BHA Takes a Tobacco Warehouse Victory Lap

A dispatch was sent out earlier today by Brooklyn Heights Association president Jane McGroarty in response to Judge Eric Vitaliano of the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of New York reaffirming his injunction against the transfer of the Tobacco Warehouse in the Fulton Ferry Historic to St. Ann’s Warehouse. Planners had hoped that it would be used as a new home for the theater and performing arts organization. Read it and comment after the jump.

Dear BHA Friends:

I am relieved to report to you that the BHA’s lawsuit in federal court has accomplished its purpose. Judge Eric Vitaliano has ruled in our favor. Judge Vitaliano states that his ruling “requires that the federal government keep its promise . . . that parkland developed or improved with federal taxpayers’ money will remain available for public use.” The full decision can be downloaded from our website.

For all of us this means that the Tobacco Warehouse and Empire Stores, which are subject to the protections accorded to any public parkland under federal regulation, may not be privately developed or in any way altered except under strict guidelines. Should the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation wish to develop or alter them for anything other than outdoor public recreation, it must apply to do so by meeting the standards set forth in guidelines promulgated by the National Park Service.

For some of you, this BHA action may have appeared divisive or regarded as a “mere technicality”, but I can assure you that the BHA Board was intent on upholding the law to protect what has been and must remain a public park. This was litigation that should and could have been avoided but – in this case – the involved government agencies were unwilling to concede their failure to follow applicable law. We thank Jim Walden and his Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher team for defending this principled cause, and we are proud to have our collective efforts vindicated by the courts.

I invite you to read through Judge Vitaliano’s opinion for a better understanding of the gravity of this case. Our fellow plaintiffs are the Fulton Ferry Landing Association (in whose historic district this case resides), the NYC Landmarks Conservancy and the NY State Preservation League. Click here for the opinion.

The BHA has a long history of involvement with our waterfront, beginning in the 1960s when our BHA predecessors blocked the City’s plans to develop a meat market in what is now enjoyed as part of Brooklyn Bridge Park. Soon afterwards in 1976, then BHA leaders convinced the Governor and NY State

Parks Department to purchase the land between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges (including the Tobacco Warehouse and Empire Stores) for the purpose of creating a maritime park. Today, the 19th century warehouses stand not just as evocative reminders of Brooklyn’s bygone days, but as an integral part of Brooklyn Bridge Park.

Going forward, we hope that the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation will re-open the Empire Fulton Ferry State Park to the public, and resume the outdoor activities that were enjoyed in the Tobacco Warehouse before it was closed to the public.

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  • Publius

    If St. Anne’s Warehouse can’t find another home promto, BHA has blood on its hands. They will never get another $0.01 from me, and I’m a longtime member.

  • Pat

    I think it is a real shame that a compromise was not sought. I don’t think the “outdoor activities” in a space with no roof is the ideal use of the space, and losing St. Ann’s altogether would be a real loss. This “victory lap” by the BHA is unfortunate (and I am a member).

  • Arch Stanton

    Hooray BHA for standing up for the park and all who use it. While the St Ann’s plan might have been nice it was perpetrated unlawfully, by (let’s not forget) Walentas for his gain, not yours.

  • Mickey

    If Arch Stanton applauds the decision, I know it must be rooted in evil.

  • A Neighbor

    An impressive opinion. Federal law, appropriately, mandates a public process to remove public parkland for non-park use. It cannot be done by pols or a connected developer or an elite board under cover of night. Suppose they had chosen to put a Walmart there instead? If we don’t make government follow the rules, that can happen just as well.

    Yes, St. Ann’s is a nice amenity. But this is precious public parkland — and 99% of the people in our borough would never go to a production there. Is that the right way to use a park? That is a question that the public has a right to answer.

  • x

    St Ann’s should pay to lease the park for its use.

    not for free. The Public owns the area.

  • Livingston

    The BHA will never get another $ from me again –ever. I am disgusted by their self-righteous, petty agenda.

    So now the park gets to maintain a shell of a building that nobody uses, except for private events. That’s really a fabulous way to serve the public (sarcasm).

  • A Neighbor

    To Livingston, Protecting the public interest is never petty. It requires courage, vision — and, unfortunately, thick skin. People who do it may not always get it right, but we should be grateful that they care and expend their unpaid time in our cause.

    Re the use of the building. If you read the judge’s decision — and I recommend it — you will see that there has been much public use in addition to private events. That was part of the underpining of the decision. And, yes, the park needs our help now to find creative ways to enhance use of the historic ‘shell’ for many more of Brooklyn’s citizens.

  • Karl Junkersfeld

    Don’t forget this decision also encompasses the Empire Stores which are falling apart right before our very eyes. Without private capital these building will not survive. Does the park have infrastructure money to make the major capital improvements that this wonderful structures need? I don’t think so. We all know municipalities are reigning in all infrastructure projects that aren’t necessary.

    Private capital by small business or (god forbid) DEVELOPERS was probably these buildings only salvation. Very sad day for those of us who really wanted to see something special happen with this area along Water Street. I hope I am very wrong in what I believe is inevitable.

