Tobacco Warehouse and Empire Stores
The Tobacco Warehouse and Empire Stores are landmarked structures which typify the once prominent shipping industry along the Brooklyn waterfront. However they also occupy prime real estate, located just north of the Brooklyn Bridge with unobstructed views of Manhattan. Originally intended to be public amenities within the forthcoming Brooklyn Bridge Park, the government secretly removed the structures from the map of protected parkland, surrendering them to a $15 million private development scheme. Arguing that the redevelopment proposal would cause irreparable harm to the historic structures and illegally remove them from the public domain, local preservation groups filed a lawsuit against the government agencies to stop the project. The result was a sweeping decision with long-term implications for the preservation community.
The Tobacco Warehouse and Empire Stores were constructed in the 1860s as a tobacco customs inspection center and coffee and sugar warehouses, respectively. The buildings symbolize the Brooklyn waterfront’s historically prominent shipping industry. Although abandoned and dilapidated, the structures are considered contributing resources to the Fulton Ferry Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.
In 2001 and 2003, the National Parks Service provided grants to New York State through the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act (LWCFA), intended for the acquisition and development of public outdoor recreational resources. With the grants, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation stabilized and restored the Tobacco Warehouse, and included it in the Empire Fulton Ferry State Park, providing public access and government protection. The neighboring Empire Stores were renovated into administrative offices and public restrooms. All the structures were to have public garden spaces which would be developed with the impending Brooklyn Bridge Park.
However, in 2008 New York State requested that the historic structures be removed from the park as they were not appropriate for public outdoor use. The National Park Service agreed, declaring that the Tobacco Warehouse and Empire Stores were “overlooked” and their inclusion in the Empire Fulton Ferry State Park was a mistake. Noting that park boundaries resulting from LWCFA grants are absolute unless there is a major error or conversion, the National Park Service edited the Empire Fulton Ferry State Park map to omit the Tobacco Warehouse and Empire Stores. Both these parcels and the remaining park land were then given to the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation, the latter to be included in the emerging Brooklyn Bridge Park as planned.
In 2010, the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation requested proposals from developers for an adaptive reuse of the Tobacco Warehouse. The only respondent was St. Ann’s, a local, performing-arts group, who proposed to convert the landmarked structure into a private theater space for $15 million. The plan was approved by the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation and renovations were slated to begin within the year.
In an effort to stop the resulting construction project which would ultimately ruin the historic integrity of the Tobacco Warehouse and render it inaccessible to the public, local community organizations got involved. The Brooklyn Heights Association, Fulton Ferry Landing, and New York Landmarks Conservancy filed a lawsuit in 2010 against the National Parks Service, Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation, and St. Ann’s to stop the construction project. They argued that St. Ann’s efforts to test the soil beneath the structure would require “bringing heavy drilling and boring equipment through one of the relatively small entrances to the building, then operating that drilling equipment inside it, [creating] a real risk of damage to a national historic landmark.”
A preliminary injunction was granted in the spring of 2011 to temporarily stop the construction, with Judge Eric Vitaliano boldly stating that “the house of cards erected by the defense cannot withstand the gentlest breeze.” In July, a final verdict was determined, with Judge Vitaliano declaring “it is crystal clear that… [the National Parks Service] acted outside of its legal authority” in redrawing the park boundaries, allowing construction that could potentially damage the historic landmark. The judge ordered the St. Ann’s construction project to cease and the historic structures to be reincorporated into the park, returning the Tobacco Warehouse and Empire Stores to government protection and public use.
What do you think will be the implications of this decision in the preservation community? What, if anything, does the secret removal of the Tobacco Warehouse and Empire Stores from the parkland illustrate? Does it illustrate a larger movement towards community-based preservation, overseen by local groups?
- Dianne Pierce Obrien
Source: Brooklyn Heights Association et al. v. National Park Service et al. United States District Court, Eastern District of New York, Case 11-CV-226-ENV-VVP.