Turmoil in Heights: Key Figures In BHA Resign Over Lawsuit

Three Who Resigned Were Major Shapers of Brooklyn Bridge Park

By Dennis Holt
Brooklyn Daily Eagle

BROOKLYN HEIGHTS — Three prominent residents who were former officers of the Brooklyn Heights Association (BHA) have resigned from the BHA in recent days, this newspaper has learned.

The three are Hank Gutman, David Offensend and Joanne Witty. Offensend was once president of the association, Witty, vice-president, and Gutman served nine years on the board of governors.

All three resigned in protest over lawsuits, supported by the BHA, to prevent the Tobacco Warehouse from being converted into a cultural and entertainment center in Brooklyn Bridge Park by St. Ann’s Warehouse.

All three were also deeply involved in the public planning process that led to the master plan for Brooklyn Bridge Park. Witty was chair of the original Brooklyn Bridge Park Local Development Corporation. Offensend and Gutman were appointed to the Local Development Corporation (LDC) by the BHA.

Gutman later chaired the LDC when it studied transportation ramifications of the new park. All three are now on the board of directors of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation.

On Jan. 18 the Heights Association was party to two lawsuits filed in both federal court and New York State Supreme Court to try to prevent implementation of a plan announced on Nov. 17, by the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation.

The plan was based on a 2005 decision by the park planners concluding that “the restored exterior shell of the former Tobacco Warehouse may be used to house a walled garden, cafe, or space for arts groups.” In fact, the St. Ann’s Warehouse plan would achieve all three uses.

St. Ann’s Plan

That plan includes two performance spaces, one of 10,000 square feet, the other of 2,100 square feet. The 7,600-square-foot triangular section of the structure would be left largely uncovered as a walled public garden with cafe tables and chairs and planting beds open to the public during park hours.

The remainder of the proposed facility includes a 2,500-square-foot lobby, public restrooms and performance support space.

The principals in the lawsuits include the BHA, the Fulton Ferry Landing Association, and the New York Landmarks Conservancy. The plaintiffs are represented by Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. This firm represented a citizen’s group opposing the plan to double the capacity of the Brooklyn House of Detention, a plan subsequently shelved.

Of the two suits at issue, the primary action was a federal lawsuit against the National Park Service seeking a preliminary injunction to stop the transfer of the structure to a private organization. The second action was filed in New York State Supreme Court against the New York State Office of Parks and the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation seeking a court order to prevent officials from providing false and misleading information to the National Park Service.

The preliminary injunction has been denied because the city and state have agreed to discuss the entire situation with the National Park Service. An injunction was also not necessary inasmuch as more public reviews are called for before a lease execution can take place with St. Ann’s Warehouse this coming summer.

The three who resigned would not discuss the specific reasons for their resignations pending legal actions. But it is known that none of them were informed of the plan for legal action, which originated in July, even before requests were issued for the Tobacco Warehouse conversion.

BHA Reaction

Jane McGroarty, president of the Brooklyn Heights Association, said in a statement, “The BHA regrets the resignation of its former board members, who represented Brooklyn Heights for many years during the planning process for Brooklyn Bridge Park. We also wish to be very clear that we do not believe that the members of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation board knew of the state’s [alleged] misrepresentations.” The statement stressed the BHA’s opposition to “the removal from the public domain of a beautiful place in Brooklyn Bridge Park.” It added, “There is no glossing over that fact.”

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