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Brooklyn gained a Wegmans, but lost the 19th-century mansions of Admiral’s Row

For many Brooklynites, the destruction of Admiral’s Row and its extensive woodlands represents a tragic loss

It was a chilly and gray day when Wegmans opened at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Hundreds of Wegmaniacs had lined up outside in the dark, waiting in the pouring rain for the supermarket to debut its first New York City location. Cars were backed up for blocks in every direction, on standby for a space in the massive parking lot. A squadron of police supervised the chaotic scene, shutting down parts of Flushing Avenue, patrolling the campus on foot, and keeping an eye on the thousands of shoppers wandering the aisles with carts filled to capacity.

Across the parking lot from the new store, a crowd of politicians and developers looked down onto the bedlam from a second-story perch. As shoppers dashed through the rain and drivers circled endlessly, the special guests of Wegmans sipped champagne and nibbled sushi. The event was moderated by Doug Steiner, the developer of the Wegmans campus and owner of Steiner Studios on the opposite side of the Navy Yard, and included congratulatory speeches by Sen. Chuck Schumer and New York State Attorney General Letitia James, who had both advocated for the grocery store a decade earlier.

“This is a great wedding day,” said Schumer, who had brought his family to the opening. “The wedding of Brooklyn and the Navy Yard to Wegmans is a victory. It’s a victory for healthy food. It’s victory for jobs. It’s a victory for Brooklyn and New York.”

“This was a food desert. And we were leading in all health indicators, from obesity to diabetes to health disease to high blood pressure,” said James, who, as a City Council member, sought to bring a grocery store to the Navy Yard to serve the numerous NYCHA developments nearby. “And I want to thank Wegmans for honoring their commitment to hire locally … because there were significant amounts of unemployment in this community.”

The opening of Wegmans has surely been one of the most talked about supermarket openings in the city’s history. The New Yorker arrived at 6:45am and, after shopping, concluded that the supermarket was “more than a store: it’s a place of delight and obsession.” Business Insider spoke to the first customer in line, who had waited seven hours to buy a fruit bar. And Streetsblog wandered through the traffic jams, gleefully condemning the opening as “an absolute carpocalypse.”

But lost amid the celebrations was any real consideration of what was sacrificed in order to build the latest Wegmans branch. For over 150 years, this corner of the Brooklyn Navy Yard was home to Admiral’s Row, a collection of 10 historic houses once used by naval officers. Abandoned in the 1970s, the homes were left to slowly decay until they were unceremoniously bulldozed by the city in 2016. Some of the century-old trees that had grown up around the row’s more than six acre campus, some soaring six stories high, were also destroyed.

For many Brooklynites, the destruction of Admiral’s Row and its extensive woodlands represented a tragic loss for historic preservation and for the environment, which no cult grocery store can ever replace. Two buildings from Admiral’s Row remain: Quarters B, which is currently being restored by Steiner Studios, and the reconstructed Timber Shed. Those are now surrounded by generic glass and steel boxes, which bear no resemblance to the humble wood and brick structures they replaced. There is no forest in sight.

Admiral’s Row, 1904.
army.arch

The plan to demolish Admiral’s Row and build a supermarket in the Brooklyn Navy Yard dates back to at least 2008, when the homes were under the control of the National Guard. At that point, the row had been decaying for decades and was in perilous condition, badly damaged by fires, squatters, and the elements. Although the cost of preserving the homes at that time was estimated at just $20 million, the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation (BNYDC), the not-for-profit corporation that manages the yard on behalf of the city, was clear in their intention to acquire and destroy the houses, telling the New York Times that they would “walk away from any deal that would include preserving the buildings.”

“Ten years ago, you could have actually walked past Admiral’s Row and had a visceral and physical sense of understanding that you were seeing a past. That isn’t there anymore. This is a case where the government has allied with private development to eradicate a public resource, and it is unpleasant to contemplate,” says Simeon Bankoff, the executive director of the Historic Districts Council, which was part of a coalition of preservation groups that tried to save Admiral’s Row from the wrecking ball. “Now, you’ve got a couple trees, an enormous parking lot, and no particular waterfront access, to service a Wegmans. This is such a late-20th-century solution to a 21st-century opportunity.”

Admiral’s Row, 2016.

In many ways, the long-delayed process to build a grocery store here has resulted in an outdated and unsatisfactory result. With more and more people ordering groceries online, a destination supermarket anchored by an enormous parking lot represents an antiquated, suburban approach to urban planning. And for transit advocates, building a car-dependent business on the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway, far from any subway stop, is a recipe for disaster. On opening day, bicyclists, pedestrians and busses were forced to weave through constant traffic, as a parade of cars cut across the sidewalks and bike routes.

“There were seven acres that the city had the absolute right to develop in a million ways on the Brooklyn waterfront. The amount of things that could have happened here is kind of overwhelming. And instead we are all getting excited about a supermarket?” says Bankoff, who questions why the Navy Yard didn’t create a more resilient, green project. “25 years from now, are we going to need a 700 capacity car park? 25 years from now, is that Wegmans going to still exist? What future are you building? And what are the resources that you are getting rid of, that you are throwing away, in order to build that future?”

