Brooklyn's Tobacco Warehouse: Another Piece of Public Parkland Pilfered?

Here's something that's becoming all too common in New York.

Some kind of local or citywide project - under the guise of "economic development" - is devised at the highest levels and then is put in place without regard to the public's needs and rights, to the actual public process, or to the concept of accountability.

"Economic Development" seems to be the new wolf-in-sheep's-clothing that's used by some in order to simply snatch things that rightfully belong to all of us - like parkland - and give them away for various self-serving reasons. It's always done with blatant disregard for what the public has to say or what the public's role might be in making important economic development decisions.

And once any piece of what's public domain is given away to private interests, you can rest assured that the public will never get it back. Just ask the folks in the Bronx who are still waiting for all the public parkland to be "replaced" that was taken away in the course of building of the new Yankee Stadium. By all accounts, at least three acres still need to be replaced in a borough which is not only among the poorest in the nation, but also has the worst people to public/green space ratio in the nation. (But that's a story for another day.)

These bad economic development schemes are more likely to be accepted in today's horrible financial climate because those promoting these schemes can often scare us into accepting them. They say that if a certain project doesn't go through, a number of awful things might happen (pick one, depending on the project): Jobs will be lost! Money that might go to fund other public projects will be lost! The neighborhood will deteriorate! Then there are instances where no public process at all is followed, not even a bad one.

The latest case in point - the attempted pilfering of the Tobacco Warehouse, a truly magnificent public open air space and a national historic landmark, which is part of the parkland between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges in Brooklyn.

The Brooklyn Heights Association, the Fulton Ferry Landing Association filed suit on Tuesday to prevent a secret giveaway of this piece of the park. Two actions were filed: a federal lawsuit (where plaintiffs were joined by the New York Landmarks Conservancy) and a New York State suit. (In the interests of full disclosure, the plaintiffs are clients of my firm, LCG Communications; my clients teach me what's really going on in the world that's of real importance. They make me look smart.)

It involves the National Park Service, the NYS Office of Parks and the Brooklyn Bridge Corporation. The plaintiffs obtained documents through the Freedom of Information Law (thank goodness we at least have that) which clearly showed that City and State officials launched a plan to remove the Tobacco Warehouse from the park's map so that it could be given to a private organization for free and for its sole and permanent use.

And, of course, the public knew nothing about it.

You can find more details about the action and the Tobacco Warehouse here.

"The purpose of having protected parkland is to guard it for open access by everyone, regardless of background or ability to pay. After 5 years of programming with many events by a diverse collection of groups with varied missions, including art, cultural, musical, and recreational, the government has secretly turned over the keys to a monopoly of one," said Jane McGroarty, President of the Brooklyn Heights Association. McGroarty said the lawsuit was the only remaining option to save the Tobacco Warehouse after her plea to the National Park Service (in July 2010) went unanswered.

I've been at some of those great performances and activities - they were all free, well done and open to - the public! All of the public! No ticket needed!

In addition, the space is used by lots of cultural and other groups who don't have a home of their own - what a great use for public space, yes?

On a positive note - all of the elected officials who represent the Tobacco Warehouse at various levels of government agree that what was done was wrong.

"People have enjoyed this lovely space for years as an integral part of the park and the views," said Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-NY). "We must not only keep the Tobacco Warehouse in the Park, but we should look for ways to expand access to its flexible open public use."

We simply can't afford to let this happen. No matter what the details are of this case, the bottom line - we should keep the public domain open to all the public - no private giveaways.

I'll be updating this story. And I'd be curious to see if you and your city or state are having this problem as well. Let me know.