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Theater Can’t Set Up Shop in Historic Brooklyn Site

BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) - In a decision believed to be momentous for historical preservation, a federal judge has issued an injunction preventing the legendary St. Ann's Warehouse theater company from moving into the remains of the landmarked 19th Tobacco Warehouse.

U.S. District Judge Eric Vitaliano ruled in favor of preservationists concerned that the theater's proposed conversion of the warehouse could damage the historic structure.

Since its 1980 inception, St. Ann's has had an unconventional history of performance venues and rosters of plays and musicians.

The theater takes its name from its first home, the nationally landmarked Church of St. Ann and the Holy Trinity in Brooklyn Heights. Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, St. Ann's moved into a former spice mill along the Brooklyn riverfront.

In both venues, St. Ann's has produced works by a who's who of experimental theater companies (such as Mabou Mines, Bread and Puppet Theatre, and The Wooster Group) and rock musicians (like Lou Reed of Velvet Underground, Deborah Harry of Blondie and David Byrne of Talking Heads).

Last year, the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation (BBPDC) agreed to let St. Ann's convert the Tobacco Warehouse into a performance space.

That plan met resistance on Jan. 13, 2011, when five preservationists - the Brooklyn Heights Association, New York Landmarks Conservancy, Fulton Ferry Landing Association, Jane McGroarty and Joan Zimmerman - complained in federal court that the deal was only made possible because the U.S. National Park Service inappropriately allowed the Tobacco Warehouse and Empire Stores to be removed from the map of protected sites in December 2008.

But the federal agency and the New York parks department said that the buildings' inclusion on the original map was an oversight. Along with those two, the preservationists also sued the BBPDC and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Kenneth Salazar. The Brooklyn Bridge Park Corp. and St. Ann's later intervened as defendants.

Although Judge Vitaliano initially rejected the preservationists' request for a temporary restraining order to prevent the deal, he set a date in late March to hear arguments over a potential injunction.

Vitaliano's 34-page order, filed on Friday, leaves no doubt whose position he found more convincing. "The house of cards erected by the defense cannot withstand the gentlest breeze," Vitaliano wrote.

There was "not a shred of evidence" that the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation and National Parks Service "blundered in some sort of oversight or mistake by including the Tobacco Warehouse and Empire Stores on the original ... boundary map," the order states. "Bluntly, the record convincingly suggests just the opposite - that the inclusion of the structures was entirely intentional."

In fact, the parks department has relied on the Tobacco Warehouse's historic status to hold programmed and unstructured events, including a dance class, strolling and a Frosty the Snowman-building event, the order states.

In addition to granting the injunction, Vitaliano ordered the original map to be withdrawn with the buildings in it.

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