Voices from the Neighborhood
Doreen Gallo: DUMBO Neighborhood Alliance
Interviewed October 7, 2010, by Susan Hopper, HDC board member
How did you get started with preservation? In 1997, a developer proposed a plan to develop the DUMBO interbridge area between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges. I organized a waterfront subcommittee of the Community Board to develop a plan for DUMBO. The Vinegar Hill Historic District was about to be designated, and we did a 197a plan, looking at historic resources, the park, and waterfront to come up with zoning proposals. Officials said these were just DUMBO issues so we formed The DUMBO Neighborhood Alliance, did a map of what we thought should be included in an historic district and took it to the Landmarks Preservation Commission..
How has the Historic districts Council helped? I met Vicki Weiner, former executive director, and Simeon Bankoff, current executive director, who suggested we get a state preservation grant and find someone to prepare descriptions of buildings and the proposed district. We hired Andrew Dolkart, architectural historian. In 2000, LPC listed the proposed DUMBO historic district. Development was accelerating. Our association helped the Business Improvement District get off the ground, but then the BID worked against landmarking and chipped away at the potential historic district. When we first started there were only artists in DUMBO; then a major developer got rezoning and there were new condo owners, with different visions. Then the BID wanted housing in the park.
Otis Pearsall, Brooklyn Heights preservationist, told me to landmark DUMBO now! In 2005 I launched a bigger campaign for which Andrew did walking tours. Simeon was really helpful in guiding me every step of the way and I am grateful that he kept coming to meetings. In 2007 the Municipal Art Society approached us to write about DUMBO for the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of eleven most endangered sites. We made a seven-minute video that included all of DUMBO. At the end of 2007, the LPC designated the DUMBO Historic District.
Unfortunately, the DUMBO BID was able to bring down a number of buildings before designation, and the Belgian block streets were dug up. We got stop work orders, but nevertheless, the very day of the LPC hearing on the DUMBO Historic District, I got calls about developers removing the rest of the streets.
The same day LPC designated the DUMBO Historic District, Hal Bromm, who was president of the HDC board then, and Simeon talked to us about addressing zoning issues. To help us, we hired Paul Graziano, a planning consultant and later an HDC board president. We didn’t want to just fight individual developers, so we created a contextual zoning plan that included the three adjacent historic districts, DUMBO, Vinegar Hill, and Fulton Ferry to present to the City Planning Commission. as our 197a plan. However, the commission chose to focus only on changing the zoning on a small parcel of land. The new zoning would allow development including the Dock Street project, a tall building proposed by the area’s major developer, that would block views of the Brooklyn Bridge from the Brooklyn waterfront area as well as from Manhattan. To fight this out-of-scale development, we met with many City Council members and it looked as if we had enough votes to win. However, the developer said he would add space for a school, and the City Council President made calls that resulted in all but three City Council members changing their vote. That was despite testimony against the project by the Municipal Art Society, Pulitzer Prize winning filmmaker Ken Burns and historian David McCullough, the recent National Trust designation for DUMBO, and articles on the Brownstoner and Curbed websites. When we lost the Dock Street and rezoning battles, we decided to become a 501(c)(3) to raise money.
On a positive note, our group worked with a different developer to modify the design for a building to be built on an empty space within the newly designated historic district. Because of the designation, the developer agreed to build in a style that was consistent with the historic district and to limit the building to seven stories. When the proposal went before LPC, it had met most of the requests we made.
HDC gave us support and encouragement to fight the big fight for historic district designation and came to all our events. HDC has a great staff who were really helpful. They included us on panels, and since we’ve been designated, I feel a tremendous amount of support with public hearings. HDC testified before LPC time after time and helped us focus on the right issues. When Steve Levin was elected to the City Council to represent DUMBO and other neighborhoods, Simeon and Frampton Tolbert, deputy director, met with him about preservation. They are the greatest historic resource group in the city. I am amazed that they are able to stay on top of everything they do. We would not be an historic district without HDC!
Where are you now with preservation and historic districting? We continue to battle what is happening to the parkland that was originally part of the Fulton Ferry Historic District. The city had purchased the land from the state to create a maritime park, but then transferred the land to a newly created public authority, the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation. The BBDC is supported by the BID, which favors construction rather than preservation, and is funded with around half a million dollars a year by area businesses, largely developers. The BBDC directors expanded the plan for the park to include a hotel and housing. Right now we are leading the fight to save the 19th century Tobacco Warehouse adjacent to the park.
Advice for other neighborhoods interested in an historic district: When someone asked me about historic districting for her neighborhood I suggested that she should work with Simeon and HDC. I gave her copies of everything we did, including a landmarking package, letters, overviews, postcards, and various studies. I don’t know what the City would be without HDC!
Updates: In July 2011, a federal judge ruled that the Tobacco Warehouse and Empire stores, two expansive 19th century structures on the border of Brooklyn Bridge Park, must remain part of federally protected parkland and cannot be used for private development except under strict guidelines. For information on the DUMBO historic district see: http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/12/18/dumbo-is-now-protected-as-a-historic-district/