Save Brooklyn's Industrial Heritage
The Municipal Art Society of New York

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Update: On December 18, 2007, the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the DUMBO Historic District. Congratulations to the DUMBO Neighborhood Association and the other groups who have been advocating for protection for many years. Click here to read the Municipal Art Society's testimony in support of the DUMBO Historic District.


Responding to the destruction of some of Brooklyn’s most important historic buildings and sites, and the threats others face, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has named the industrial heritage of the Brooklyn waterfront to its annual list of the 11 Most Endangered Places. The announcement was made at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., and in DUMBO, Brooklyn, in mid-June. Since 1988, the National Trust has identified nearly 200 threatened historic sites and buildings in this way to promote action to save America’s most important treasures.

New York City’s industrial heritage is at risk. In November 2005, the Municipal Art Society and the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance mounted an exhibit, Preservation on the Edge: Our Threatened East River Heritage, which highlighted six of the waterfront's most significant industrial buildings and presented ways in which they could be protected and reused. In the six months following that exhibit, half of the buildings were destroyed.

The most visible loss was Brooklyn’s Greenpoint Terminal Market. The historic rope factory was destroyed in a catastrophic fire that was determined “suspicious” by the FDNY. The fire took place shortly after the city rezoned the area to allow for high-rise residential towers. In Queens, the identifiable smokestacks of the Long Island City Power House were ripped off to make way for residential towers to be constructed on its roof. In Manhattan, the architecturally significant Con Edison Power Station was completely destroyed to make way for a luxury residential development. Also in the exhibit, was the Cass Gilbert designed Austin, Nichols & Company Warehouse, on Williamsburg’s waterfront. In December 2005, the New York City Council invoked a rarely used power to reverse the landmark designation of the warehouse. One council member, in explaining his vote, dismissed the warehouse as a “piece of trash.” Read more [+]

Brooklyn: A Rich Heritage at Risk

Most threatened is the industrial heritage of the Brooklyn waterfront. Development in the borough is booming, and developers, and increasingly the city, want to site residential towers where industrial buildings have historically been located — on the waterfront. In the last four years, the city has been rezoning the waterfront to encourage residential and commercial uses, which discourages manufacturing uses and encourages the demolition of industrial buildings.

From 1850 to 1950, the New York City region was the dominant manufacturing center in the United States. This is in large part due to its location on a natural deep water harbor with connections to the Erie Canal. Before it consolidated with New York City in 1898, Brooklyn was the nation’s fourth largest city and an industrial powerhouse. Brooklyn’s waterfront developed rapidly in the mid to late nineteenth century, as ship builders and manufacturers sought relief from Manhattan’s overdeveloped shores. Manufacturers of heavy and bulky goods, like sugar refineries and gas refineries, found Brooklyn’s shores and easy access to water ideal. Just inland lighter industries developed that supported the heavy waterfront industries, including many baggage and cooperage outfits. Manufacturing and industry gradually declined throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, and some closed completely. What remains is a striking architectural and historical legacy that is rapidly being destroyed.

Brooklyn is Booming

Today Brooklyn is booming and a flood of development will permanently alter its character. According to The New York Times, the City’s Department of Buildings issued 24,610 permits in Brooklyn, including 1,740 for new buildings in 2005. This figure amounts to four new building permits per day.  In that same period, the department issued 1,924 permits for demolition, or five demolition permits every day. In the most simple terms, Brooklyn lost five buildings and gained four new ones every day in 2005. In the same year, the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce estimated that over 13 million square feet of development was planned for Brooklyn. In The New York Times Christopher Olechowski, a member of the community board for Greenpoint and Williamsburg and a longtime resident of the area summed it up accurately saying, “buildings are popping up like mushrooms.”

The active manufacturing sites that make New York City “work” are also being destroyed. In Brooklyn’s Red Hook, the city approved plans to allow furniture store Ikea to pave over a Civil War era graving dock to make way for a parking lot, despite the fact that it had been found to be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. Graving docks are used for ship repair, are based on relatively simple technology — a ship floats in, a door closes behind it and the water is pumped out, leaving the hull exposed for repair. Red Hook’s dock was in continuous use from 1866 until Ikea evicted the ship repair business. MAS continues to fight to save the dock, which has a replacement value of nearly a billion dollars, but the future is grim for this historic piece of infrastructure.

New York was once on the forefront of preserving our industrial heritage. The J. M. Kaplan Fund led the movement when it supported the adaptation of the former Bell Laboratories into affordable housing and work space for artists. Inspired by WestBeth’s success, the city and state developed incentives and polices to reuse manufacturing and industrial buildings that were functionally obsolete. Across the city, buildings were retained and when appropriate, reused for other uses. The world famous SoHo and Tribeca neighborhoods are examples of how successful and marketable it is to retain former manufacturing buildings.

Today, however, the will to preserve our industrial heritage is being chipped away by pressures form those who want to profit by development, and significant buildings are being lost. The three reasons for this are, increased development pressures, rezoning in the city that encourages the demolition of industrial buildings, and a lack of support for their preservation. Ultimately, there is an absence of comprehensive planning to allow for growth and development while protecting the historic buildings and also planning for the burgeoning maritime industry in the New York region.

While there is generally neighborhood support for the preservation of industrial buildings, preservation efforts are being met with increased resistance. If a City Council member can call a Cass Gilbert-designed building a “piece of trash,” clearly there needs to be an increased effort to raise awareness of the significance of these buildings.

We have many strong tools that can be used to protect our industrial heritage. New York City has a strong preservation law that is flexible enough to offer protection to industrial buildings and sites and the National Register program offers an important financial incentive in its rehabilitation tax credit program. Yet these tools are not enough. We need to raise awareness that these buildings are of significance to the entire nation and that their loss is of national concern. The most effective way to do this is to list it as one of the National Trust’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

What follows is a list of the most significant and endangered buildings, sites and historic districts on the Brooklyn Waterfront. Also included are some of the most devastating losses.

Municipal Art Society:
Keenan Hughes, Everett Public Policy Intern
Lisa Kersavage, Kress/RFR Fellow for Historic Preservation and Public Policy
Jonathan Sills, Coordinator of Publications
Juan Camilo Osorio, GIS Analyst/Planner

Mary Habstritt, Industrial Historian

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