Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Grand Ferry Park to Reopen in Late April

new york minute

Weather permitting, one of our favorite Northside Williamsburg haunts - Grand Ferry Park - will reopen in late April, according to the NYC Parks Department.

The tiny waterfront park at the foot of Grand Street on the East River has been fenced off since mid-October for a half-million dollar capital improvement project. The site of the park, which officially opened in 1998, plays a crucial role in the history of Williamsburg. According to the Parks Department's own history:

It is named for the 19th century Grand Street Ferry, which once carried farm goods and passengers across the East River to Manhattan.

In 1802, Richard Woodhull, spurred by the idea of creating a residential suburb of Manhattan, began a ferry service from today’s Metropolitan Avenue to Corlear’s Hook across the East River. He purchased 13 acres of land surrounding the ferry and named the area Williamsburgh around 1810, after Colonel Jonathan Williams (1750-1815), the original surveyor of the site.

In 1811 Woodhull went bankrupt, but the idea of Williamsburgh was viable; Noah Waterbury built the neighborhood’s first distillery in 1819, and David Dunham (ca. 1790), called the “Father of Williamsburgh,” began operating a steam ferry in 1827. During the mid-1800s, wealthy professionals frequented the private clubs, beer gardens, and resorts abounding in the neighborhood, while companies like Pfizer Pharmaceutical and the Havermeyers & Elder Sugar (now Domino Sugar) Refineries laid their roots in the area.

Interestingly, at some point between 1802 and 1847, the actual ferry launch moved from Metropolitan Avenue down to Grand Street, as shown on this 1847 Map of Lower Manhattan. At that point, the ferry connected Grand Street in Williamsburg to Grand Street in Manhattan - despite the fact that the two streets don't align geographically. Also fascinating is the idea that the company that makes Viagra got its start right there at the site of the diminutive park, as part of the 19th-century sugar and molasses trade that dominated the waterfront until the neighboring Domino Sugar plant closed its doors in 2003:

A red brick smokestack rising above a circular pattern of cobblestones was part of a molasses plant that Pfizer Pharmaceuticals used in the early 20th century for work that led, eventually, to the large-scale production of penicillin.
But we digress. According to Christine, a Parks representative in the Capital Projects office, the park was closed for "bulkhead repair" (surprising, considering that the park never had a bulkead) and there still remains some "rough grading to be done, as digging takes place for the swale." Peering through the construction fence, it appears that a short concrete bulkhead has been installed, but that the river will still be accessible by climbing across the riprap. Grand Ferry is one of the few shoreline parks in the city where one can still get down to the water - at one's own risk - instead of being fenced-in behind a steel railing atop a concrete-and-steel bulkead. Its one of the things that makes the park so special.

Its worth noting that the park - and the dead-end block of South 5th, just south of the Domino complex - are both DEP combined sewer outflow points (CSOs), meaning that during heavy rains, raw sewage can overflow into the river from culverts at both locations. And both locations are under construction. So we're guessing that the park construction may have something in common with the project on South 5th. Could even be preliminary infrastructure work that anticipates future Domino luxury condo owners won't be sweet on the thought of being bookended between matching sewage spouts.

Less likely is the possibility that the city is prepping for a return of ferry service to the site after a 90 year absence. The park has been batted around as a possible landing for the NY Water Taxi, but Parks had no knowledge of that, and our money is still on Northside Piers as the new jumping-off point for Williamsburg's would-be waterborne commuters.

Nightswimming - A Grand Ferry Photoset [flickr]

Grand Ferry Park History [NYC Parks]

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Anytime Williamsburg Denies Demise;
Tater Tot Death Watch Begins

anytime closing?

Love it or hate it (and there's plenty of reasons for either), Anytime at 93 North 6th Street has been a Northside institution for years (since 2001, we think). Delivering anything from chicken fingers to beer and cigarettes until 5 am, and serving $1 PBRs at the bar, well, anytime, one can imagine why the place has a big following.

In the past few days, the familiar Anytime sign has been removed and replaced by an even more-familiar "Commercial Space for Rent / Capri Jet Realty Corp" placard. As of 5 pm Tuesday, the restaurant was still answering their phone and accepting take-out orders. The staff chuckled when we asked about the signage swap, insisting the owner is just "renting out commercial space" and that the restaurant is still doing business as usual. A call to the realtor was not returned as of this posting.

Even though 90% of the menu items are mediocre at best (Free Williamsburg categorizes the cuisine as "Shit"), and three years ago, the kitchen went from 24 hours down to 4 pm til 5 am – forcing the owners to add a blinking neon "at night" to the sign - if Anytime does close, it will leave a huge void in late-night, post-binge knoshing.

