Deal Allows Development in Brooklyn Bridge Park
A long-simmering dispute over the relocation of a cutting-edge theater to Brooklyn Bridge Park has been resolved by a sweeping agreement among city officials, state lawmakers and several nonprofit groups, paving the way for the theater’s eventual move while expanding the park.
The agreement comes as part of a settlement of lawsuits brought by neighborhood groups that had challenged a city, state and federal decision to turn over a historic structure in the park, called the Tobacco Warehouse, to the theater, St. Ann’s Warehouse. The groups had argued that the move would set a precedent, leaving other parkland vulnerable to private development. In two rulings, state and federal judges agreed.
But on Monday, a laundry list of government agencies and nonprofit groups outlined their agreement, which would allow for the development of the Tobacco Warehouse, a Civil War-era structure that is now a brick shell, into a cultural venue, and the neighboring Empire Stores, another historic building in the park, into a retail complex.
St. Ann’s, which has operated in Dumbo across Water Street from the park since 2000, was conditionally named as the designated tenant for the Tobacco Warehouse. The theater plans to move this fall into another location, but its leaders have long sought a Brooklyn Bridge Park address.
At the same time, the agreement identified land in the form of city-owned property beneath the Manhattan Bridge that will be added to the park. Two state lawmakers, Senator Daniel L. Squadron and Assemblywoman Joan L. Millman, who helped negotiate the agreement, insisted on the creation of a community advisory committee to help plan the new parkland, which measures about one acre.
“The agreement does two things,” Mr. Squadron said in a phone interview after it was announced. “It’s a sign that process and community involvement are critical as we build open space, and it’s an expansion of a park that is transforming the city.” Among the groups signing are Brooklyn Heights Association, the Fulton Ferry Landing Association, the New York Landmarks Conservancy and the Preservation League of New York; all had been party to the litigation.
The two historic structures occupy land that until recently was Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park, located just north of the Brooklyn Bridge. That property was transferred to Brooklyn Bridge Park two years ago. Because of federal money that had been granted years earlier for the park, the property came with National Park Service restrictions. In separate rulings, judges had criticized the transfer of the buildings for private use.
In April 2011, one judge, Eric N. Vitaliano of Federal District Court, issued a preliminary injunction to block St. Ann’s from moving into the Tobacco Warehouse. In July, he ruledthat the National Park Service had acted outside its authority by removing both the Tobacco Warehouse and Empire Stores, which also predates the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, from classification as federal parkland.
The use of those buildings, which both have landmark protection, will now require formal approval by the State Legislature, which Senator Squadron said he expected, and the National Park Service. The Empire Stores site, a former coffee warehouse that is actually seven contiguous buildings that measure 330,000 square feet, will be redeveloped into a mixed-use retail and commercial complex. It is expected to generate at least $750,000 a year in revenue for park maintenance.
Referring to the reuse of the historic brick structures, Regina Myer, president of Brooklyn Bridge Park, said, “It’s a strong link to the city’s history and the harbor.”
St. Ann’s was ready to begin work on the Tobacco Warehouse a year ago when the lawsuits were filed. Instead, it signed a three-year lease at a new theater on Jay Street. Susan Feldman, artistic director of the 33-year-old theater, said that she still hoped to eventually relocate to the waterfront. “That’s certainly a hopeful thing,” she said of the deal. “It’s right there in the park and on the river. It’s the gateway to Brooklyn.”
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