BHA, Others Sue to Stop Development of Tobacco Warehouse

Brooklyn Heights Ass'n

The Brooklyn Heights Association, along with the Fulton Ferry Landing Association and the New York Landmarks Conservancy, have sued both the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (NYSOP) and the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation in state court, claiming that NYSOP acted illegally in its application to the National Park Service to have the Tobacco Warehouse site, at Water and Dock Streets in DUMBO the Fulton Ferry Historic District, removed from federally protected park land. They have also sued the Park Service in federal court, alleging that the Park Service “performed no meaningful diligence at all” in granting NYSOP’s request, and seeking to enjoin the transfer of the site to a private party for development. As we previously reported, the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation has conditionally approved the plan by St. Ann’s Warehouse to develop the space inside the shell of the Tobacco Warehouse as a new home for its performance facility. More details are at Courthouse News Service and in the BHA press release following the jump.

The BHA has provided the following information about these legal actions and their background:

Plaintiffs, represented by Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, brought these suits after obtaining documents through the Freedom of Information Law which showed that City and State officials launched a secret plan to remove the Tobacco Warehouse from the park’s map so that it could be given to a private organization for free and for its sole and permanent use.

“The purpose of having protected parkland is to guard it for open access by everyone, regardless of background or ability to pay. After 5 years of programming with many events by a diverse collection of groups with varied missions, including art, cultural, musical, and recreational, the government has secretly turned over the keys to a monopoly of one,” said Jane McGroarty, President of the Brooklyn Heights Association. McGroarty said the lawsuit was the only remaining option to save the Tobacco Warehouse after her plea to the National Park Service (in July 2010) went unanswered.

“People have enjoyed this lovely space for years as an integral part of the park and the views,” said Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-NY). “We must not only keep the Tobacco Warehouse in the Park, but we should look for ways to expand access to its flexible open public use.”

The Tobacco Warehouse is a 25,000 square foot unroofed historic space that was saved from demolition twice in the past 40 years. The community convinced the government to spend more than $2 million to renovate the Tobacco Warehouse and the Fulton Ferry Park, where the Warehouse resides and as a result, the Warehouse was host to many outdoor events – dance performances, concerts, family and children’s events.

“The New York Landmarks Conservancy is concerned that proper procedures were not followed when the Tobacco Warehouse was removed from the park. When the Conservancy was involved in saving the Warehouse years ago, the State invested in the building and treated it as a feature of the park,” said Peg Breen, President of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, a plaintiff in the federal action.

State Senator Daniel Squadron also expressed his concerns, “I’ve long said that transparency and community input are crucial as we work together to help Brooklyn Bridge Park reach its full potential. The Tobacco Warehouse is a big part of that potential, and a unique community amenity — the process for determining its use must adhere to these principles. If true, the issues being raised today are disturbing and call the process into further question; they must be dealt with swiftly.”

“The Tobacco Warehouse has great historical significance and has been saved repeatedly over the years by some of our local community groups. In light of this new information, I believe it should remain as is — a stabilized architectural ruin programmed as a multi-purpose space accommodating a variety of activities,” added Assemblymember Joan Millman.

City Councilmember Steve Levin said, “As the New York City Councilmember who represents Brooklyn Bridge Park, I have consistently opposed the issuing and awarding of the Tobacco Warehouse RFP. The Tobacco Warehouse is a historic landmark and a public treasure. I continue to believe strongly that the Tobacco Warehouse should remain public parkland to the benefit of the entire community.”

Joan Zimmerman, President of the Fulton Ferry Landing Association said, “The process was manipulated by unelected bureaucrats to get the results they — not the people — wanted. This isn’t the way a democracy is supposed to work.”

Update: For the really wonkish (Publius, are you with me?), Dumbo NYC has what’s supposed to be the nitty-gritty of what went on amongst the defendants in the lawsuits. Curbed’s Sara Polsky read it, but still wants an explanation.

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  • Publius

    Anyone else suspect the hand of Two Trees lurking somewhere behind this?

    Submitted for your consideration:

    The Flying Walentas’ need a place for St. Anne’s to go after soon kicking them out to make way for the Dock St. footprint. Also, Two Trees/Walentas has donated a lot of money to the park for Jane’s merry-go-round and has a cozy relationship with the BBPC. And all of this takes place within geographical boundaries of and Papa and Baby Doc (Jed) Walentas’ “feifdom”.

