Two fast-moving projects to renovate unique 19th-century buildings in Brooklyn—the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s 1830s Timber Shed and the 1870s Tobacco Warehouse on Water Street in Dumbo—have ground to a halt, revealing the dangers of attaching much-needed preservation projects to real estate developments. At the western end of the Navy Yard’s Admiral’s Row, the Timber Shed has deteriorated beyond repair while the city has attempted to finalize its purchase from the federal government. If the deal goes through before the structure crumbles, the city’s Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation and a private developer—not PA Associates, dropped after owner Aaron Malinsky was arrested in early March in connection with Senator Carl Kruger’s bribery scandal—will rebuild the structure as part of a real estate project to replace condemned 19th-century officers’ homes along Flushing Avenue with a supermarket, manufacturing center and parking lot. The Timber Shed’s half-collapsed roof once sheltered ships’ masts while they cured, and is likely the only remaining building of its kind in the country, but its fate remains uncertain. The longer this stalemate continues, the more certain the building’s demise.
Dumbo’s Tobacco Warehouse was built by the Lorillard family (of the Lorillard Tobacco Company) as a customs inspection center for shipments entering New York City harbor. It’s been protected as part of Brooklyn Bridge Park (BBP) since it was saved from demolition in the late 90s. Last November, the New York State Parks Department transfered ownership of the building to Brooklyn Bridge Development Corp., which picked a redevelopment proposal from neighboring performing arts presenter St. Ann’s Warehouse. The Tobacco Warehouse currently has no roof or windows, and hosts performances, festivals and outdoor events. The St. Ann’s project would put a roof over the Tobacco Warehouse’s larger east side, keeping the triangular western portion as a public courtyard. In January, three groups—the New York Landmarks Conservancy, Brooklyn Heights Association and Fulton Ferry Landing Association—filed state and federal lawsuits, prompting the National Park Service (NPS) to review the process through which the Tobacco Warehouse was removed from BBP and effectively privatized. When the “de-parking” was re-approved in February, the three plaintiffs accused City Hall of bringing pressure to push the decision through, noting that the NPS planned to renovate the warehouse themselves as recently as 2008. A temporary injunction issued on March 21 halted the redevelopment process, perhaps for another review, and to establish provisions for future “de-parkings.”
The Tobacco Warehouse and Timber Shed fiascos—which echo preservationists’ suspicions regarding the poor maintenance of Williamsburg’s soon-to-be condo-ified Domino Sugar Plant—exemplify a worrisome preservation practice whereby historic buildings are deliberately left to rot until the only way to salvage them is to turn to private developers. Under such circumstances, Brooklyn’s history will continue to disappear.