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