    Similar to the collusion/deception with the School Construction Authority FOIL debacle during the Dock Street scam (also currently being fought in court)?

    Perhaps this time certain parties were smart enough not to put incriminating evidence in FOIL-able emails and instead use the phone or a cozy business lunch? N’est Pas?

  • william

    Hurray, Hurray!!!!

    Was Ken Fisher involved in any of this?

  • fultonferryman

    Claude, the Tobacco Warehouse is in the Fulton Ferry Historic District, not DUMBO.

  • David on Middagh

    Fultonferryman, I think the “Fulton Ferry Historic District” needs a snappy name.

    I nominate “FuFeHiDi”, to be pronounced

  • Claude Scales

    fultonferryman: Dang! Since you and Judy Stanton agree on this, I’ve amended the post accordingly. As the old saying goes, “Ya loin somethin’ every day.”

  • Wonk it to me

    Dear Claude, Esq.,

    Hey, Publius isn’t the only wonk around here!!!

    Is this an Article 78 (hard to win) or something else? Is it filed in state court (filled with politicians) or federal court (filled with a different type of politician)? Are the legal papers available so they are posted via Scribd or someplace else? What is their remedy (no rights without a remedy!)

    Either way, plaintiffs are represented by a large law firm, albeit one that will suffer from low hourly rates.

  • fultonferryman

    Thanks Claude. The Bridge, and then the BQE, obliterated many of the old buildings in Fulton Ferry, so we have to hang on to what remains of our nabe!

    David: FFHD is the designation by Landmarks for this area, but we just use the name Fulton Ferry, or in some circles, Fulton Ferry Landing. FuFeHiDi is fine; it’s better than if we were the Pullman Park School and Parish, pronounced Poo-pah-skoo-pah.

  • Claude Scales

    Wonk etc.: From what I’ve been able to piece together so far, there are two suits: one in Federal Court against the Park Service seeking to enjoin it from allowing the transfer of the Tobacco Warehouse site on the grounds that the Service failed to exercise proper diligence in approving the application to have the site removed from the protected park area, and another in state court to enjoin NYSOP from providing false or misleading information to the Service concerning the application (it’s alleged that NYSOP already did this, so I suppose the intent is to have the Service reconsider the application de novo and to enjoin NYSOP, and perhaps BBPC as well, from resubmitting any false info). Since this seeks injunctive relief against a state agency, I presume it must be under Article 78.

  • anon

    Being without knowledge about all the issues involving the Warehouse, I find it somewhat ironic that two entities that have had much to do with their even being a park to protect are taking so much heat.

    Before Walentas and Two Trees, that area was a very ugly place. I have pictures to prove it if your memory is short. I wouldn’t even take my dog out there for a walk. I’m assuming that condos like One Main, 70 Washington, and Sweeny had something to do with the park being erected.

    BBPC also is continually taking heat and I just don’t get it. BBP is a life saver for me.

    Being a long time resident, I thank both these entities for making this area (Brooklyn Heights, DUMBO, Fulton Ferry Landing) one of the best in all NY. Personally, I think it is the best.

    Unless I’m totally naive, I’m assuming that the Warehouse will still exist but have a roof so it can be enjoyed throughout the year.

    If it was part of St. Ann’s Warehouse, we might have the opportunity to enjoy some entertainment tonight, for example, whereas the status quo has it just looking pretty with no weather protection.

    Those complaining about park expenses can expect more costs now that they are compelled to defend their position on the Warehouse. Hopefully the lawyers live in the Heights so the money stays local and is spent in local restaurants.

  • park it here

    Nothing yet shows up on WebCivil Supreme for the above named plaintiffs, but someone can always check the court house. PACER, for federal court filings, are usually more up to date because electronic filing is required, whereas in state court they generally still use paper.

  • sue

    If this is true.. Regina Meyer has to go

  • David Fuller

    It would be interesting to me to see the National Park Service’s rationale for taking the Tobacco Warehouse out of the designated area for lack of public use. Per DUMBO NYC blog we can see certain events held there, but we residents all know that for most of the time the Warehouse has stayed empty and unused. How many events per season constitute non-use? As is, the historical walls are interesting to look at, but not inviting to the public for use — you can’t play handball against the interior walls; it is really oven-like in there on a summer day; who wants to picnic in there when there is an expanse of grass nearby; etc., etc.

