New York Times Gets Word from Washington Group – Brooklyn's History Is Endangered

June 14, 2007
Brooklyn Waterfront Called Endangered Site

Correction Appended

The mighty Monitor, the ironclad Civil War ship, was built on Greenpoint’s gritty waterfront. The Graving Dock at the Todd Shipyards in Red Hook was the terminal for ships traveling from the Erie Canal. The Old Dutch Mustard Company in Williamsburg churned out prepared mustard, vinegars and fruit juice for half a century. The mustard building was torn down last fall, and other sites in Brooklyn are soon to be transformed into apartments and stores in an ambitious neighborhood revitalization effort that is a cornerstone of the Bloomberg administration’s economic development initiative. But today the National Trust for Historic Preservation plans to sound the alarm by declaring Brooklyn’s industrial waterfront one of America’s 11 most endangered historic places.

“The buildings really represent an important part of Brooklyn’s heritage, and it would be a tragedy to lose it,” Richard Moe, president of the trust, said in an interview. “We’re very concerned that there’s such a rush on to demolish everything.”

The endangered area delineated by the trust extends from the Brooklyn Army Terminal in Sunset Park to the site of the burned-out Greenpoint Terminal Market. Mr. Moe said the trust’s declaration was intended as a warning to city government to integrate historic sites into its development plans rather than erase them.

Preservationists assert that the city should consider using the old manufacturing buildings for new purposes, as developers have done in SoHo and TriBeCa, and that some existing manufacturing should be allowed to continue.

“They have value for the working waterfront and industrial retention in New York City,” Lisa Kersavage, a preservationist at the Municipal Art Society, said of the structures. “We need to raise awareness that these buildings are of national significance and that their loss is of national concern.”

The waterfront was nominated for the endangered list by the society, a nonprofit preservation organization. The society says that the city’s Department of Buildings issued 1,740 new building permits in Brooklyn in 2005. The same year the buildings department issued 1,924 permits for demolition, roughly double the number issued five years ago.

“Brooklyn lost five buildings and gained four new ones every day in 2005,” the society said in its nomination. Asked about the trust’s concerns, Daniel L. Doctoroff, deputy mayor for economic development and rebuilding, pointed out that some buildings might be preserved, like the Domino Sugar refinery, a brick Romanesque Revival structure that is up for consideration by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.

“It’s a balance,” Mr. Doctoroff said. “All the time we weigh the value of historical preservation against the need to move the city forward in terms of housing, jobs and parkland.”

In successive waves from the 19th to the 20th century, immigrants streamed into Brooklyn for its plentiful jobs in maritime operations, factories, warehouses and sugar refineries. The trust asserts that this legacy will be lost unless more buildings are preserved.

“Today Brooklyn’s industrial heritage — a tangible link with the immigrants who struggled for new lives here — is in jeopardy as the waterfront falls victim to voracious developers anxious to cash in on the area’s newly hip status,” the trust said in a statement.

The areas at risk include the Greenpoint-Williamsburg waterfront, where about 180 blocks were rezoned by the New York City Council in 2005 to allow for the construction of larger buildings. More than 7,000 residential units are planned or under construction in downtown Brooklyn, not including the nearby Atlantic Yards project, which calls for eight million square feet of high-rise housing, office space and a basketball arena.

Preservationists say the manufacturing buildings should be integrated into these grand plans. ”As they make up the past, they should be part of the future,” said Ward Dennis, founding member of the Waterfront Preservation Alliance of Greenpoint and Williamsburg.

In the 1850s Williamsburg was the third-largest city in the region, filled with 19th-century row houses and manufacturing buildings, as well as banks, schools, churches and synagogues.

In Red Hook the trust is concerned about the loss of the Civil War-era Graving Dock, a concrete and steel basin that was used to repair tall ships, starting in 1866. The city recently approved plans to allow Ikea, the home furnishings store, to pave over the dock to make way for a parking lot.

The trust also cited the Domino refinery, with its rounded-arch openings and distinctive smokestack. Acquired by the Havemeyer family in 1856 — and rebuilt after a fire in 1882 — it was once one of the largest refineries in the world, the society said; by 1870 more than half of the sugar consumed in the United States was refined there.

At the Revere Sugar factory in Red Hook, developers recently received a demolition permit and started taking down buildings to clear the waterfront site for commercial and residential construction. And the Greenpoint Terminal Market, a former rope factory built in 1890, was destroyed in May 2006 in a fire shortly after the city rezoned the area to allow for high-rise residential towers.

The trust also named the 1915 Austin, Nichols Warehouse in Williamsburg, which lost its landmark status in a City Council vote in December 2005. Designed by Cass Gilbert, the architect for the Woolworth Building and the Customs House, it is considered an unusual example of the Egyptian Revival style, with its monumental horizontal reinforced concrete form, flared cornices and narrow, patterned window openings. The building is being expanded and converted into a luxury condominium.

The society says the city’s environmental impact statement for the rezoning in the Greenpoint-Williamsburg area identified only 18 historic buildings and one historic district deserving of protection within 180 blocks, while the society’s own survey of the same area identified 264 buildings that should have been included.

The historic trust, a nonprofit organization dedicated to saving historic places, lobbies Congress and operates sites like Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Conn., which opened to the public this spring.

Mr. Moe said that while time would soon run out, he hoped that the Brooklyn waterfront’s historic character could be preserved. “This is a problem that can be fixed — it’s not too late,” he said. “We have already lost some historic buildings and we don’t want to lose any more.”

Correction: June 16, 2007

Because of an editing error, an article on Thursday about a decision by the National Trust for Historic Preservation to declare Brooklyn’s industrial waterfront one of the country’s most endangered historic places misstated the nature of the roofing at the Domino Sugar Refinery in Williamsburg, which is within the area. None of the buildings are topped by a dome; the Revere Sugar Factory in Red Hook, which has been mostly demolished, had a dome.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

Posted Under: Brooklyn, DUMBO, Lingering Pain, Waterfront Development, Williamsburg

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