Volume 75, Number 30 | December 14 - 20, 2005

184 Kent Ave., Cass Gilbert’s Austin, Nichols & Company Warehouse in Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Vote’s over, but debate continues about warehouse

By Tony Weiss

Not everyone in Williamsburg knows what the Austin, Nichols Warehouse is, but almost everyone has an opinion on it, just the same. Even those residents unaware that the City Council voted to overturn landmark status for the massive, white building were quick to interpret the controversy as a sign of familiar neighborhood woes — overdevelopment, the loss of Williamsburg’s historic character and the influence that money seems to buy.

Last week, the City Council voted twice to overturn landmark status for the Austin, Nichols Warehouse, the second time overriding Mayor Bloomberg’s veto. Initially, the councilmembers voted 43 yes and six no in favor of denying the landmarking. In overturning the mayor’s veto, the Council vote was 37 yes, eight no and two abstentions.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission had voted in September to designate the 90-year old warehouse as a city landmark.

“I don’t like the fact that they’re ripping down the buildings in the neighborhood that give it character,” said local resident Joe Rush.

The City Council’s decision comes a few months after it approved a massive rezoning for the North Brooklyn waterfront, which will allow developers to build apartment towers more than 30 stories tall, and which calls for the construction of a waterfront promenade.

Councilmember David Yassky, in whose district the warehouse is located, suggested that landmarking the warehouse would have been an impediment to the redevelopment and the transition from factories and warehouses to housing and parks. Yassky said an exception could be made for “a truly beautiful building,” but in this case, “the building is, to me, not at all distinguished.”

The warehouse currently houses a number of residents, though some have recently been moved out by the landlord for construction work. Ramon Sanchez and Veronica Velasquez have lived in the warehouse for a year and a half and were livid at Yassky’s stance. “He sold out the community,” said Velasquez, referring to recent reports that Yassky has received sizable campaign donations from the Kestenbaum family, owners of the building.

Sanchez contested Yassky’s assessment of the building. “It’s unlike any other building here, or in New York, for that matter,” she said. “Anyone who goes inside is overwhelmed by the structure.”

The warehouse was built in 1914 for Austin, Nichols & Co., then the largest wholesale grocery business in the world. The architect, Cass Gilbert, designed some of New York City’s most famous landmarks, including the Woolworth Building on lower Broadway and the U.S. Customs House at 1 Bowling Green.

“It’s the work of a master, and it’s a great piece of architecture,” said Landmarks Chairperson Robert Tierney of the Williamsburg warehouse.

The building’s white facade is now mottled by gray spots of concrete patchwork. Velasquez said her impression was that the landlords had skimped on maintenance to make the building less attractive as a landmark, and in anticipation of renovating it.

Tim O’Heir, who lives across the street from the warehouse, disagrees. Though he describes himself as “a conservationist,” he declared, “I don’t think there’s anything special about it,” adding, “It’s a big concrete box.”

However, many of the building’s neighbors have never registered its existence. Inga Rogers has lived and worked in the neighborhood for 10 years, and six months ago she opened the Mini Jakes children’s store a block away from the warehouse. However, she confessed that she had never paid attention to it. She suggested that “whatever’s done should be tasteful and in keeping with the feel of the neighborhood.”

What the Kestenbaums are planning to do is a significant renovation, designed by Karl Fischer Architects, that will add several stories (reports vary between four and six), as well as altering the exterior, particularly the window pattern. Tierney said that, based on what the landmarks commission had seen, such a renovation would not have been approved. “The windows are incredibly important to the design of the building,” he said. “You can’t take the most important architectural feature and destroy it.”

Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, said the warehouse could still have been altered under the guidance of the landmarks commission. “They could’ve done what they do in Tribeca — added interior courts, even a rooftop addition,” Bankoff said. “This is done on a daily basis.”

Bankoff and Andrew Berman, director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, both expressed concern that the City Council’s decision could set a dangerous precedent for historic preservation. Bankoff was particularly upset that Councilmember Alan Gerson voted to overturn the designation, given that “he represents more landmarks than any other councilman.” Gerson could not be reached for comment by press time.

Councilmember Christine Quinn also voted against landmarking the warehouse, though another Downtown councilmember, Margarita Lopez, voted in favor of landmarking it.

Not everyone in Williamsburg shared Bankoff’s concerns about the future of historic preservation. “If you put all your eggs into landmark status, it becomes absurd if that’s the only way you can protect it,” said Montgomery Knott, who was disappointed that nobody had been able to reach a compromise on the issue. For many others, landmark status was seen as a means to hold back the rapid developments sweeping through the neighborhood. One passerby hurriedly said the Council’s decision was fine, “as long as they don’t build condos there.” Told that condos were expected, he responded, “It should be a landmark, then.”

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