The St. Ann’s Warehouse theater company — the world-renowned troupe based in Brooklyn Heights and DUMBO for 21 years — will take over and renovate the vacant Tobacco Warehouse in Brooklyn Bridge Park, converting it into a $15-million mixed-use performance hall and plaza, officials announced on Wednesday amid charges that the selection process was corrupt.
The Brooklyn Bridge Park board of directors green-lighted the troupe’s proposal — in an non-transparent process that was heavily criticized — to restore and build the crumbling 19th-century site into a self-sustaining community center that will host cultural events and performances year-round starting in 2013.
The choice of St. Ann’s Warehouse — popular with fans of cutting-edge theater and frequent performer Lou Reed — was not a surprise, given the company’s fundraising efforts and current location in a squat building on Water Street across from the Tobacco Warehouse. St. Ann’s execs said that they had already raised one third of its $15 million.
But Artistic Director Susan Feldman said the win would not just be a victory for theater-goers.
“There’s going to be so much more access — for us and the park-goers,” said the company’s Artistic Director, Susan Feldman, after the news came from City Hall in Manhattan. “We feel like we have a real chance to save this shell of a building and serve cultural needs of the community.”
The initial design features an open-air plaza, an enormous roofed performance space that takes up the majority of the indoor section, another multi-use show room and space for subtenants that will change throughout the year. It’s a big change for the 1870s-era Tobacco Warehouse, which is currently a roofless, slowly decaying open space that’s used for little more than wedding receptions and the occasional celebrity event.
On Wednesday, the excitement over St. Ann’s new home was unanimous. But the Brooklyn Bridge Park board meeting had become heated when community members and several elected officials decried the proceedings as scripted and lacking any of the transparency that park officials had promised.
Last month, state Sen. Daniel Squadron (D–Brooklyn Heights), Assemblywoman Joan Millman (D–Boerum Hill), Borough President Markowitz and a slew of other electeds demanded that Regina Myer, president of the Brooklyn Bridge Park development company, reveal the names of companies seeking the big renovation contract for public review. Myer ignored that call, revealing the bidders in a secret meeting on Monday, less than 48 hours before the board vote.
Opponents pointed to that move as evidence that Myer’s self-proclaimed dedication to public openness was a myth. Many were also critical of Myer’s apparent refusal to consider the warehouse as a funding source for the park’s $15-million annual maintenance budget — a strategy that could reduce the need for controversial housing inside the park development’s footprint.
“[When the park opened] last year, we thought it was the beginning of a new era of transparency — that illusion has been shattered today,” Paul Nelson, Millman’s appointee to the park’s board of directors, told Myer. “Of course everyone loves what you do. But we’re giving away a property for free that will give no revenue to the park. It’s being tragically wasted.”
That said, only three board members voted against the proposal.
When we asked Myer about the controversy, she said simply, “I think this has been a very transparent process. We’ve been very open with the community.”