Tobacco Warehouse Decision Vindicates Heights Association

Judge Rules ‘De-Parking’ Improper, City Still Hopeful

By Samuel Newhouse
Brooklyn Daily Eagle

BROOKLYN HEIGHTS – A federal judge has come down decisively on the side of the Brooklyn Heights Association (BHA) and its allies to halt the controversial development of the Tobacco Warehouse into a theater and performance space.

U.S. District Judge Eric N. Vitaliano of Brooklyn federal court handed down a temporary injunction on Friday, declaring that the Tobacco Warehouse and Empire Stores, 19th-century structures within Brooklyn Bridge Park, could not be legally removed from public park space for the purposes of development.

“We are gratified by Judge Vitaliano’s clear decision,” said Brooklyn Heights Association President Jane McGroarty in a statement. “The National Park Service and the state Parks Department acted illegally by removing the Tobacco Warehouse from the public domain. It belongs to the park, where it can be enjoyed by all.”

The case is pending further action, but Judge Vitaliano’s order represents a vindication for the BHA’s stance on the issue, which had been criticized by several of BHA’s own members.

The proposal to lease the Tobacco Warehouse to the St. Ann’s Warehouse theater company attracted media attention and earned no small measure of public support. The BHA insisted after filing this lawsuit in December that it didn’t oppose the theater company; just the process by which these 19th-century landmarks were “removed” from a public park.

In his decision, Judge Vitaliano dismissed the suggestion that the original map of Brooklyn Bridge Park that was submitted to the federal government as part of a grant application in 2001 could then be re-drawn by the National Park Service (NPS) to “de-park” the Tobacco Warehouse and Empire Stores.

NPS officials said these recognized landmarks were only included in error, and that new maps without the Warehouse or Stores were redrawn as a “correction.”

Judge Vitaliano disagreed.

“There is not a shred of evidence to suggest that OPRHP [New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation] or NPS blundered in some sort of oversight or mistake by including the Tobacco Warehouse and Empire Stores on the original … map,” he wrote. “The record convincingly suggests just the opposite — that the inclusion of the structures was entirely intentional. And, why not?”

The Warehouse was long open to public activity as part of the park, Vitaliano wrote, “whether that recreation took the form of a dance class, strolling, or children building Frosty the Snowman.”

City Vows To Press On

The city’s Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation, which supports the plan to lease the Tobacco Warehouse to St. Ann’s Warehouse to develop a $15 million performance space and community center, vowed to continue trying to make that proposal a reality.

“We are disappointed with the court’s ruling and look forward to presenting our full case to the court,” said New York City environmental law attorney Haley Stein, representing the corporation. “Brooklyn Bridge Park remains committed to moving the Tobacco Warehouse project forward and incorporating plans for St. Ann’s Warehouse and Empire Stores as vibrant parts of the park.”

A source in city government noted that regardless of the outcome of this lawsuit, other avenues may be pursued to bring St. Ann’s to the warehouse.

The city had expected to begin hearing proposals for the usage of the Empire Stores this spring, but that process will likely be put on hold, as well.

“This ruling reaches far beyond Brooklyn,” said New York Landmarks Conservancy President Peg Breen. “If the National Park Service could choose when to enforce the law, historic buildings and parks across the country would suffer.”

Susan Feldman, artistic director at St. Ann’s Warehouse, declined to comment on the lawsuit. Nancy Webster, executive director of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy, said she had not seen the judge’s decision yet and declined to comment.

“I feel it’s an important decision, not only because of how the community feels about the Tobacco Warehouse, but because one hopes the ruling will extend to all public parks. One would hope as a result that the National Park Service won’t be able, or be forced by political pressure, to violate its own rule of process. We hope that it will be a far-reaching injunction,” said Joan Zimmerman, president of the Fulton Ferry Landing Association.

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