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Ikea wrecking ball smashes historic Beard St. buildings

The Brooklyn Paper
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Red Hook preservationists were shocked this week when cranes on the site of a soon-to-be Ikea furniture store gouged into a complex of Civil War-era buildings on Beard Street, despite ongoing state and federal review of its historic significance.

Holding an impromptu press conference on Dec. 30 to address the demolition, officials with the Municipal Art Society along with area residents were joined by similarly upset representatives from the office of Rep. Nydia Velazquez in front of the five buildings between Dwight and Otsego streets. They blamed Swedish home-furnishings giant Ikea for the ruination.

The demolition equipment, which was poised mid crunch before news crews showed up, rolled away as a crowd gathered, but were back again on Tuesday to complete what had begun.

Meanwhile, the Municipal Art Society, a non-profit organization aimed at preserving cultural and neighborhood character, is speedily gathering their resources trying to figure out how to save what is left of the structures.

“Any federal agency that is going to do work has to engage in a well-defined procedure in determining whether historical buildings will be affected,” said Brian Connelly, who has taken charge of resisting the demolition at the Erie Basin site. He referred to Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act.

“This is not some arcane piece of legislation,” Connelly said. “We’re very disappointed that Ikea has tried to evade this process.”

The preservation group is considering legal action against Ikea.

Ikea spokesmen said the property did not yet belong to the company, which gained city approval last year to build a $70 million, 346,000-square-foot store on the 22-acre former New York Shipyard, between Dwight and Columbia streets along the Erie Basin. The company would also build 1,400 parking spaces, a public esplanade and additional retail space.

Ikea plans to open in 2007.

Hearing Ikea’s claim of not technically owning the property yet, Kent Barwicke, director of the Municipal Art Society, was quick to point out, “You can’t pretend on one hand to be the owner for environmental review, and for federal applications, and not, on the other hand, for demolition.”

The current owners, U.S. Dredging Corporation, which is in contract to sell the property to Ikea, applied for the demolition permits in early December.

Asked to comment on the demolition of the potentially historic buildings, U.S. Dredging executive Michael Gallagher said, “I have nothing to say.”

According to the city departments of Buildings and City Planning, neither agency has jurisdiction in preventing the demolition.

“There is nothing the Department of Buildings can do,” said Kenneth Lazar, a Brooklyn liaison for the Buildings Department. He said the agency “had no reason to reject the [demolition] permit,” which was issued Dec. 7.

Ilyse Fink, a Buildings Department spokeswoman, added, “State and national review is not meaningful,” and explained that for the city to take action the property has to be a city landmark or under consideration by the city Landmarks Preservation Commission.

“Even a [state or federal] landmark can be demolished,” said Fink, adding that it happens quite often.

The Department of City Planning, which signed on as lead governmental agency on Ikea’s city land use application, said through a spokeswoman that although a draft Memorandum of Agreement between the state’s Historic Preservation Officer and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — which oversees all port development and waterway activity and must issue permits for Ikea to build on the site — was in the works, it had not yet been finalized.

“Structures were determined in our environmental review to be eligible for the National Historical Registry, and the state’s,” said City Planning spokeswoman Jen Parsons. She said it was her agency’s understanding that historic mitigation was being looked into.

That mitigation, said Cathy Jimenez, a spokeswoman for the state Historic Preservation Officer, never materialized.

“It was determined that, yes, the property was historically significant. We’ve been working with Ikea over the past two or three years to basically preserve the historical characteristics of the buildings,” Jimenez said.

Her department signed on to a Memorandum of Understanding, which then went to the Army Corps of Engineers, but, she added, “it’s up to [the Army Corps] to authorize the permit.”

But Richard Tomer, chief of the Regulatory Branch of the New York District of the Army Corps of Engineers, told The Brooklyn Papers that Ikea never received permission to start work.

“Their application is incomplete, meaning they did not get a ‘go ahead’ to work on the project,” Tomer said. He said he was concerned that if the buildings were demolished, “we wouldn’t be able to complete the process.”

Ikea told the Army Corps that the Beard Street building was “an immediate hazard,” said Army Corps spokesman Peter Shugert. In response, the Army Corps requested, in a letter both faxed and sent to Ikea, a cease of work until they could determine whose jurisdiction the issue fell under, as well as evidence of what made the building hazardous.

Shugert added, “It’s about due process; they need to follow due process, and that’s what we’re trying to protect here.”

“That letter [from the Corps] was a product of our efforts to basically enforce Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act,” said Dan Wiley, a spokesman for Congresswoman Velazquez.

“Now the question is enforcement,” he said. “The [Buildings Department] gave the owners the permit, but the permit is for alterations, not an emergency demolition.”

Asked about forging ahead despite the historic concerns, Ikea officials repeated their claim that the building was hazardous, and provided to The Papers a copy of an engineer’s statement, dated Dec. 15, 2004, by a structural engineer named Victor A. Gordon. Though the letter bore a State of New York stamp proving his license, and was typed on letterhead, the phone number for Gordon was disconnected, and a fax number went to a private answering machine. A message left on the answering machine seeking comment was not returned.

Ikea spokesman Jamie Van Bramer told The Papers the engineer conducted the review for Ikea, as an evaluation. He would not respond to charges that Ikea was evading the state and national historical review processes.

Connelly pointed out that the Municipal Art Society had no strong feelings about Ikea itself.

“We are not dogmatically opposed to the Ikea project; the two can coexist,” he said.

But Red Hookers who have opposed Ikea from the get-go used this week’s demolition as an opportunity to reiterate their position.

“An awful lot of people in Red Hook have been deceived by this project,” said John McGettrick, president of the Red Hook Civic Association. “This basically constitutes an end-run around the regulatory process. An illegal end-run.”

Red Hook Councilwoman Sara Gonzalez, on the other hand, who championed the Ikea project, appears to support the demolition.

“She is not going to renege on a commitment she made to the whole of a community,” said her spokesman, Felix Palacios.

“She’s completely convinced that what she did, that whatever needs to be done to bring about this project, needs to be done,” he added. “She’s in complete agreement with bringing Ikea to Brooklyn.”

That did not sit well with McGettrick.

“I am hoping, as more information becomes available, that [Gonzalez] will reconsider,” he said.


Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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Reasonable discourse

ANN J. from RED HOOK says:
I LIVE IN RED HOOK AND I DIDN'T EVEN KNOW THAT IKEA WOULD BE DESTROYING RED HOOK'S HISTORY. I THINK THAT ITS A SHAME WHAT BIG BUSINESSES WILL DO FOR MONEY. WHY DESTROY WHAT LITTLE RED HAS LEFT?? FOR JOBS THAT WILL ONLY EMPLOY RED HOOK RESIDENTS FOR ABOUT 3-5 MONTHS, JUST LIKE FAIRWAY? DO NOT MANIPULATE OUR RESIDENTS? I SAY DOWN WITH IKEA. lEAVE THE GRAVING DOCK ALONE...THAT IS ONE OF THE ONLY PIECES OF CIVIL WAR HISTORY THAT WE HAVE LEFT....—— IKEA!!!!!!!
May 2, 2008, 11:41 pm

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