Federal Judge Strikes Down Dumbo Tobacco Warehouse Conversion

04/11/2011 9:46 AM |

Dumbos Tobacco Warehouse

Late Friday a Federal District judge ruled that the National Park Service (NPS) had violated its own charter and federal laws by transferring the Civil War-era Tobacco Warehouse and neighboring Empire Stores from federal parkland to private developers as part of a plan to convert the roofless warehouse (a former customs inspection center) into an enclosed theater to be operated by St. Ann’s Warehouse. In a press release posted yesterday, Federal District Judge Eric N. Vitaliano is quoted siding emphatically with the plaintiffs in the case—the New York Landmarks Conservancy, Brooklyn Heights Association and Fulton Ferry Landing Association—and condemned the NPS decision and the false “proof” offered in its defense.

Perhaps most egregiously, Commissioner of the New York City Parks Department Adrian Benepe and other officials declared in letters sent to the National Park Service that the Tobacco Warehouse and Empire Stores were mistakenly included in a 2001 federal map, but were not actually intended for public use. Judge Vitaliano had some strong words for that alibi:

“The house of cards erected by the defense cannot withstand the gentlest breeze,” Judge Vitaliano wrote. Addressing the claim that the structures were included on the federal map “by mistake,” the Judge labeled it as “revisionist,” and flatly rejected it, saying, “there is . . . not a shred of evidence [to suggest a mistake].” The Court criticized NPS’s decision to rely on information from the City and State agencies “without confirming or even investigating them or requesting any additional information or public comment.”

The Judge also found that the NPS had acted in violation of its own regulations by moving to transfer possession of the historic structure from public, federally owned land to a private developer (a “de-parking,” in essence). The decision was accompanied by a preliminary injunction to halt the redevelopment proceedings.

The plaintiffs and preservationists welcomed the decision. Fulton Ferry Landing Association president Joan Zimmerman said

The decision was a resounding rejection of arguments made to justify backroom deals between the City and NPS, and a strong affirmation of the principle that parks are to serve the public, not private interests.

The NPS could appeal the decision, but given the judge’s conviction that they have no case, that’d be pretty ballsy. What this means for outdoor programming at the Tobacco Warehouse this summer, or ongoing efforts to rehabilitate the Empire Stores, is still unclear. (BrooklynHeightsBlog, Photo)