For an event that was whose main purpose seemed to be to present the destruction of Officers’ row as a fait accompli, last night’s public hearing had just the opposite effect. A study by the Army Corps of Engineers of the structural integrity of the ten nineteenth century houses was made available for the public to view last night for the first time, and even a cursory look had everyone we spoke to questioning the BNYDC‘s position that the houses are not worth saving; what’s more, there were some creative ideas for alternative designs floated during the public milling-about period that would enable the preservation of Officers’ Row while still providing a large on-site supermarket.
Unbeknownst to us, the 7 o’clock public event was preceeded by a 6:15 press conference where a number of politicians (including Marty Markowitz and Letitia James, above) and Navy Yard officials voiced their support for the creation of a supermarket on the site and did their best to parrot the party line that it is economically unfeasible to save Officers’ Row in the process. To wit:
Hakeem Jeffries:“While historic preservation of this site is a respectable goal, it appears that the deterioration of Admiral’s Row has been so extensive over the years that rehabilitation of the site would be extremely cost prohibitive.”
David Yassky: “After intensive study, responsible preservation entities at every level have concluded that these structures cannot be preserved without a prohibitively high financial commitment.”
Albert Vann: “I am very much in favor of preserving the rich heritage of historical buildings in Brooklyn, but not at the expense of meeting the needs of the people of Brooklyn for fresh produce and jobs.”
If it sounds like they’re all reading from the same script, they are. (For some reason we were erroneously sent an email from the BNYDC soliciting support letters and providing the same talking points that appear in all the submissions.) The problem with the political rhetoric like the quotation from Council Member Vann, in our view, is that it frames the issue as an either-or proposition, and in so doing tries to press familiar class and race buttons that do nothing to further meaningful discussion. This tactic tries to equate an interest in preserving the existing structures with wanting to deprive lower-income people of fresh vegetables. The truth is that this is not an either-or issue. No one on the preservation side of the debate that we’ve talked to is against building a supermarket. If you were a resident of one of the nearby projects, however, that’s certainly the impression you’d get from listening to the public leaders.
The Army Corps of Engineers study that was available for review last night (though not for distribution) put the cost of restoring the ten buildings at about $25 million, significantly less than what the BNYDC has been telling people; what’s more, according to one of the engineers manning the tables, eight of the ten houses are still structurally sound. Additionally, even a back-of-the-envelope sketch like the one above from Pratt’s Brent Porter shows that there may be much more creative solutions that let the community have its cake and eat it too. The BNYDC has done a commendable job at restoring and adaptively reusing much of the rest of the Navy Yard to date and has even more impressive plans for the future; unfortunately, we don’t think that means it should get a free pass to tear Officers’ Row down without a transparent and public process of evaluation. This could be an opportunity to do something really exciting with the six acres of land (and one that takes into consideration factors like what kind of market options may present themselves on nearby Myrtle Avenue). How about a design competition? How about soliciting private funds to lessen any extra burden of preservation? This is too important to let short-term political and economic expediency be the only factors in a decision-making process.
Update: It was just brought to our attention that in his letter yesterday to local, state and federal authorities, Navy Yard president Andrew Kimball did qualify his unambiguous position about a lack of preservation restrictions on the transfer by saying that the renderings that have been circulating are not set in stone:
BNYDC will work with local leaders to organize a design charette with the community in early 2008 to obtain input on the design criteria that should be included in a the Request for Proposal that BNYDC intends to issue shortly thereafter. BNYDC will follow the model established by HPD on the Brig site for community input on the RFP process.
Officers’ Row Preservation Coming to a Contentious Head [Brownstoner]
For Officer’s Row, Supermarket All But Certain [Brownstoner]
Photo of James and Markowitz by Adrian Kinloch.