facility, and a DOT paint shed under the Manhattan Bridge. Redevelopment of this area would include bathrooms and park maintenance facilities, a nature and educational center, a lawn, a dog run, and a boulder-climbing wall.

These substitute parcels are already technically on parkland, and are included in the 99-year prime master ground lease between the city and Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation. But under the lease they may be used for other municipal purposes and are currently closed to the public.

One important consideration, according to the EA, is whether the property proposed for substitution “is of at least equal fair market value and is of reasonably equivalent usefulness and location as the converted property.”

Another is deciding if the proposed swap and conversion is “the environmentally preferable alternative” which causes the least damage to the environment and “best protects, preserves, and enhances historical, cultural, and natural resources.”

Another environmental consideration concerns the substitute parcel of land. According to a report prepared in 2003 by Tully Environmental, the top two feet of soil in the area behind the existing NYCDOT paint storage facility are contaminated by hazardous levels of heavy metals and lead. Careful environmental remediation would need to be carried out before redevelopment.

There are also archaeological considerations surrounding the historic Empire Stores and Tobacco Warehouse sites, as well as the replacement parcel which has “buried 19th century bulkheads at a depth of five to 10 feet below the surface.”

The development of the Empire Stores and Tobacco warehouse will benefit the park, according to the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation (BBPC), by providing private investment to preserve the structures, without which they “would continue to deteriorate.”

The development would also assist the park by providing much needed funding, as the park does not have money in its budget to fund the cost of maintenance and preservation of historic structures.

While the replacement parcels are smaller than the land being lost to park use, BBPC says that it, along with the city, considered 18 other city-owned sites in Brooklyn as potential replacement properties. None of them were considered suitable based on their proximity to the park, recreational usefulness, price and other factors.

The land swap is the result of a 201l lawsuit in which U.S. District Judge Eric N. Vitaliano ruled that the National Park Service violated federal law by removing the Empire Stores and the Tobacco Warehouse from federally protected parkland. The city had planned to turn over both structures to private developers, with the park gaining nothing in exchange.

The successful lawsuit, filed by the Brooklyn Heights Association, the Fulton Ferry Landing Association, the New York Landmarks Conservancy, and the Preservation League of New York State, halted the illegal conversion plans and required that the city identify substitute parcels.

The settlement specifically states that the Brooklyn Heights Association cannot oppose the conversion, and the group will have no comment on the environmental impacts of the conversion.

The EA and the draft conversion application are available for review at the offices of Brooklyn Bridge Park, 334 Furman Street, Brooklyn and online at:

The public can offer comments at the hearing or submit them in writing until 5 p.m. on Friday, July 5, 2013 to Brooklyn Bridge Park, 334 Furman Street, Brooklyn, NY 11201 or at [email protected]

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