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Groups Fight Privatization of Historic Building

BROOKLYN (CN) - Three groups that contributed more than $2 million to improve a historic building claim the National Park Service is furthering "a secret agenda on behalf of private, commercial interests" to privatize the Civil War-era Tobacco Warehouse in Brooklyn Bridge Park.

The Brooklyn Heights Association, the Fulton Ferry Landing Association and the New York Landmarks Conservancy claim that after they spent more than $2 million rehabilitating the site, the Park Service granted a request in a "secret application" by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (NYSOP) "asking that the Tobacco Warehouse be removed from the map of the federally protected park," and "to prepare for private development of the historic Tobacco Warehouse."

In their federal complaint, the three say the Tobacco Warehouse, part of Brooklyn Bridge Park, between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges on the Brooklyn side of the East River, was available for "year-round free public uses" from 2004 until 2009. In that year, the NYSOP "shuttered it as part of a secret ploy to privatize it" and "closed access to the Tobacco Warehouse, claiming that further renovation was required," according to the complaint.

The warehouse was built around 1860 as a tobacco storage and Customs inspection center. It is "one of the few surviving examples of its type" and "evokes the feeling of an unfinished church or Welsh ruins of an abbey in modern-day Brooklyn," according to the complaint.

The plaintiff groups and members of the community saved the warehouse from two previous plans to demolish it, including one in 1960 when the space was "effectively abandoned" and one in 1999, when the building had severe fire damage and was "structurally unsound due to prolonged inattention."

The building's importance "cannot be overstated," the groups say, as "an example of an architectural style that represents its era and is a standing reminder of the 19th century warehouses which defined that era in Brooklyn's history."

The groups claim that the NYSOP's 2008 secret application to the National Park Service to remove the warehouse from the park map and "de-park" it was "subterfuge."

They challenge the NYSOP statement that the original decision to include the warehouse in the park was an "oversight," because the building "was neither used nor suitable for outdoor recreational opportunities."

They say the Park Service "performed no meaningful diligence at all concerning NYSOP's request," and if t had, it would have discovered that the warehouse was "open to the public to wander through during the park's hours of operation."

The City of New York signed a contract to explore the use of the warehouse as a seasonal skating rink, and the space was slated at one point to be "an open-air botanical garden" as part of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy's redevelopment master plan, which began in 1987 when the state first acquired property in the area.

The Park Service was so negligent that it described the warehouse as "an indoor recreational facility," which is inaccurate, as it has no roof. The groups also claim that the Park Service "did not evaluate all practical alternatives to the conversion," nor do research "into whether equal fair market value was received."

This is because "the State of New York failed to submit a list of practical alternatives," as it should have, according to the complaint.

The groups challenge "the illegal taking of public parkland in Brooklyn for private benefits, particularly after the community has consistently fought to preserve [its] historic character."

They seek declaratory judgment and a permanent injunction "requiring that defendant redraw the map to again include the Tobacco Warehouse." They are represented by Jim Walden with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.

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