High on tobacco! Warehouse could become performance venue

The historic Tobacco Warehouse is about to become a major public amenity for visitors at Brooklyn Bridge Park.

On Wednesday, park officials sought proposals to turn the open-air, 19th-century site into a self-sustaining, year-round community center. The finished project would have a wide array of tenants that offer arts, educational and civic programming — and wouldn’t require any money from the park’s maintenance budget.

“The objective is to create a financially self-sustaining model for … the facility — without subsidy from Brooklyn Bridge Park for development, construction or ongoing operations,” the park’s request said.

A usable community center would be a substantial change for the current site, which is currently a roofless 1870s-era tobacco customs center that’s used for little more than wedding receptions.

But here’s the controversy: Officials are still trying to figure out how they’ll raise the $15 million annual maintenance budget of the larger Brooklyn Bridge Park, a waterfront development that stretches along the waterfront from DUMBO to the foot of Atlantic Avenue. The current plan calls for housing and other commercial development inside the park footprint — and the decision to take the Tobacco Warehouse out of the revenue side of the ledger makes it more likely that housing will remain part of the plan, critics say.

“It is important to understand this ‘bait-and-switch’ tactic,” wrote Judi Francis, park advocate and president of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Defense Fund, in an e-mail to supporters. “The idea is to run a not-for-profit and deprive the park of funding so that housing can replace park-like features as revenue sources.”

One can only speculate who or what will heed the “self-sustaining community center” call, but there are rumors. David Walentas, a development titan in DUMBO, reportedly proposed a glass-roofed venuein spring that would house the St. Ann’s Warehouse theater company. But that remains to be seen — the park folks won’t yet reveal their applicants, and Walentas hasn’t returned calls to confirm whether he’ll submit a proposal.

Walentas’s idea was the first new vision for the site since the state landmarked and then repaired the space to its current condition in 2002. The landmark status saved the site from demolition in 1998, and created a public — yet relatively lackluster — walk-in space for visitors to take wedding photos in.

Proposals are due on Oct. 18, when park officials will release the new vision for the site.

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