Fire stokes claims of corruption: Locals question source of inferno at ancient Hook warehouse they want landmarked

Fire stokes claims of corruption: Locals question source of inferno at ancient Hook warehouse they want landmarked
Photo by Jason Speakman

Preservationists are crying foul play after a blaze tore through a vacant Red Hook warehouse on Thursday night, just weeks after a coalition of locals asked the city to landmark the building.

The 1886 structure — known then as the S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse — on the Red Hook–Gowanus border is currently owned by a developer, and is among a few dozen buildings Gowanusuars proposed be landmarked before officials vote on a plan to rezone part of their neighborhood, which is why the late-night flames seemed cause for alarm, a landmarking advocate said.

“The timing of the fire immediately on the heels of outreach to the owner paints it in an incredibly suspicious light,” said Gowanus Landmarking Coalition member Brad Vogel.

New York’s Bravest rushed to quench the inferno at the Smith Street warehouse on the banks of the Gowanus Canal at 11:15 pm, finally extinguishing it 30 minutes past midnight, according to a Fire Department spokesman, who said marine units also battled the blaze from the fetid waterway itself.

Flames tore through the top two floors of the four-story building between Creamer and Bay streets, but injured no one, according to firefighter Chris Berke.

The ancient warehouse’s owner, developer the Chetrit Group — which is behind a Chrysler-building-sized skyscraper rising Downtown and the slow-going restoration of Brooklyn Heights’s Bossert Hotel — filed preliminary paperwork to raze it last September, roughly three years after the Department of Buildings issued a full-vacate order for the structure in 2014, warning it was unstable and could collapse, according to an agency rep.

But Buildings Department officials couldn’t sign off on the warehouse’s demolition because the application submitted last year was incomplete, an agency rep said.

And locals started to suspect something nefarious was up when someone spotted a sneak doing possibly illegal work on the old building’s roof earlier this month, according to the Red Hook councilman, who blasted Chetrit Group brass for neglecting the warehouse and demanded fire marshals determine and disclose the cause of the recent inferno.

“It occurred after the community raised alarms about recent, potentially illegal construction activity on the roof, and after my office and community leaders took steps to start landmarking the building,” said Councilman Carlos Menchaca. “The Chetrit Group has created a local nuisance for many years.”

The Buildings Department rep said its inspectors did not investigate the accusation of illegal work at the site, which was made via 311 on May 18, roughly a month before the fire.

A rep for the developer didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Reach reporter Julianne Cuba at (718) 260–4577 or by e-mail at jcuba@cnglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @julcuba.