The Brooklyn Navy Yard is currently in the midst of reinventing its entire campus, and is betting heavily on becoming a high-traffic destination, often at the expense of its historic industrial identity. This month also saw the grand opening of Dock 72 at the yard, a 16-story office tower that will house six floors of WeWork office shares. In the years to come, the Navy Yard plans to erect four more towers around its waterfront campus to house manufacturing and office spaces, a museum, and another food hall. All of this will depend heavily visitor traffic from outside the surrounding neighborhoods.

But in the next few decades, the Brooklyn Navy Yard will also be radically reshaped by rising sea levels. Like cities around the world, New York will be facing an increase in flooding and storm surges by 2050, and by the end of this century, the New York City Panel on Climate Change has predicted that the city will see up to 9.5 feet of sea level rise. Against that backdrop, it is questionable how long the new Wegmans supermarket will survive, having been built into a former marshlands which is now surrounded by a sea of non-porous asphalt.

“Those were questions that were not really addressed,” says Bankoff. “What is the second life for these buildings? Are they just going to knock it down again and build something new?”

Admirals Row, as seen in 2016, immediately prior to its demolition. The eight-acre campus was home to a mature forest with hundreds of trees, some of which were over a century old.

As part of the demolition process, which took place in 2016, almost all of the trees were clearcut and fed into a wood chipper. Just a handful were left standing at the southwest corner of the yard.

The new Wegmans complex, which includes the store, a pair of two-story commercial buildings, and parking for 700 cars. On opening day, the parking lot was filled beyond capacity for 12 hours. Approximately 50 new trees were planted, but are surrounded by asphalt.

A view of the southwest corner of the Navy Yard, at Flushing Avenue and Navy Street. This 1909 photo from the Library of Congress shows the historic Timber Shed and several of the buildings of Admirals Row. The shed dates back to 1833 or 1843, according to an article from Turnstile Tours.

The original Timber Shed was 400 feet long, but by 1963 it had been shortened to just 103 feet. By 2008, as seen here, it had become an overgrown ruin.

By 2015, much of the Timber Shed’s roof had collapsed, but preservationists were intent on salvaging the building after it was rediscovered. “During the whole benighted process, that was actually the biggest surprise,” says Bankoff. “This was the only extant timber shed left for Naval use in the country.”

The original Timber Shed was dismantled, and a new version of has been reconstructed at its original location as part of the Wegmans campus. On the opening day of Wegmans, it was not yet open to the public.

Further east along Flushing Avenue from the Timber Shed, this 1913 photo from the National Archives shows Quarters C and H of Admirals Row. The row contained 10 homes, built between 1864 and 1901.

The same stretch of the row 103 years later, shortly before demolition began in 2016. After decades of abandonment, the homes were in rough shape, with evidence of arson and squatters inside their collapsing interiors.

This same stretch of Admiral’s Row has been replaced by a two-story commercial building, which Steiner is now offering up for lease. The glassy ground floor was empty on the opening day of Wegmans.

Quarters B, as seen in 2016. Many of the trees had already been cleared away from the building’s facade, revealing its crumbling condition. This was the only home to be saved on the entire row.

Quarters B, on the opening day of Wegmans. Steiner is overseeing a restoration of the structure, which is not yet open to the public.

Quarters D of Admiral’s Row, as seen in a 1912 photograph from the National Archives. This building was adjacent to Quarters B, and was replaced by the Wegmans grocery store.

Quarters D in 2015. Surrounded by a verdant forest, the home was still in remarkably good condition, despite years of government neglect.

The site of Quarters D today; Wegmans sits directly on top of its footprint. “It wasn’t that long ago, in the ’70s or ’80s, that people were living in those buildings,” says Bankoff. “People have no memory, and things become history faster than you could imagine.”

The 74,000-square-foot Wegmans supermarket occupies the ground floor of this new five-story glass and steel box. During opening day, some 25,000 visitors reportedly descended on the campus, creating lines of traffic along Flushing Avenue.

The Wegmans building replaced several homes along Admiral’s Row, including Quarters D, E, F, G, and I, seen here in 2016, shortly before demolition. The trees had already been removed from their front yards.

Quarters E, F, G, and D in 1913, in a photo from the National Archives. “I think they are already fading away from people’s memories,” says Bankoff. “You are pretty hard put to find any images of the buildings not completely dilapidated.”

By 2015, the interiors of the Admiral’s Row houses had fallen into complete disrepair, but many architectural elements remained intact, including fireplaces, light fixtures, and decorative woodwork.

“By the time they were signing their deals, the buildings were economically unsalvageable,” says Bankoff. “It was a case of letting the buildings rot for an additional decade. They were open to the elements, and that kind of put them over the edge.”

“They never wanted those buildings,” says Bankoff, referring to the many layers of government that let Admiral’s Row slip into disrepair. “I mean, they wanted to erase it from history… People who are interested will figure it out. It will be rediscovered again.”

“At one point they talked about some kind of signage or some sort of commemorative plaque,” says Bankoff. “If they do put a plaque up there, I would suggest that they talk about the history of the buildings, and then end it with something along the lines of ‘And then the government let them rot, and then ripped them down for a parking lot.’”

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