Tobacco noed! Judge says that feds and state broke rules at Warehouse

St. Ann’s Warehouse to restore Tobacco Warehouse
Brooklyn Bridge Park

A judge has blocked a plan to turn the historic Tobacco Warehouse in Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park into the new home of St. Ann’s Warehouse, a DUMBO theater company that had planned to move there.

Federal judge Eric Vitaliano ruled on Tuesday that the National Park Service broke the law when it demapped the federally protected Civil War-era landmark from the state park to allow for private development.

Vitaliano’s decision comes as no surprise since it follows his preliminary injunction in April, which found substantial evidence that the park service — which has authority over Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park because it received federal grants — may have violated its own rules by skirting a public review process.

“The federal government [must] keep its promise … that parkland developed or improved with federal taxpayers’ money will remain available for public use, or at the very least, will be replaced with substitute parkland of equal or greater value,” Vitaliano wrote in his final decision this week.

The ruling was a victory for community groups including the Brooklyn Heights Association and Fulton Ferry Landing Association, which sued in January claiming that the park service capitulated to pressure from the Bloomberg Administration, which wanted to turn the property over to St. Ann’s Warehouse.

The DUMBO theater company had planned to convert the roofless structure into a $15-million mixed-use performance hall and plaza and restore the vacant building.

Representatives from St. Ann’s, which will be booted from its current rent-free Water Street home next spring, didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment. Developer David Walentas has given St. Ann’s Warehouse space in a building at the corner of Dock and Water streets for the last decade, but now plans to tear down the one-story structure as part of his controversial Dock Street development.

The lawsuit followed a decision by the National Park Service and state officials to secretly redraw the boundaries of Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park in 2009. By removing the historic buildings from the park map, the government paved the way for the land to be handed over for private development.

The case claimed two things: that the state lied to feds about the location of the building so that it would no longer be part of the federally protected parkland of Empire–Fulton Ferry State Park — and that the National Parks Service dodged its review duties by not questioning a state assertion that nobody used the warehouse even though it actually has a long history of community support, funding and repair.

The defendants, including the National Park Service, the state-run Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation, argued that the structures were never meant to be included in the parkland and that they were placed on the map by “mistake.” The city-run Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation and St. Ann’s Warehouse later joined the suit.

But Vitaliano rejected that claim, saying “evidence points to only one finding” — that the state had intended to include the structures on a park map and understood it was breaking the law by removing them.

Now city lawyers say they’ll evaluate their options, which could include an appeal or a land swap through the National Park Service — allowing the city to create more park space as an equal exchange for the structures lost.

“We believe that Tobacco Warehouse is the appropriate home for St. Ann’s Warehouse, and we are committed to St. Ann’s proposed restoration and re-use of the Tobacco Warehouse as a cultural and community center,” said Connie Pankratz, a Law Department spokeswoman.

But the battle over the historic buildings is far from over. Next week, the city will argue in another suit filed by the preservation groups against the state and Brooklyn Bridge Park, which alleges that in order to develop parkland, it would need the permission of the state legislature.

Community members and preservationists see the case as a victory that extends far beyond the Brooklyn waterfront.

“No government agency has the right to secretly take public parkland away from the public and hand it over to privatization,” said Joan Zimmerman, president of the Fulton Ferry Landing Association. “The Tobacco Warehouse is a beloved entity, and the community created this park.”