Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Old Industrial Buildings on the East River

It has happened in many of the great old cities of the world. In London, a power station along the Thames River became the Tate Modern Museum. In Paris, a train station on the Seine became the Musee d’Orsay. In San Francisco, an old chocolate factory became Ghirardelli Square, an essential tourist stop.

Finding new uses for old industrial buildings along the waterfront has a tradition in New York City as well. One success story is the transformation of the vast old National Biscuit Company plant (manufacturers of Saltines, Oreos, and Fig Newtons) on Ninth Avenue that became Chelsea Market, the bustling home to (appropriately) the Food TV Network and many food shops, as well as NY1, flower merchants and other businesses employing nearly 5,000 people.

“It can work in New York,” says Irwin Cohen, the brains behind Chelsea Market, which, he says, also revitalized the surrounding area. “You can save buildings and benefit all of us who live here.”

But current controversies dog the old industrial waterfront of the East River, pitting preservationists against developers, who don’t see the point.

Some 1,000 waterfront acres have been rezoned on the Brooklyn side, part of a building boom all over the city, which in Brooklyn is producing high-rise apartments with magnificent views of Manhattan. Schaefer Landing, on the site of the old Schaefer Brewery in Williamsburg, was the first to go up, and apartments in the first building have already sold out. Several other waterfront residential high-rise projects are in the works.

Preservationists worry. The Municipal Art Society has an exhibition Preservation on the Edge: Our Threatened East River Heritage. Kent Barwick, president of the society, says the industrial buildings along the East River preserve the river's character. "It's not like all other rivers. It's a gritty, workingman's river. That's where the energy is. That's where the action is."

Three buildings along the East River waterfront in particular are the focus of conflict.

Austin, Nichols Warehouse

If plans for the Austin, Nichols warehouse are any indication, the developers of high-end residential properties are gaining ground. The giant old building in Williamsburg is part of a hot real estate market. A developer, Moishe Kestenbaum, plans to gut the building, change the window style, add four stories, and turn the place into luxury condos.

Preservationists, including the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission, thought the 1913 building designed by Cass Gilbert (best known as the architect of the Woolworth building), should stay the same, on the outside at least. But City Councilmember David Yassky sided with the developer, and recently the council voted against landmark status. The mayor went to the unusual step of vetoing the council’s vote – and then the council overrode his veto.

"This is simply not a landmarkable building," says Yassky's chief of staff Evan Thies, who points out that the building is not listed in the city's "architectural bible," The AIA Guide to New York City. The book lists 75 significant buildings in the Greenpoint/Williamsburg area and 13 other buildings around the city by Cass Gilbert, but Austin, Nichols is not among them.

"Landmarking isn't about pretty buildings," replies Ward Dennis of the Waterfront Preservation Alliance of Greenpoint & Williamsburg. It's about the juxtaposition of old and new "Residential development should work hand in hand with preservation of host sites." Preservationists would prefer maintaining the building as it is with the current tenants of artists and young professionals whose rent generally runs less than a $1,000 month.

But Thies argues that the development of the property along with the rezoning of Greenpoint and Williamsburg will lead to the creation of 3,000 affordable apartments. "There's no way we could afford to build affordable housing unless we build significant amount of market-rate housing," he says. And the deal along with others in the neighborhood "enabled us to build a beautiful waterfront park (In PDF Format) that would have never been built if developers weren't allowed to redevelop property along that waterfront," says Thies. "Landmarking at that site would have been bad for the community."

Preservationists see a neighborhood in danger of losing its history and its soul. Despite the promise of parks and affordable housing, most of what's planned is luxury housing, and the modest businesses and industries—and the blue collar jobs they offer—are likely to be displaced along with the industrial buildings.

Domino Sugar Factory

Residential developers are snapping up other obsolete industrial buildings along the waterfront. The Domino Sugar plant north of the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn was the largest sugar refinery in the world for almost 150 years. It closed in 2004 and developers bought it. They have not announced what they are planning for the building. (See "Developers Known for Residential Work Buy Domino Sugar Plant")

They may at least keep some of the building including the giant yellow sign that faces the river. Preservationists fear they will dismantle distinctive sections that no longer serve any practical use. Industrial archeologist Mary Habstritt is especially enamored of the giant angled chute that extends hundreds of feet from one building to another. It used to transport sugar to giant silos. She was allowed to see it from the inside the day before the plant closed. She climbed up the inside of the ramp, and when she came to the top and looked down into the brightly lit silos, she saw "a fairyland of sugar." No one will have that Willy Wonka moment again, and Habstritt knows the plant will have to be put to a new use. But she has hopes that the history will remain visible. "We need to preserve enough of it to tell the story to those who come after us."

Con Edison Power Plant

Another building industrial preservationists love and developers might demolish is the Con Ed power plant by the United Nations. At the turn of the 20th century, utilities put great care into the designs of their purposeful buildings, and the results are often magnificent. They also added interesting decorative elements, though later modifications, designed for function not form, take away some of the charm and often leave disheveled relics. But industrial buildings such as the Con Ed plant, even after years of changes, retain a rough grandeur.

The Con Ed plant is a worthy candidate for some cultural, residential and/or commercial use, says Frank Sanchis of the Municipal Art Society. Inside is fantastic, "a cathedral of industry." It should be preserved, even the smokestacks. The Tate Modern in London is not embarrassed about their smokestacks, says Sanchis.

The Con Ed plant could lose more than its stacks. Developers might tear it down for high-rise apartments. While it is more trouble to design around the relics of an earlier age, there should be good returns on the investment. The "gorgeous Con Ed building" could become a desirable place to live, says Sanchis. "I can't believe that people wouldn't want to live there instead of some stupid cookie-cutter high-rise building."


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