After Arson, DOB Issues Demo Permit for Red Hook’s Historic Bowne Storehouse

595 Smith Street in June 2018. Photo by Susan De Vries

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Drama continues to swirl around the former S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse, located at 595-611 Smith Street in Red Hook.

A demolition permit was issued by the Department of Buildings on February 7 (the application was filed in September 2018). It calls for “a full demolition of a four-story building” — an accurate description of the historic grain warehouse, which at this point may be the only building still standing on the property, the others having been demolished, apparently without a permit, some time ago.

But a violation of a stop work order was issued on March 5, and, according to an email from the Gowanus Landmarking Coalition, local residents claim to have seen workers recently on the site, who are putting up what they claim to be preparatory scaffolding for demolition.

“The building is now at risk of being lost entirely after standing since the 1880s,” the group wrote.

Image via Gowanus Landmarking Coalition

Built in 1886, the unprotected brick warehouse is a remnant from a time when the warehouses of Red Hook and Gowanus were at the center of a thriving shipping industry that brought in, stored and shipped goods all over the world. The property is part of a Gowanus Historic District that was declared eligible for the National Register of Historic Places in 2017, but not yet listed.

red hook bowne storehouse

Image via Gowanus Landmarking Coalition

The property has a history of complaints of poor maintenance, illegal dumping and dangerous conditions. In 2014, the DOB issued a full vacate order for the entire property because a wall on one of the structures was in danger of collapse. In 2016, the DOB received a complaint of “excessive debris throughout warehouse” and ordered the owner to “vacate warehouse for illegal dumping of 1500 cubic yards of combustible c and d debris and asbestos.”

red hook 595 smith street

The roof on May 14, 2018. Photo by Susan De Vries

And in the last year, the building has been the subject of numerous controversies.

In May 2018, locals renewed a call to landmark the building and filed a request for evaluation with the Landmarks Preservation Commission. A month later, workers were spotted at the site, leading nearby residents to wonder if the owner, well-known real estate developer Meyer Chetrit, might be planning to demolish the building.

On June 15, 2018, just one week after that occurred, a fire tore through the building in the middle of the night, destroying part of the roof. At the time, we reported that, according to a local resident, a group of concerned locals met with City Council Member Carlos Menchaca a few days before the fire to request his support to landmark the building. The councilman’s office notified Chetrit of the proposal not long before the fire broke out, according to another resident, which raised concern.

brooklyn architecture red hook gowanus 595 smith street

The storehouse in 1934, located to the right of the tanks of the Brooklyn Union Gas Company. Photo by P.L. Sperr via New York Public Library

It wasn’t only the residents who thought something was fishy. In July 2019, Councilman Carlos Menchaca issued a statement saying the fire was “highly suspicious,” and representatives for the FDNY deemed the blaze “intentionally set,” according to a report in Crain’s.

The shadow hanging over all of this is the future rezoning of nearby Gowanus. In January 2019, a Draft Zoning Proposal was released to the public that laid out the city’s plans for the rezoning of the neighborhood, including moves to allow higher density mixed-use development around Thomas Greene Playground and 3rd Avenue, as well as facilitate public access and permit residential development along the Gowanus Canal.

“It appears the owner of the site is entirely unaware of how adaptive reuse has successfully transformed other historic brick waterside warehouse structures in Dumbo and Red Hook,” the group wrote in their email. “These examples allowed for new uses while safeguarding our community heritage and sense of place at the same time.”

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