For the record, imnotsayin IS a big fan of the rosemary-laden lamb Anytime Burger, served in a pita and slathered in minced cucumber and tomatoes...though even the burger suffered when the kitchen stopped serving it with a side of tahini.

But the real tragedy here would be loss of the TOTS. Yes, the Anytime tater tots - packed in a hole-studded cardboard carton, and included with burgers as a gigantic hot, steamy, salty, greasy, crispy box of paradise. Losing the tots would rank right up there with the death of Pies N' Thighs' pulled pork goodness.

Update 1: Anytime's bar / dining room was open as usual Tuesday evening.

Update 2: The realtor from Capri Jet corroborated the staff's contention that Anytime is NOT closing. The rental sign refers to the second-floor commercial space. The tots are safe, at least for now...

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Northside Pier: And There Were Lights

northside pier lampposts

Last time we checked in on progress at Northside Piers' East River jetty, it was just a concrete slab. Since then, its gotten a wood plank deck, and Wednesday, it became studded with modern-looking lampposts.

We're hoping that means our prediction was correct and there will be at least some public access (and maybe, just maybe a NY Water Taxi landing?) just in time for Spring.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Historic Kent Ave Power Plant:
Are Renovations Prelude to Demolition?

BMT Powerhouse

Name a massive historic industrial building on the Brooklyn waterfront and there's almost always a sordid tale of contentious development plans, a neighborhood preservation battle - or worse - to go along with it. Consider the landmarked-then-delandmarked Austin, Nichols & Co. Warehouse at 184 Kent Avenue; the historic Greenpoint Terminal Warehouse complex, which burned in a spectacular 10-alarm fire in 2006 before it could be preserved and converted to housing; and the development-melee du jour: the Domino Sugar plant, whose partially-landmarked status, and weekly-revised renderings from the developer have neighbors and preservationists spinning to keep up with the developers' plans – just to name a few.

One significant parcel that's received amazingly little public discourse during the past few years is the gorgeous old Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit (BMT) Powerhouse at 500 Kent Avenue (at Division). Originally built for the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company, the Powerhouse was built in stages in 1905 and 1936, and supplied power to the BRT's streetcar and elevated lines; in 1950 it was sold to Con Ed, who used it as a regular power plant for nearly 50 years before retiring it in the late 1990s.

BMT Powerhouse Elevation

Between 1999 and 2002,
Con Ed attempted to sell the plant (pdf), along with 4 other parcels – including the nearby North 1st Street Oil Terminal. But in a remarkable string of circumstances chronicled here (pdf), all five properties became unsuitable for auction. In the case of 500 Kent, soon after the auction was approved, it was discovered that the city already had an outstanding agreement with various community groups to investigate the site as a potential location for subsidized housing. Shortly thereafter, the City came to its senses about the cost to remediate the asbestos-ridden property. Cushman and Wakefield, whom Con Ed had retained to sell the properties, had their own doubts:
C&W did advertise and market the site, but did not receive any serious expressions of interest in it. Based on the environmental analysis of the site, and Con Edison's estimate of the cost to remediate it, C&W advised Staff and the company that it was questionable whether the site would be considered attractive to anyone.
Fast-forward five years. In the past few months, Con Ed has been granted permits for a ground-to-rooftop scaffold and sidewalk shed along Kent Avenue, as well as this curiously-described renovation:
Application filed for interior demolition throughout building and to create openings in 1st floor exterior wall. Remove portion of 2nd floor slab of 6 story section of building. No change in use, egress or occupancy.
BMT Powerhouse 2

We visited the site last week,
and sure enough, there's several new gaping holes in the building's south wall, and crews appeared to be actively removing asbestos from the north end of the 1936 addition. We identifed ourselves to the security guard as a neighborhood blogger, and asked if Con Ed was demolishing the building. The guard happily answered "yes", and attempted to summon the contractor's foreman for a more official comment. The foreman, without leaving his trailer (to be fair, the crew was on their mid-morning coffee break), told her (and she reiterated to us) something to the effect of "That's not our job. Our job is to bring the place down."

In its September 2007 newsletter, the local chapter of the Society for Industrial Archaeology (SIA) published an article titled "Preservation Alert! Kent Avenue (BMT) Powerhouse" that began:
We have heard from a reliable source that asbestos abatement is beginning at the Kent Avenue Powerhouse in preparation for removal of equipment prior to demolition of the building for construction of luxury residential units.
The article (accompanied by a gorgeous photo of the plant taken shortly after it opened in 1905) goes on to detail the Powerhouse's fascinating history, and the group's concern over the disposition of "dynamos from Edison's historic Pearl Street Station [that are] stored here." (Pearl Street was the first central power plant in the US, located in lower Manhattan beginning in 1882). Several calls to the Society this week went unanswered, but the group's newsletters and tour schedule are outstanding if you're fascinated by New York's industrial history.

