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Historic Gowanus Canal warehouse, damaged by fire, will be demolished

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“Losing this building would be a regrettable shame,” say locals, who aimed to landmark the historic structure

The S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse at 595 Smith Street in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
Nathan Kensinger

A historic Brooklyn warehouse that was ravaged by a suspicious fire last summer is slated for demolition—much to the chagrin of local preservationists.

A June blaze ripped through the S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse weeks after locals began pushing for landmark protections for the brick, four-story structure built in 1886. Now, after a handful of attempts to demolish the building, which is currently owned by The Chetrit Group, the city’s Department of Buildings has approved plans to raze the vestige of Brooklyn’s industrial waterfront.

A cadre of locals bent on preserving the building call its imminent loss a “regrettable shame.”

“How a demolition permit was granted by DOB in February 2019 remains a mystery,” the Gowanus Landmarking Coalition said in a statement. “The building is now at risk of being lost entirely after standing since the 1880s.”

The fire department has since ruled the fire incendiary, meaning it was deliberately ignited. An investigation is ongoing, according to FDNY spokesperson Jim Long. Six days after flames tore through the gutted warehouse—which has a collapsing roof, an abandoned pier, and is a neighborhood canvas for graffiti—buildings inspectors observed illicit demolition work without the proper permits and issued a full stop work order.

The mandate remains in place, but in February, Chetrit managed to obtain approvals for a full demolition of the building after DOB found the application in compliance with the city’s zoning and construction codes, according to DOB spokesperson Andrew Rudansky.

The crumbling interior of the Smith Street warehouse.
Nathan Kensinger

Property owners are allowed to apply for and pull DOB permits while a stop work order is in effect, but they can’t physically perform the work until the order is lifted. That’s why last Tuesday, when crews began work with the order in place, DOB inspectors hit the property with a violation. City reps also served the landlord with a violation for missing guardrails, for the contractor’s expired disability insurance, and for “poor housekeeping due to excessive debris at the site,” according to Rudansky.

The owner has still yet to apply for an inspection to remove the stop work order. Chetrit did not immediately return requests for comment.

“While the property owner did eventually get the proper DOB permit, in effect remedying the violating condition, they have still never requested a DOB inspection to remove the Stop Work Order, which is a requirement to resume work at the site,” Rudansky told Curbed.

On Saturday, buildings inspectors yet again observed workers in the midst of work—this time installing scaffolding outside the building—in violation of the active stop work order. A pair of penalties were issued for defying the order and for working on a Saturday without an after hours variance from the city, Rudansky explained. At least $6,000 in fees are owed for violating the property’s stop work order, buildings department records show.

Chetrit initally sought to demolish the building in September 2017, but was denied permits because the application was missing a number of requirements. Once the stop work order is lifted, crews have the green-light to tear down the structure.