  • A Neighbor

    Guys, it helps to focus on what the decision says. The point is only that decisions about removing parkland are very important — and have to be made in a public process, as the law mandates. Because it is a public park, they cannot be made by a small group of insiders, pols, and developers, even if some of them believe they know what is best for us. (And if you agree with the decisions they make.)

    Any imagined use of these structures is still possible, including private development of the stores. As long as the decision-making process follows the law.

  • resident

    @A Neighbor: The question really isn’t was the decision correct or should parkland be protected. It was correct and parkland should be protected. The question is really why the BHA chose this case to pursue. This wasn’t some greedy development takeover, nor was it really a parkland give away. This was a process to put the property in control of BBPC and allow the use by a non-profit group that acts in the public interest. Perfectly consistent with parkland usage.

    What did the BHA really hope to gain? This isn’t some grand fight for the protection of federal parkland. The decision is really a minor issue on the grand scale that will have very little real world effect outside the property at issue. There is no threat of a Wal-mart being created under similar circumstances. Instead, all we have are two crumbling urban ruins under federal control where the federal government isn’t going to give the money necessary to turn them into the outdoor recreational space it was originally proposed as (a walled garden in the Tobacco Warehouse and a rooftop garden at Empire Stores, I don’t know what they were smoking when they thought the latter was a possibility).

    Was it a violation of the law? Yes, but sometimes it’s in the better public interest to not pursue the enforcement of that law when the results are worse for the public interest.

  • BklynJace

    I think Resident speaks wisely. I understand the reason for the decision and the dangers of short-cutting the process, but not all short cuts are bad. I think the BHA has let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and the site, St. Ann’s and parkgoers will wind up shortchanged by it. I’d like to be wrong, but the history of NYC areas rotting away while people fight over blue-sky plans suggests otherwise.

  • fultonferry

    While I don’t totally disagree with the decision, I wish that BHA were just a little less smug about this “victory”. There doesn’t seem to be any understanding on their part that they’ve actually “won” at a detriment to the neighborhood.

    Without an attempt to compromise, they’ve overlooked that St. Ann’s is a non-profit arts organization, not a commercial theater. It’s almost as if the people at BHA thought this a clear cut issue (“bad” commercial developers vs. “good” neighborhood association) and forgot that it’s actually equally in the public interest to support non-profit arts groups in a developing neighborhood. I highly doubt anyone associated with BHA works in or supports the arts, as they’ve chosen one priority above another.

  • A Neighbor

    The reason for the public process that the law mandates is so that voters and residents can decide how they want to use their park resources.

    Doesn’t it matter that a non-public process chose a use for scarce borough parkland that 99% of Brooklyn residents will never use?

  • gardenia

    i am really happy the BHA chose to fight this, and i will be renewing my membership. it is VITAL for for the long run to protect our parks that the process is followed and people who break the law are held accountable. now the rest of you, stop complaining and help come up with a new, lawful plan! let’s continue to make this neighborhood the best in NYC!

  • JAF

    Happy now? Fashion shows, weddings, loud concerts (that the BHA elitists up the hill won’t have to hear), and other commercial nonsense will occupy this space instead of a world class arts institution. In law schools, this kind of formal litigation is laughed at. More intelligent parties would have moved toward transactional lawyering and problem solving to keep St Anns while preserving the integrity of the regulatory process that was violated. Was the endgame for BHA and FFLA (the latter of whom, by the way, are not exactly admired by their older sibs up the hill) to reify the regulatory process at the expense of smart land use that benefits the neighbors.

    Let’s be honest….what possible concern was the Tobacco Warehouse to BHA? Wasn’t the Tobacco Warehouse a stalking horse for some other BHA issues sure to come up down the road, so as to preserve its political prerogatives (via its wealth and access to the courts) for conflicts on its own turf? Were they trying to put Two Trees on notice to stay out of the Heights proper?

    This is sad, perverse and otherwise self-defeating. As Publius says, BHA and FFLA have blood on their hands. And where was DNA, by the way? Any support I might have given to FFLA (and in the past I did) will go now in spades now to St Anns. So too will some political dollars that might have gone to BHA- and FFLA-supported poilticians. I hope my neighbors, after yet another lame concert, will figure out that they should do the same.

  • Elizabeth I

    If it had been a basketball stadium instead of a non profit theater group bringing us edgy theater from around the world, maybe the back room deal would have been more successful, and left unchallenged by the courts.

    I agree with everyone.

    This was the perfect defeating the good. Will we now sit back and watch these two beautiful structures rot + decay even more, and one day just collapse (like the gorgeous old buildings down the road in the Navy Yard)? Will St Ann’s leave the neighborhood?

    Justice might have prevailed, but it’s led to tragedy.

    If only Landmarks and the City had stopped Two Trees planned destruction of the building that houses St Ann’s. If only Jane’s Carousel hadn’t destroyed the beauty of the views of the bridge/city from the park…(I know it has nothing to do with this topic but I just hate what it’s done to the view so much!)

