The Austin Nichols Warehouse, a white behemoth on the Williamsburg waterfront, was designated a landmark last summer, and several weeks ago the City Council overturned that designation. It doesn’t sound like much, but the City Council, in 14 years, has only overturned three designations. Then Mayor Bloomberg overturned the overturn, saying that the Landmarks Commission decision should stand. And then, the City Council voted down Bloomberg’s veto. Why are the members of the City Council all of a sudden taking such interest in the work of the Landmarks people, a group of trained professionals? And what’s the big deal about an early 20th-century grocery warehouse?
At the center of the controversy is the neighborhood’s slimy council member David Yassky, who was quoted in the Times as saying “If we’re going to landmark the industrial buildings along the waterfront, that will impede development.” What he didn’t say was that he had received donations from the building’s owner, who wants the designation overturned so he can alter the already-residential building, creating — you guessed it — luxury condominiums. In the same article Councilwoman Margarita Lopez, who voted against the overturn, said, “I have never seen the Landmarks Commission landmark a property that didn’t deserve to be a landmark,” which was Bloomberg’s argument. Yassky’s contention that this single landmark could hold up development is absurd. The entire waterfront, several miles long, has already been rezoned, and development planning is well underway. That the city, and the immediate neighborhood, might want to save one significant industrial building as a reminder of the neighborhood’s history hardly seems questionable.
The arguments online regarding the building are fascinating, and many of the opponents of the landmarking cite the warehouse’s ugliness as reason enough to deny it protection. Excuse me? There was a time when the cast iron of Soho wasn’t considered worth saving, and a time when half of Greenwich Village nearly perished to make a cross-Manhattan expressway. If the history of this city teaches us anything, it’s that we don’t usually appreciate much until we destroy it (or nearly destroy it). Aesthetics are subjective, and the whole point of having an autonomous Landmarks commission is to avoid the unschooled and fatuous opinions of people who don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.
Here’s my proposal: Let all these asses who want to obliterate Brooklyn with their development address our problems first. Clean the filthy streets, get enough L trains running that the platform isn’t eight-deep in the morning, and clean up our oil spills and our air pollution and our radioactive waste transfer station. Then we’ll talk.