Brooklyn City Council member Carlos Menchaca is mulling legislation that could prevent landlords from legally demolishing their property if the site is being considered for landmark designation, or if the structure is under investigation for a suspicious fire.
The move comes after the 19th-century S.W. Bowne warehouse, located on the banks of the Gowanus Canal, was demolished this week following a suspicious blaze in June 2018. The FDNY launched an investigation into the two-alarm fire, but was recently forced to close its inquiry after inconclusive evidence. The owner of the S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse, The Chetrit Group, pulled demolition permits for the property following the fire and eventually razed the four-story, brick structure despite fierce opposition from preservationists and local elected officials.
The Gowanus Landmarking Coalition, Menchaca, and Rep. Nydia Velazquez fought to preserve the building, and had asked the Landmarks Preservation Commission to calendar it (the official first step in the landmarking process). But in the end, they were unable to stave off the wrecking ball.
“It’s disheartening and enraging to the extreme to see this building go, but it has taught us a lot about how the city responds to situations like this, and how vulnerable our neighborhoods are to unscrupulous developers,” Menchaca told Curbed in a statement. “We have to change this dynamic, and not allow owners to demolish de facto crime scenes or ignore discussions about the historic value of buildings. This will likely require legislation, and I am exploring that option.”
Such legislation would seek to create a procedure that could bar the Department of Buildings (DOB) from granting demolition permits to property owners whose sites have active FDNY or NYPD investigations, especially relating to suspicious fires and arson. It would also aim to develop a mechanism where demolition would be halted on sites that are being considered for historic designation.
Currently, if a property or historic district has been calendared for a hearing by the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), a developer cannot receive permits for work without LPC approval, according to DOB spokesperson Abigail Kunitz.
That may be the first formal step in the landmarks designation process, but the city begins evaluating a property’s historic or architectural merit prior to that point—meaning a building could be on the LPC’s radar as a potential landmark before it has been officially calendared. In the event that there is an open FDNY or NYPD investigation at a property, the LPC will typically not move to landmark a site, according to the Historic Districts Council.
In the case of the S.W. Bowne Grain building, FDNY ruled that the fire was incendiary, meaning it was deliberately ignited, but the Bureau of Fire Investigation was unable to identify suspects, according to the Brooklyn Eagle.
Post-fire, construction workers on the property and DOB inspectors went through a series of back-and-forths over improper work and stop-work orders. All the while, FDNY conducted its investigation. The building has since been reduced to rubble.
Meyer Chetrit with The Chetrit Group did not respond to requests for comment.
Simeon Bankoff, the executive director of the Historic Districts Council, called the building’s loss “utterly unnecessary” and says it is a “grave, grave oversight” that there is no mechanism in place that prevents a property owner from acting on demolition permits while an FDNY inquest is going on.
“The LPC admitted that it was worthy of consideration, there is an unfortunate fire, the owners pulled demo permits in the wake of that fire, and then all the sudden the city can’t do anything. There is a basic problem here,” says Bankoff. “It just feels wrong.”
The circa-1886 building sat along the southern end of the Gowanus Canal and was once a staple of maritime life in 19th-century Brooklyn. It was a piece of the neighborhood’s industrial heritage, which is fast disappearing amid rezoning plans for the area.
“It really managed to capture and anchor the historic past of the canal in a way that we really fear is going to be lost, especially with all the new development that is going to happen along the canal,” says Bankoff.
Brad Vogel, a member of the Gowanus Landmarking Coalition, believes the building had great potential to be revitalized into a hub of activity like numerous other structures across the city’s once-industrial waterfronts.
“There are buildings within Gowanus, in Red Hook, and in Sunset Park that are all similar buildings, in a way,” says Vogel. “And as development pressure continues to move in, these are buildings that may be targets for activities like this.” Vogel says he hopes the legislation Menchaca is exploring moves forward to lend greater protections to such properties.
“It’s a shame that the arsonists won here with [S.W. Bowne],” says Vogel. “And it’s a shame that we don’t have a law in place that would have prevented this.”