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Gowanus preservationists push for landmark protections amid rezoning fears

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Five buildings are up for landmark protections, but locals say it’s not enough

A four story red brick building that once served as a hub of manufacturing in Gowanus.
Part of The Somers Bros. Tin Box Factory, also known as the American Can Factory, is one of five Gowanus buildings up for protected status and dates back to 1891.
Nathan Kensinger

Preservationists pushed to protect five historic Gowanus buildings during a Tuesday Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing, but warned the LPC that it must consider more sites if the Brooklyn neighborhood’s industrial past is to be preserved ahead of a rezoning set to trigger a boom of development.

The LPC is considering five Gowanus buildings for landmark status, including the soon-to-be revitalized Brooklyn Rapid Transit Powerhouse (also known as the Batcave), the Gowanus pumping house, and part of the former Somers Bros. Tin Box Factory that’s currently home to some 300 artist, publisher, and nonprofit tenants. Community advocates applauded the LPC’s move toward landmark status, but urged the commission to seriously consider additional properties as developers eye the neighborhood for residential high-rises.

“Gowanus’s history cannot be adequately told by only the five buildings before you today,” said Peter Bray of the Park Slope Civic Council, a member of the Gowanus Landmarking Coalition, which has fiercely advocated for the area’s historic buildings. “You must do more to protect its remarkable character and to go beyond that limited number of buildings still under consideration.”

A crumbling two story brick building covered in grime and graffiti.
The Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company building locally known as The Batcave.
Max Touhey

The sites under consideration are the Montauk Paint Manufacturing Company Building at 170 Second Avenue; ASPCA Rogers Memorial Building at 233 Butler Street; most of the Gowanus Canal Flushing Tunnel Pumping Station and Gate House at 196 Butler Street; part of the Somers Brothers Tinware Factory (later the American Can Company) at 238-246 3rd Street; and the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company Central Power Station Engine House at 153 Second Street. The LPC has vowed to continue reviewing a list of 29 suggested landmarks put together by local community groups, but has yet to indicate additional sites it is seriously considering.

City Council member Brad Lander has made the preservation of culturally significant Gowanus buildings a sticking point for the city-led proposal to rezone the neighborhood that is currently underway for a swath of the area, and has continued that push with the suggestion of the R.G. Dun and Company Building, a circa-1914 former printing plant located at 255 Butler Street, and the T. H Roulston complex at 70-124 9th Street that was originally built in the 1910s as a grocery warehouse.

“[We must] preserve Gowanus’ unique character even as we plan for growth and change,” Julia Ehrman, a representative for Lander, testified Tuesday on behalf of the Brooklyn Councilmember. “The landmarking of these eight buildings on five sites sets us on the path to achieve one of the most important goals of the Gowanus rezoning, which is to retain and enhance the arts and industry that have shaped this neighborhood.”

A three-story brick building with limestone details.
Thousands of Brooklynites adopted pets at the ASPCA Rogers Memorial Building, which was constructed in 1913, until its closure in 1979.
Nathan Kensinger

It’s already too late for some area buildings, such as the S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse, which was razed this month and has spurred Councilmember Carlos Menchaca to explore legislation that would make it harder to demolish buildings the city is mulling for potential landmark status. Brad Vogel, another member of the Gowanus Landmarking Coalition, called the demolition a “dark reminder that threats will continue to mount as development pressures grow” in the area.

The neighborhood was determined as eligible for the National Register of Historic Places in 2013, with the support of the New York State Historic Preservation Office, but the odds for such a designation have slimmed as the city pushes forward with plans to overhaul development in the area, according to the Historic Districts Council (HDC)

“The danger to this neighbor is very real,” said Kelly Carroll, the director of advocacy and community outreach at HDC. “Gowanus has a limited universe of historic significant structures and they are disappearing faster than can be imagined.”