Holy smokes! Tobacco Warehouse will become St. Ann’s Warehouse

St. Ann’s Warehouse will turn the crumbling Tobacco Warehouse into two theaters, plus open space.
Brooklyn Bridge Park

DUMBO’s historic Tobacco Warehouse will become a playhouse under a new deal that will keep a beloved avante-garde venue on Water Street by allowing private development on parkland.

St. Ann’s Warehouse will build its new home inside the landmarked shell of a Civil War-era building that had been a federally protected park until 2010, when the city controversially redrew zoning maps in an attempt to remove it from the National Parks Service’s control — a move that resulted in a lawsuit by opponents.

But the new plan exchanges the lost parkland at the Tobacco Warehouse with more than an acre of city-owned asphalt under the Manhattan Bridge.

Mayor Bloomberg said the agreement — which paves the way for a new $15-million performance venue and 38,000-square feet of green space beneath the bridge — will allow the Civil War-era building to be preserved and reused for the community’s benefit.

“Brooklyn Bridge Park has quickly become woven into the fabric of the neighborhood and this expansion will make it an even more invaluable community resource,” he said.

For the deal to be finalized, state legislators must pass a law permitting the development of the Tobacco Warehouse and the adjoining Empire Stores — an historic warehouse built between Old Dock Street and Main Street in 1885 that is slated to be converted into a retail and commercial facility.

Brooklyn Bridge Park planners hope transforming Empire Stores into a Chelsea Market-style shopping center will help fund the green space — but that won’t happen until the National Parks Service signs off the plan.

Critics have long complained that handing over the Tobacco Warehouse to a private theater company would be an encroachment on public space — going so far as to file suit in 2010 alleging that the city illegally rezoned the Water Street site and awarded it to the world-renowned theater with the state’s backing.

“It’s atrocious that there is a settlement — it’s a giveaway of the only real parkland for private development,” said the DUMBO Neighborhood Alliance’s Doreen Gallo. “It’s a transparent land grab and it’s a bad deal — they didn’t get anything for it. They gave away sacred historic sites.”

But other opponents say they have come to accept the new agreement.

“At the end of the day, everyone came together and agreed on the importance of process. All of the state and federal legal protections for parks and historic sites will be respected,” said Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy. “All appropriate public process will be followed.”

St. Ann’s will renovate the Tobacco Warehouse, constructing an enclosed theater inside the aging brick walls after the state approves the plan — which seems likely since state Sen. Dan Squadron (D–DUMBO) and Assemblywoman Joan Millman (D–Brooklyn Heights), who initially opposed the warehouse plan, now support the deal.

“This agreement is another sign that the community’s role is critical as we shape open space,” he said.

The theater company will move into a temporary headquarters at 29 Jay St. for the next three years and will lease the Tobacco Warehouse from the city once it is up to code.

“We are heartened by this agreement and hope that our dream for a new home at the Tobacco Warehouse will be realized,” said Joseph Steinberg, chairman of the St. Ann’s Warehouse board of directors.

Reach reporter Aaron Short at ashort@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-2547.

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