They’re not off the Hook!
The city is poised to take the owner of an old Red Hook warehouse that mysteriously caught fire last year to court for continuing to perform illegal construction at the site, where a stop-work order is still active.
The Department of Buildings attorney in charge of Brooklyn is slated to slap the 1886-built S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse’s owner — developer the Chetrit Group — with a criminal violation for illegally toiling at the Smith Street structure, after agency officials banned work there following the fire, according to the local councilman.
“As of yesterday afternoon, the Department of Buildings says that their borough attorney is commencing a process to issue a criminal-court summons based on repeated violations,” Carlos Menchaca (D–Red Hook) said while reading from an apparent statement the agency sent him.
The timeline for the department’s enforcement is not clear at this point, added Menchaca, who spoke at a Wednesday press conference hosted by local preservationists with the Gowanus Landmarking Coalition, whose members want the city to landmark the vacant warehouse, and questioned the Chetrit Group’s role in the fire after it tore through the building on the Gowanus–Red Hook border.
A Buildings Department spokesman couldn’t confirm that agency officials will issue a criminal summons to Chetrit Group brass, but did not deny that they could take that step if the warehouse owner continues to disregard agency orders.
“As of today, DOB has not issued a criminal court summons for the owner of 595 Smith St.,” said Andrew Rudansky. “If the property owner continues to disregard DOB orders, we may take enhanced enforcement actions, including possibly issuing a criminal-court summons.”
The Buildings Department issued the stop-work order days after the June 2018 fire, which Fire Marshals are still investigating, and suspect some arsonist deliberately set, according to Fire Department spokesman Jim Long.
The city issued a full-vacate order at the building between Creamer and Bay streets in 2014. And years later, the Chetrit Group — which is behind the years-in-the-making restoration of Brooklyn Heights’s Bossert Hotel and other borough projects — filed preliminary paperwork to demolish the warehouse in September 2017, roughly a year before the blaze, but the agency rejected that application because it was incomplete, a rep previously told this newspaper.
The owner-developer finally received a full-demolition permit on Feb. 7, according to Rudansky, who added that the firm can not perform any work at the site until agency inspectors rule to rescind the stop-work order issued last year.
But contractors proceeded to toil at the property, forcing the Buildings Department on March 5 to slap its owner with a new violation in addition to the penalty it received after the fire that resulted in the stop-work order, which together total some $12,000 in fines, according to agency records.
And on March 9, the Buildings Department received a complaint that contractors were erecting scaffolding outside the building — a sign that the Chetrit Group intends to proceed with illegally demolishing it, according to Gowanus Landmarks Coalition members — prompting it to issue a violation for that work. Two days later, the agency issued yet another violation to the developer on March 11, for failure to properly secure the area, after city inspectors found a large hole in the construction fencing surrounding it while checking out the scaffolding complaint.
The Chetrit Group’s plans for the property remain unclear, but Menchaca — who called the developer “a local nuisance for many years” after the flames tore through the building — said company bigwigs came to his office years ago and proposed constructing a residential complex there, which he rejected because lot sits inside the Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Business Zone.
“Chetrit came to my office in the first years of my first term and gave us plan of how they wanted to rezone. The pictures that they showed me were towers of housing,” he said. “I said, this is a manufacturing district, give me another plan. They came back with towers of housing and the first two floors of manufacturing. That is not what we want on this site, we want to preserve the manufacturing.”
A local preservationist and blogger praised the councilman’s efforts to protect the building, which she hopes will still be landmarked, and ultimately refashioned to benefit the community.
“They can be repurposed, they’re valuable to the community and should not be torn down, and especially torn down illegally,” said Katia Kelly, who lives on the border of Carroll Gardens and Gowanus.
And Menchaca promised to keep fighting to preserve the warehouse, encouraging locals to do all they can to prevent it from getting the wrecking ball.
“We must not relent until demolition stops, and the preservation of this gorgeous beautiful building commences,” he said.
A Sheepshead Bay contractor the Chetrit Group hired to raze the building told this newspaper the developer plans to pay the thousands of dollars in fines, and request a formal inspection of the site in order to lift the stop-work order as soon as possible.
“They want to demolish it as soon as possible,” said Alexander Rabinovich, a construction supervisor with Dimo Engineering. “For now, the owner will pay all the fines and I will have an inspector come out to have the stop work order rescinded.”
Should city inspectors agree to lift the order, the warehouse could come crashing down in as soon as four months, according to Rabinovich, who — along with a Chetrit Group bigwig who declined to be named — denied accusations that the developer started the 2018 fire at the site, instead alleging transients using the space as a temporary shelter caused the flames.
“If I was to guess, I would say that it was homeless people that burned something and that started the fire,” he said.