  • Arch Stanton

    Dear Mickey, I am not evil, I am merely here to point out the good, the bad and the ugly truths. The good is that the BHA stood up for what is right, the law that protects our precious parkland, for fair use by all citizens . David Walentas is the bad as he used St. Ann’s and the park as a pawns in his game of greedy self interest. The ugly is that carrousel structure plunked right in the middle of the park, ruining what was once a spectacular view.

  • Livingston

    @ Arch Stanton:

    So you’re blaming David Walentas in all this for using his perogative to develop his own private property? Are we now living in a socialist state? Bad enough it’s a litigious one, as we’ve just witnessed.

    As for the carousel, it’s a gorgeous antique. I cannot possibly see how you can call it ugly. As a child, I spent many happy hours on one similar to this and it always brings a smile to my face when I pass by. I cannot wait to see it in its full glory with other children enjoying. Unless, of course, the BHA springs another lawsuit.

  • Karl Junkersfeld

    Ugly? Carousel? In same sentence? Statement is perfect example of insanity we have witnessed over the St. Ann’s debacle.

    Watch this film link and then tell me how ugly the carousel is. Does your hatred for Walentas have no bounds?

  • Andrew Porter

    Great news! The Parks Department has decided to close the Promenade to public access, and going to give a long-term lease to the River Café for an exclusive restaurant on the property.

    Sorry, that was in an alternate universe in which the judge found that the various public bodies in question acted properly in giving away public property for commercial use.

    BTW, I post under my own name, rather than state silly or objectionable opinions under a pseudonym. Let those on the other side of this argument put their actual names to their opinions.

  • ABC

    I support the BHA here.

    I support and admire St Ann’s too — and have for many years. But even people I like have to play by the rules.

    I wonder if the BBPC’s board had not conducted such a dubious proposal process — which basically handed this space to St Ann’s — if any of this would have come to pass. And I’m disappointed with St Ann’s “we’ve looked and we haven’t found a suitable space in Brooklyn and may go to Manhattan” reaction to all this.

  • Livingston

    Everyone played by the rules as they were presented. The BHA just didn’t like the results and found a technical loophole.

    And, Andrew, your analogy is faulty. The bulk of the Tobacco Warehouse is not accessible to the public (as the promenade currently is) and now probably never will be. But your use of the River Cafe is a good illustration of how a formerly decrepit public area can be developed using private initiative and benefit the surrounding area and public coffers (they pay a lease, plus sales tax, etc). For a long time, RC was the only reason anyone ventured down there.

  • Arch Stanton

    Dear Karl Junkersfeld et al, who failed reading comprehension, I meant the structure housing the carousel is ugly not the carousel itself. Anyway it is totally out of place, the only reason it is there is because D.W.’s c**t wife wanted it there and he needed it out of the way so he could build another cash cow.

  • Arch Stanton

    Dear Livingston, you are the one who’s faulty, as far as what’s “off limits” you are confusing the the division between the Tobacco Warehouse and the Empire Stores.
    Also, If you read (and understood) the judges decision you would know the BHA lawsuit was not based on a “technical loophole” and every one did not “play by the rules”.

  • Peter

    It’s bad enough the BHA has succeeded in closing down one of the cultural gems of the neighborhood so a rotting structure can host private parties. It’s worse that they arrogantly and brazenly celebrate this “victory” of ideology over common sense. I will never contribute a penny to them — I’m appalled and disgusted by their arrogance.

  • Cranberrian

    It’s comforting to know we have a community association willing to devote its resources and credibility to driving great cultural institutions away from the neighborhood. Any chance you could get the movie house to leave, too? How about Bargemusic? Let’s drive them all out, and convert all the property into venerable ruins. Oh, wait, now I remember — this isn’t really about purging all culture from the neighborhood. It’s actually all about high principle! Great. Next time I want a fun evening, I can forget about going to a local theater, but I can take down my copy of Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” and go read about high principle amid the ruins of a park building that is now guaranteed to be useless. Great going, BHA. I’m very glad to know who the enemy is in this neighborhood.

  • Michael M Thomas

    Modern life: the triumph of the tenth-rate over the first-rate. This was never about St. Ann’s or the park – BHA people hardly venture into this neighborhood – but about the circle-pin set’s uncontrollable hatred of David Walentas. They were able to lure the dupes on the Landmarks Conservancy, who barely know where DUMBO is, into legitimating their lawsuit.

  • Michael M Thomas

    One other point to consider as we look up at the contrails formed by the leaders of the BHA flying victory circles on their broomsticks: in 2003, the Empire State Development Corp. handed the Empire Stores to Boymelgreen to develop, accepting a proposal that anyone with third-grade arithmetic could see was unfeasible from a business point of view, and hideous from a preservationist standpoint. At this time these structures were, like the TW, still within the boundaries of the Park Service map. Not a peep then from the BHA, however, although shortly before, they had howled and stamped their tiny feet and rended their garments to block an eminently reasonable, culturally forward-looking proposal by Polytechnic Institute and – let’s see if you can guess – David Walentas.

  • Michael M Thomas

    One wonders whether Judge Vitaliano took the Boymelgreen adventure into account.