    What galls, is the perception that the St. Ann’s Warehouse winning of the RFP appears rigged, whether or not it actually was. Arts in NYC, particularly Theatre Arts, is really about real estate. Friendly long-term leases or outright property ownership are the best bets for long life for NYC theaters. St. Ann’s Warehouse, a non-profit presenter of theatrical events, benefits enormously from free land. Yes, money needs to be raised for the bricks and mortar, but capital money is easier to raise than operating money. Taking rent or mortgage payments out of an operating budget makes a presenter [and producer] much more flexible in terms of programming: i.e., if an event fails to make money, there is at least no worry about losing the space. Should the status quo keep St. Ann’s Warehouse on the plot, good for them, but not so good for hundreds of other groups.

    If the Tobacco Warehouse is found to be a bona fide public space in perpetuity, it should have some sort of non-profit management allowing for use by NYC performance groups needing space. Why not have ART/NY administer it, for example?

  • David Fuller

    What does this mean: “Your comment is awaiting moderation.”?

  • fultonferryman

    More details are in this Daily News article today:

    A good deal of quid-pro-quo, ticket bribery, and an outright threat by Jed Walentas about the possible placement of his mother’s carousel at a spot not of her choosing:

    “I am warning you it is not going to go well at all if this is correct,” he wrote in a 2008 email to Brooklyn Bridge Park president Regina Myer. Myer assured him the carousel was slated to go in his preferred spot.

  • Publius

    More info on the emails and the cozy relationship between Baby Doc, St. Anne’s and Regina Myer:

  • bklyn20

    This is exactly what I’ve been railing on about for all these months. I want the Tobacco Warehouse (and the Empire Stores) to generate revenue for BBP, but to do so through an appropriate public process. The Carousel should have gone through a proper public process too. It doesn’t matter if a family (the Walentas family) “made” Dumbo. Their interests are not the same as those of the public. This is why the public must be and has been heard. Sadly, lawsuits seem to be the only way for Brooklyn Bridge Park to listen.

  • Big Dave

    Developers build,
    East river winds
    Bring chilly altruism.

  • Frank

    The uses of the Tobacco Warehouse over the last 5 or 6 years have been just awful. First there’s that fugly $100k tent full of mostly private weddings since that was the only way they could make any money, and then weird, crappy public use things like the creepily shoddy putt putt golf. That’s the status quo we’re trying to protect? St. Ann’s has proven they can operate on a high level and I’m sure they’re will remain plenty of community use available with them as stewards of a very nicely renovated space instead of a dumpy tent full of private weddings and whatever else the coalition can manage to program in there.

  • Buddy Holly

    Let’s put Jane’s carousel in Coney Island where it belongs.

  • bklyn20

    In the past, the Tobacco Warehouse has been improperly- , or certainly under-, used. Much more creative programming could be held there that would make money for the park, draw a variety of park users, and still keep the building essentially as it is. Maybe it needs a retractable roof. St Ann’s is a great arts institution, but they should not be running this space on their own. These recent revelations only make this clearer.

  • MartinLBrooklyn

    The Warehouse has had several years of bona fide public uses. Operating under severe financial constraints they were free to the public, and featured education, exercise, entertainment and cultural experiences.
    With an assurred future, it could readily be a thriving, open, pleasant, unique and stimulating meeting place for all New Yorkers.
    It is a separate issue but the private theater company seeking a monopoly on this public space is described in TimeOut as an “adventurous theatergoer’s alternative to BAM, ….offer[ing] an eclectic lineup of theater and music.” This, by design, is clearly not for everyone.
    Of course, even if it were an ‘everyman’s” theater company, it is still not privileged to take over public property for its private enterprise, no matter how high flown and worthy its purposes are.

  • David Fuller

    That is the real issue, isn’t it, MartinLBrooklyn? Your final comment. Public property moving into the private sector. Not-for profit. Not taxable.

    St. Ann’s Warehouse programming is for a mere segment of the population, with performers and audience often originating outside Brooklyn and NYC. [Long Islanders paying to see international artists, for instance.]

    Frank, where has St. Ann’s Warehouse been specific about the kinds of community involvement it foresees in the Tobacco Warehouse space under its leadership?

    Shouldn’t there be a mandate for St. Ann’s Warehouse to administer a portion of the Tobacco Warehouse footprint on behalf of local artists?

  • nabeguy

    Even if St. Ann’s gets the space, they’ll never be able to stage a production that can live up to the drama of this thread. As back-room deals go, we could do worse. Can you imagine if Walentas had allowed it to be the third store in the Peas and Pickles chain?