Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Tobacco Warehouse and Empire Stores Swapped for Land Under Manhattan Bridge

Tobacco Warehouse (left), Empire Stores (right). By MK Metz
UPDATE with letter from the Brooklyn Heights Association at end of post.

The NY Daily News is reporting that a deal has been cut to turn over the Civil-War era Tobacco Warehouse and Empire Stores in DUMBO in exchange for a plot of city-owned land under the Manhattan Bridge:

"The city agreed to turn a 38,000 square foot site it owns under the Manhattan Bridge into a new chunk of the waterfront park -- to replace the [Tobacco] Warehouse and nearby Empire Stores when they lose federal protection as parkland."

This happened in a "deal struck Monday settling [the] lawsuit brought to stop the handover of the historic Tobacco Warehouse to a prominent theater company." (St. Ann's Warehouse)

"The expansion of the park is a great victory for everyone," said Joan Zimmerman, president of the Fulton Ferry Landing Association, according to Crain's. "We are glad that the settlement agreement today solidifies public process and ensures that, if any re-use of the Tobacco Warehouse or Empire Stores is approved, replacement parkland is a 'must'."

So what will happen to the Tobacco Warehouse and Empire Stores, two of the most distinguished architectural structures on the Brooklyn waterfront?

Before any development can begin on the two sites, "state legislation has to be passed and the National Park Service needs to approve such development," says Crain's. "Under the new agreement, the Tobacco Warehouse will be preserved and re-used as a cultural and community facility."

Does this mean that the Tobacco Warehouse is safe from St. Ann's Warehouse's disastrous redesign?


According to Crain's, St. Ann's (the Brooklyn theater group) has been conditionally designated as the tenant of the Tobacco Warehouse. The Empire Stores will be used as a "mixed-use retail and commercial development."

While the additional parkland is great, lovers of what J. Peter Flemming called that "historic and visually stunning 'ruin'" may well be worried DUMBO could lose one of its most famous symbols.

Present day Tobacco Warehouse 'ruin' draws thousands.      Photo by MK Metz
Probably replaced by this.
In spite of the double-decker tourist buses and hotdog vendors (and some may argue out-of-context carousel house), the Empire Park section of Brooklyn Bridge Park has retained a bit of a "wild" feel that draws visitors from around the world.

If the Tobacco Warehouse is sanitized and domesticated, the allure of this section of the DUMBO waterfront could be lost.

UPDATE: The Brooklyn Heights Association says that BBPC will keep the Tobacco Warehouse open to the public until any development takes place. Also: "Any construction plan will protect the historic character of the Tobacco Warehouse. The community will have a role in managing the use of the public space in the Tobacco Warehouse after any construction project is completed."

The entire letter from the BHA:

An Announcement From BHA President Jane McGroarty Dear BHA Members and Friends,

I have very good news: As you know, we embarked on a very complex litigation over the past 18 months concerning a plan to remove the Tobacco Warehouse and Empire Stores, two important historical structures, from Brooklyn Bridge Park. Although we tried to resolve the underlying issues without litigation, it was clear that federal, state, and city officials planned to develop those structures without public input, without providing substitute parkland (which the law requires), and without any meaningful public input into programming decisions. Through two successful lawsuits (one in federal court and one in state court), we put the brakes on these plans.

Having won the lawsuits, we were convinced of the importance of coming together with those on the other side of the litigation to forge a plan to resume work on the park on principled terms.

Today, we concluded a negotiation process – which was led by our attorneys, Jim Walden and Jim Hallowell of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher – to resolve all the open issues.

State and City officials graciously came to the table to partner with us. In the end, we all agreed on a process that ensures public input, gives the community a role in programing at public spaces, and, most importantly, provides substitute parkland if, indeed, regulatory approval is obtained to develop Empire Stores and Tobacco Warehouse for purposes other than parkland recreation.

We are very grateful to the State and City Officials, and particularly to Regina Myer and Hank Gutman, for their very constructive roles during the negotiation process. State Senator Daniel Squadron and Senate Assembly Member Joan Millman were also extremely helpful to us in forging the right result.

We understand that some in our community were concerned that our position was intended to somehow thwart St. Ann’s Warehouse, which was slated to develop the Tobacco Warehouse as a cultural and community theater, from succeeding. It was not. Our lawsuit was intended to vindicate the public’s right to a full and open process for development decisions, protection of parkland and historically important structures, and the community’s role in programming public spaces. In fact, today’s resolution gives St. Ann’s Warehouse a lawful process that it may use to try to get the necessary approvals for re-use of the Tobacco Warehouse. We wish St. Ann’s well in that application. If it succeeds, today’s resolution guarantees that substitute parkland must be added to Brooklyn Bridge Park.

We are quite proud that our work over the past weeks ends the litigation, brings us back together with park officials, and allows the work of building the park to proceed. We would like to thank our fellow plaintiffs – the Fulton Ferry Landing Association, the New York Landmarks Conservancy, and the Preservation League of New York State – for working with us to achieve this great result. We also thank the National Historic Trust, which supported our litigation.

We want to say a special thank you to our lawyers at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher for their outstanding pro bono counsel. The other attorneys were Kimberly Yuhas, Matthew Menendez, Adam Cohen, Adam Jantzi, Lloyd Kim, Yara Mansour, Richard Falek, and Sharon Grysman, and they all worked very hard, along with Jim Walden and Jim Hallowell. Together, the GDC team devoted more than a thousand hours of their time to our matter, including long nights and many weekends.

Here are the specifics of the agreement, which the City announced today [yesterday]:

* There will be 38,000 square feet of new parkland in DUMBO for Brooklyn Bridge Park. This is significant since the initial attempt to develop the Tobacco Warehouse did not include any replacement parkland. If we do not believe that the substitute parkland is properly valued, we will have the right to submit an independent valuation to NPS during the conversion process.

* The agreement states that the National Park Service should decide the conversion issues on the merits, without political considerations.

* The BBPC must hold regular briefings for the community every two weeks during the conversion process, and place any correspondence about the conversion on its website. This is another major victory for us, as it ensures that any conversion process will be transparent.

* BBPC will keep the Tobacco Warehouse open to the public until any development takes place. Any construction plan will protect the historic character of the Tobacco Warehouse. The community will have a role in managing the use of the public space in the Tobacco Warehouse after any construction project is completed.

- Judge: Tobacco Warehouse and Empire Stores Belong to Park, Not Private Developers

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