The future of a well-loved theater space is causing drama in Dumbo.
St. Ann’s Warehouse, the cavernous space known for staging cutting-edge performing arts, had hoped to relocate to a building located in the ruins of a mid-19th century tobacco warehouse. The Dumbo space was donated to the group by the city.
Those plans were halted on Friday after a Brooklyn judge issued a preliminary injunction on the building. The prosecution, which included the New York Landmarks Conservancy and the Brooklyn Heights Association, successfully argued that the tobacco warehouse was originally designated as public park land and had had its status changed illegally—without going through the required hearings and permitting process.
The prosecution showed that the borders of Brooklyn Bridge Park were improperly redrawn in 2008, and that they excluded the tobacco warehouse and the neighboring so-called Empire Stores building, which is a former storage space for spice merchants.
Judge Eric Vitaliano ordered the city and the National Parks Service to immediately revert to the park’s original borders and for St. Ann’s Warehouse to stop developing the space.
On the other side, the city’s lawyers argued that the ruins of the tobacco warehouse were not suitable parkland and had been included in the park's footprint by accident.
Prosecuting lawyer Jim Walden, however, argued that the city conspired to give the land to St. Ann’s Warehouse through “a secret channel.”
“This is not what we think of when we think of public integrity,” said Walden. “We think of our government working for us, not trying to cram plans down our throats. I think that considering the number of places we’re seeing this kind of thing happen around the city, people have a right to be concerned.”
City lawyer Haley Stein told WNYC in a written statement: “We are disappointed with the Court's ruling and look forward to presenting our full case to the Court. Brooklyn Bridge Park remains committed to moving the tobacco warehouse project forward and incorporating plans for St. Ann’s Warehouse and Empire Stores as vibrant parts of the park.”
An exterior view of the Tobacco Warehouse (Daniel Huggard/Flickr)
The current space occupied by St. Ann’s Warehouse is owned by David Walentas, one of Brooklyn's largest property owners and the architect behind Dumbo’s transformation from an industrial wasteland to a chic commercial and residential neighborhood.
Walentas has, for the last decade, let the theater use his building rent-free. Now he plans to develop the current space with new buildings, and has pledged to help St. Ann’s Warehouse find a new home in Dumbo and to pay for the construction of a new building in the tobacco warehouse, according to Brooklyn Heights Association president Jane McGroarty.
McGroaty's group aligned itself with the Landmarks Conservancy because it opposes illegally transferring public space to a private group.
McGroarty said some had criticized her group for going after a beloved institution like St. Ann’s. But she said it wasn't about what group was coming in, but rather about the improper transfer of public space to a private group.
“There’s a reason for process, and it protects all of us,” said McGroarty.
The city’s legal office said that in the event that the court does ultimately rule in favor of the prosecution, they would pursue the project through another legally recognized process called “conversion,” in which the city would substitute a new public outdoor space of equal usefulness and value for the one being developed.
St. Ann’s Warehouse declined to comment on this story.