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Pondering Sunset Park Rezoning With Tart-Eating Architects at Brooklyn Army Terminal Ball

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Curbed correspondent Andrea Marpillero-Colomina has eyes and ears on the pulse of New York architecture, as well she should with a graduate degree in urban planning from Columbia GSAPP. Andrea did her thing at this weekend's annual architecture cocktail hour, the Beaux Arts Ball, typically held in some fantastically-constructed out-of-the-way location.

Last Saturday evening, the Architectural League of New York held the 2011 Beaux Arts Ball at the Brooklyn Army Terminal in Sunset Park. This year’s theme was Transport, a seemingly apt theme given that transporting oneself to the BAT presents untold challenges.

Designed by Cass Gilbert (the architect of the Woolworth Building) and built in seventeen months in 1918 and 1919, the five million square-foot Terminal complex was the largest military supply base in the US up through WWII. In the decades following that war, the BAT became less essential to the federal government; in 1964 it was deemed unnecessary for national defense. It was unused for most of the 1960s, but in the 1970s, the City of New York began leasing space from the feds. In 1981 the City of New York bought the complex, with the intention of restoring it for use as a light-manufacturing warehouse. In the 1980s, City spent $86.4 million to renovate 2.2 million square feet of the complex. Since then, things have slowed down, and from 1990 to 2001, $41.5 million has been spent to renovate 900,000 square feet. The final renovation phase was completed in 2003.

NYC EDC operates the entire BAT complex. With the not-quite-obscured pleading tones on the agency’s website, the message comes across pretty fast that they are desperately seeking tenants to fill the abundance of underutilized space in this massive complex. [Editor's note: The NYCEDC tells us that the terminal is currently home to 2,400 jobs at 68 companies and its 3.1 million leasable square feet is almost 90% occupied.] The catch for development is the existing buildings cannot to demolished or modified because in 1983 the BAT's ornate facades were placed on the National Registry of Historic Places.

A gentleman in a bowtie who spent the first portion of the dinner trying to convince his tablemates that Midtown Manhattan is the most diverse place in the world (in case you were curious, he self-identified as a resident of “Midtown East,” AKA the mouth of the Queensboro Bridge) brought to the table the information that the buildable FAR calculation for the BAT includes an underwater portion. According to him, the construction of a 60-story tower is permissible as-of-right.

This may or may not be true, depending on how deep you want to dig and how you choose to interpret the vague documents EDC has put out to the public about the site’s development opportunites. But let’s imagine now: What would one even do with a 60-story building in Sunset Park, a neighborhood zoned for low and mid-rise buildings?

Back to the table: tensions ran high as the issue was considered and debated. By dessert, the bow-tied fellow was dividing a warm blueberry and peach tart into pieces he called affordable housing and market rate.
—Reporting by Andrea Marpillero-Colomina
· 2011 Beaux Arts Ball [Architectural League of New York]
· Brooklyn Army Terminal [brooklynarmyterminal.com]
· From the Archives: Brooklyn Army Terminal [Urban Omnibus]