It has been a rough few weeks for Admiral’s Row, a collection of historic buildings on the edge of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. In response to the Yard’s plans to purchase the land and demolish all the historic buildings—making way for a Fairway-sized grocery store and other retail and industrial uses—the Army National Guard Bureau recently recommended that only two of eleven historic structures must be preserved. That is far fewer than the Municipal Art Society and other groups like the National Trust for Historic Preservation had recommended. And on June 19, one of the buildings, Quarters C, collapsed after a month of unusually heavy rain.
The Row’s future may look grim, but the Municipal Art Society of New York remains optimistic that it is still possible to preserve and reuse more than two of these remarkable buildings. Despite the collapse of Quarters C—an outrage given the National Guard’s mandate to protect these historic resources—the Guard’s own studies show that most of the other buildings are structurally sound and can be rehabilitated. And MAS has developed six site plans that show it is possible to preserve the buildings and also provide the community with a grocery store it so sorely needs. In other words, there is no need to choose between preservation and produce.
At the heart of our plan is a respect for the Row’s irreplaceable historic fabric. Located at Flushing Avenue and Navy Street, the site includes 10 houses, constructed from the mid-19th century until 1901, which housed high-ranking naval officers until the early 1970s. An adjacent timber shed dates from the 1830s, and is believed to be the only mid-19th-century survivor of this building type among Navy yards throughout the United States. Long and narrow, the shed’s form made it ideal for storing ship masts as they cured.
Together, these residential and naval service buildings are incredibly significant to the Navy Yard, the borough of Brooklyn, and the history of the U.S. Navy. Although Admiral’s Row and the timber shed have been allowed to deteriorate for forty years, they retain a great deal of both exterior and interior architectural detail. In fact, a National Guard report found that the Admiral’s Row district retains an extremely high level of historic integrity.
The structures were used and maintained by the Navy until the 1970s, when the Navy Yard was closed. New York City subsequently purchased the majority of the Yard from the federal government, with the exception of this parcel. The National Guard now wants to sell this property to the city, which will lease the land to the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation.
The Guard’s recommendation that only two of the eleven historic buildings be preserved stems from the Section 106 process, which is a federally-mandated review that requires federal agencies to study the impact of their actions upon important historic buildings. As part of the process, the Navy Yard disclosed their plans to develop the site with a 65,000-square-foot grocery store (approximately the size of the Fairway in Red Hook), a large surface parking lot for at least 300 cars, and additional retail and industrial space on the site. Throughout the process, Navy Yard officials have maintained that they can only proceed with the development if they demolish all of the historic buildings.
While MAS agreed with the Navy Yard and local residents that a grocery store was needed in the area, we did not agree that the best plan was to create a suburban-style store set in a sea of parking. Given that the historic buildings occupy about 25 percent of the six-acre site, we were certain that alternatives could be sought that allowed for both preservation and development.
Last fall, MAS—a consulting party in the Section 106 process—presented six different alternative plans, demonstrating that it is possible to retain the historic buildings while also allowing for the construction of the supermarket and new retail and industrial space. By reconfiguring or reducing the parking, and shifting the location of the new buildings, a greener and more pedestrian-friendly site could be achieved.
These plans were developed after a visioning session in which community representatives, architects, preservationists, and others came together to brainstorm about ways to save the buildings while furthering the needs of the community and the mission of the Navy Yard. We worked to not only preserve as many buildings as possible, but to promote sustainability and foster small businesses and new employment opportunities. Renderings produced by Andrew Burdick of the studio collaborative and Architecture for Humanity New York illustrated the stark differences between the concept behind one of MAS’s alternatives and the Navy Yard proposal.
So we were disappointed when, on May 27, the National Guard released its recommendation calling for preservation of only the timber shed and one of the houses, Building B. While these are two of the most significant buildings, preserving only two is inadequate. The Guard has made it clear that the preservation of these two buildings is a minimum requirement, and MAS will continue to advocate for more preservation. We are also calling on the National Guard to take three specific steps to help balance preservation and development interests.
Most urgently, the Guard must stabilize the buildings. MAS had known that the collapsed Quarters C, unlike most other Admiral’s Row buildings, had major structural problems due to a fire. That said, we are disappointed that the Guard had not better secured the buildings to protect them from further damage from the elements. The Guard must make necessary repairs to stabilize the 19th-century structures as the process of deciding the buildings’ future moves forward.
Secondly, the National Guard is required by law to sell the land to the city at fair market value—an amount that has not been made public. MAS has argued that requiring the retention and rehabilitation of the buildings will lower the fair market value, thereby freeing up money for the Navy Yard to renovate the historic buildings. We have asked the National Guard to explore this possibility.
Finally, the Guard should require an RFP that incorporates the preservation of more historic buildings. Once the Guard announced their proposed mitigation of preserving two buildings, the Navy Yard moved to issue a Request for Proposal (RFP) for development of a grocery store on the site. That RFP will be released within the next two months, and will call for the construction of a 40,000-square-foot grocery store (smaller than originally proposed), an employment center, and additional industrial space, as well as the retention and renovation of the two historic buildings. MAS believes the RFP must include the preservation of more buildings.
None of our work in developing alternative plans would have been possible without volunteer support from architects and developers. And now we need help again. During the RFP process, MAS hopes to identify developers who would consider preserving more of the buildings. We also would like to provide potential responders with practical information on how additional historic buildings can be integrated into new development on the site. We could use expert assistance in developing revised site plans specifically tailored to the information provided in the RFP, and aid in identifying tax credits and financial incentives to help fund the preservation of these buildings.
The Municipal Art Society will continue to advocate for New York’s architectural heritage. We strongly believe that more of these very significant historic buildings can be retained and incorporated into this development. Our fight is far from over. We welcome your expertise and advice as our important work continues.