Tobacco Warehouse Ruling Leaves Theater in Limbo

BHA ‘Gratified’ by Decision, but Some Locals Are Upset

By Samuel Newhouse
Brooklyn Daily Eagle

DUMBO — The roughly 140-year-old Tobacco Warehouse on Water Street in DUMBO cannot be converted or renovated for use by the St. Ann’s Warehouse theater, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.

“What we’re feeling is relief, gratification and vindication that the court took the facts, and made the decision that we believe and always will believe is the right decision,” said Brooklyn Heights Association (BHA) Executive Director Judy Stanton Thursday. “The judge’s language is very clear.”

The evidence “is so one-sided that [plaintiffs] must prevail as a matter of law,” wrote U.S. District Judge Eric N. Vitaliano of Brooklyn federal court in his ruling released this week in favor of the BHA, the Fulton Ferry Landing Association, the New York Landmarks Conservancy and the Preservation League of New York State.

These groups had sued the federal National Parks Service and New York City for “de-parking” the Tobacco Warehouse and adjacent Empire Stores.

Both of these Civil War-era structures, included originally in the federal grant applications for Brooklyn Bridge Park, were cut out of later versions of the plan. Defendants claimed they were only included by accident, and were in fact not suitable for outdoor recreational use as part of the park.

Judge Vitaliano dismissed those claims in this ruling. He had already halted the conversion of the historic structures in a preliminary injunction last April.

“The federal government [must] keep its promise … that parkland developed or improved with federal taxpayers’ money will remain available for public use, or at the very least, will be replaced with substitute parkland of equal or greater value. That promise must be kept,” Vitaliano wrote.

Now, as a private entity, St. Ann’s Warehouse at 38 Water St. will be forced to cancel its $15 million plan to renovate and permanently occupy the warehouse.

The city maintained that St. Ann’s should occupy the Warehouse in a statement Thursday. However, a spokesperson said it will not appeal Judge Vitaliano’s decision.

“We believe we followed the appropriate procedures and are evaluating our options,” said the City Law Department in a statement. “Tobacco Warehouse and Empire Stores are integral elements of the vision for Brooklyn Bridge Park. We continue to believe that Tobacco Warehouse is the appropriate home for St. Ann’s Warehouse, and we are committed to St. Ann’s proposed restoration and re-use of the Tobacco Warehouse as a cultural and community center.”

However, as the lease at their current location is set to expire in 2012, the theater company’s future is unknown. At the end of their next season in May 2012, 38 Water St. will be demolished to make way for construction of a condo.

Theater To Leave Current Home

St. Ann’s Warehouse artistic director Susan Feldman told the New York Times that she has looked at spaces in Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn where the theater could potentially move. Feldman could not be reached for comment.

On Water Street Thursday, some passersby were upset by the news.

“This would’ve been perfect. It’s not going to be the same if it moves to Manhattan!” said Elyse Locurto, a Manhattanite and St. Ann’s fan. “Once it goes to Manhattan it loses some of the charm, the local magic. Here they have so much of a spotlight on them. Here it stands out.”

“I’ve been coming here for about four to five years. I don’t understand what the problem is. This building is empty,” she continued, gesturing to the warehouse. “Its not like St. Ann’s is planning to go in and build McDonald’s.”

Another local was also bewildered that the Warehouse would be preserved in its original condition. “A public park, but nobody ever goes in it? And it’s locked? That’s a good park. And it’s made out of concrete,” noted Jeff Escalente, a DUMBO resident.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” said Maria Crawford, a DUMBO resident who was out with her two children. “How is St. Ann’s not preserving it? It’s a neighborhood fixture moving into another neighborhood fixture.”

Stanton said it’s up to the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation to reopen the warehouse to the public. She said she hopes it will soon see active recreation for the public.

“Let’s hope there could be ice skating there in the very near future — maybe this winter,” Stanton said. In fact, this Saturday the Warehouse will be hosting “Family Day” and other events for the 2011 Brooklyn Hip Hop festival.

But for the moment, the building remains locked up except for specific events, as it has been since 2008. “This building is empty,” Crawford said. “It’s public park space that no one can use.”

Doreen Gallo, executive director of the DUMBO Neighborhood Alliance, said, “There’s no reason for an indoors theater to be inside the park. … This didn’t have to be [St. Ann’s] home.”

A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Park Services, Phil Sheridan, said he believed his agency had acted properly, but was not sure yet whether they would appeal Judge Vitaliano’s decision.

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