We spoke to SIA's source ourselves, who appears both reliable and very knowledgeable about the site. While asking to remain unnamed, the source was unflinching when asked if Con Ed is prepping the building for demolition: "Definitely they are." Although the time line is unclear, the giant holes in the south wall, and the unusual renovation work described in the building permit appear consistent with removal of historic machinery that would likely happen in advance of razing the structure.

BMT Powerhouse 1906
Mary Habstritt, Chair of SIA's Roebling Chapter Preservation Committee, and author of the newsletter article on the Powerhouse, sent a Request for Evaluation for the property to the City's Landmarks Preservation Commission, asking that 500 Kent Avenue be considered for landmarking. A veteran of several landmarking struggles including the ongoing Domino Sugar proposal, Habstritt expected the standard "we'll take it under consideration" form letter from Landmarks. Instead, she was surprised with a personal letter from the Commission that states:
...a senior staff committee of the Landmarks Preservation Committee has reviewed the property for consideration as a potential landmark. At this time, the property will not be recommended to the full Commission for further consideration...

The decision not to recommend further consideration is based on our current priorities. This decision could be reconsidered at a later date should additional information become available.
This despite the building's undeniable grandeur; its design by Thomas Edward Murray (second only to Edison in the number of patents granted to an individual); and the Powerhouse's role as the site of a historic 1937 sit-down strike that was a key moment in the Transport Workers Union's struggle to represent the City's mass transit employees. Not to mention the fact that the National Trust currently has "Brooklyn's Industrial Waterfront" listed first in its widely-publicized 11 Most Endangered Places list.

BMT Powerhouse 4

You don't have to look far to find precedent for both the destruction of historic power plants, as well as (arguably) preservation and rebirth. Just up the East River on Manhattan's East Side, another of Murray's creations - the spectacular Beaux Arts Waterside Number 2 plant just south of the UN was demolished in 2006 to make way for a still-in-discussion high-rise residential project.

And across Newtown Creek, in Long Island City, another 1905 powerhouse - the original Long Island Railroad generating station - was recently converted to luxury condominiums in an extreme renovation that some consider destructive, and others might hail as adaptive reuse at its finest.

Meanwhile, what's Con Ed saying about the Powerhouse? We spoke to the utility's Media Relations Department late last week, and they insist this is all just "spring cleaning," adding, "We're not in the business of developing condos, and we never will be".

When pressed
on why there's suddenly so much activity at the long-dormant plant, Con Ed's Chris Olert replied, "When do you do your spring cleaning? Don't go spinning this into exotica...we're just cleaning up."

Electric Power Plants, by Thomas Edward Murray
[Google Book Search]

Society for Industrial Archaeology, Roebling Chapter

BMT Powerhouse Today [Flickr Photoset]

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Pedibomber Strikes
Times Square Recruiting Station

times square 4

He's got the multiple bombings. He's got the pulled-tight hoodie. Now he's apparently even got a manifesto...

We checked, and the Unabomber - Ted Kaczynski - is still serving his life sentence in a Florence, Colorado prison.

So we think the idiot that's now pedaled up to three NYC buildings in the past three years, tossing bombs from his ten-speed and biking away into the night with barely a gear shift, needs his own name: we suggest the Pedibomber.

We shot the photo above (the ill-fated military recruiting center is at bottom center) as part of a "Times Square by Night" photoset a few months ago. And we're glad we grabbed it when we did: even during the December shoot, we were chased away from the recruiting booth by a friendly pair of cops who said we couldn't shoot with a tripod in Times Square because its "such a sensitive area"...

Times Square by Night [Flickr]

Dust to Dust: National Sawdust
Milling Towers Demolished

dust to dust

Anyone who's stood outside Galapagos Art Space or Northsix (now the Music Hall of Williamsburg) smoking a cigarette or making a phonecall between sets, will probably recognize the National Sawdust mill tower in the photo montage above.

The neighborhood landmarks at Wythe Avenue and North 6th Street were part of the former National Sawdust plant, which manufactured aquarium gravel and packing materials, and sold various grades of sawdust from bins in its warehouse across the street at 78 North 6th.

The towers were pulled down this morning by a crew from Ancor Demolition of Long Island City. Note Ancor's 89-year-old owner (seen at lower left in a dress overcoat and hat), who according to one of the employees, still supervises every demo job in-person.

According to a source familiar with the parcel, the corner lot is being cleared for construction of yet another residential mid-rise building, though as of yet no building permits have been filed.

Another One Bites the Dust [imnotsayin]