Tobacco Warehouse and Empire Stores

February 28, 2012

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.



  1. Kat M says:

    I recently went to see this and thought I would re-read the article. Even though the buildings are completely gutted to just the exterior walls, its really a lovely ruin set on the waterfront park! However, now they have it blocked off and it looks like a place where really rich people could have weddings, but that the public can’t access (which is a tease since the building is so open). Because the structures have been reduced to just their walls, I really don’t think the preservation advocates can claim that anything anyone does will put the significance of the building at risk…. its really hardly a building at all (but it’s still lovely). Either the park should just suck it up and allow the public to frolic in the ruins, maybe put food trucks in there and some benches, or it really should be adaptively re-used, who knows, the result could be truly amazing (like Chipperfield’s Neues Museum in Berlin).

  2. Shawn says:

    It’s only the four walls of an old building, what is the historical significance of that? Isn’t the purpose of preservation to keep things relevant for future generations? While the theater company is a private institution it certainly wouldn’t have barred the public from attending performances (after buying a ticket of course). Wouldn’t that have accomplished the general preservation goal of preserving the old building while ensuring its functional use into the future? The local preservation groups really overstepped their bounds here by holding back what would have been a good plan and now forcing the remains of the building to continue to be a decaying ruin instead of a vibrant piece of the waterfront.

    • Suman says:

      If you want to do that, you might want to break up your trip pre-wedding, post-wedding. I’d stay on the West Side of Manhattan to get to NJ the easiest. You could elsaiy get to the Empire State Bldg. from there, and go to Central Park, Metropolitan Museum, and perhaps go to a Broadway show. Go to Duffy Square for 1/2 price tickets day of show, if you’re on a limited budget. Plan on waiting in line for at least a hour, but Times Square is a fun place to be.Then you could do your Brooklyn part. Brooklyn is big, BTW. Brighton Beach is a fun place to go. I don’t know about hotels there, though. Sorry. Check out I’d then go to Coney Island, then to Park Slope, and then to Brooklyn Heights. You could even walk across the Brooklyn Bridge back into Manhattan. You’ll probably want to map out a route via subway (MTA).

    • Gene says:

      Im not sure about where to stay but a fun place to visit in New York is the museum of naarutl history, central park is always fun as well as there is a restaurant on top of a building, I believe it is a Marriott hotel, which slowly spins to give you a panoramic view of the city (don’t worry its indoors, so no need to worry about the wind or cold)Hope this helps

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