A cluster of crumbling 19th-century mansions in Fort Greene, Brooklyn finds itself at a development crossroads as preservationists and community members struggle over the future of the area.

Debate over Admiral’s Row, which sits on six acres of federal land owned by the National Guard, has ebbed and flowed over the years, but is now reaching a crest as the Guard plans to hold meetings on the disposition of the property beginning next month. The Guard wants to sell the land because it’s long past being used to train soldiers – and according to federal law, New York City must be given first dibs on a purchase. New York City wants to lease it to the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation (BNYDC), a nonprofit organization that would raze the buildings in order to build a supermarket on the site – bringing fresh, affordable food to the underserved area, plus some 500 jobs to surrounding residents. But because of Admiral’s Row’s historic and cultural significance, the Guard must go through a public comment and historic review process – and some of the city’s leading preservationists plan to argue that the structures must be saved.

The buildings, thought to be built at different times from the 1860s through 1901, include some of New York City’s earliest and most impressive examples of the French Second Empire style. The Navy Yard, which had 70,000 employees during WWII, closed in 1966, and the property passed into the jurisdiction of the Army Corps of Engineers. The mansions, once home to top-ranking naval officers and their families, are past the glory days replete with grand facades and tennis courts.

Deserted for more than 25 years, the Row has quietly deteriorated. Roots and branches grow wild inside the homes. The gardens form a mosaic of weeds, trash and debris.

However, the buildings are considered redeemable for reuse. The New York Landmarks Conservancy commissioned an agency to do an independent review. “The report concluded that the buildings were structurally sound, meaning that the buildings are not an immediate threat or a danger to the public and they are still capable of being restored for further use,” said Roger Lang, the Conservancy’s director of community programs and services. But rehabilitating the homes would come with a high price tag, even though they’re structurally sound, according to a separate assessment by the National Guard.

“We estimate that the rehabilitation would cost about $20 million. …We are working on understanding the situation. Cost and many other factors will be taken into account,” said Kristin Leahy, an independent contractor for the Guard’s Cultural Resource Program.

Other supporters of rehabilitating Admiral’s Row have suggested keeping the buildings and building a supermarket. “We are in firm agreement that the community needs amenities, and a supermarket would be an asset to the local community,” said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council. “However, we don’t believe that the buildings have to be sacrificed. Why not incorporate the buildings into the project? As far as I believe, the BNYDC is not interested in negotiating.”

BNYDC would not comment on the situation, instead referring calls to City Councilwoman Letitia James, who represents the surrounding area. “I understand the concerns of the preservationists and I have supported them on a number of occasions,” James said. “But my priority on this project lies with improving the economic conditions of the families in the neighboring public housing.”
The Navy Yard’s supermarket proposal has wide support in the surrounding community, particularly among residents of the Farragut, Ingersoll and Walt Whitman public housing complexes, who would like more access both to fresh produce and employment.

“Sometimes the fruits and vegetables are good and sometimes it’s bad…but the meat is never that great,” said Quinones Rosa, 60, an Ingersoll resident who was making the six-block trek back from Bravo supermarket on Myrtle Avenue, the nearest supermarket, on a recent Saturday. “The food is pretty expensive. They take advantage because there really is no other place that’s close.”

According to Robert Perris, district manager of Community Board 2, a new supermarket has been a desire of the community since the 1980s. “Due to recent construction projects on Myrtle Avenue, it has reduced the options of places to buy food,” Perris said. “There is additional shopping elsewhere, but it’s not as close as it used to be. For the elderly and those with limited mobility it’s a great inconvenience.”

The surrounding public housing, which is home to more than 7,000 people, forms a maze of six- to 14-story buildings. The Ingersoll Houses are composed of 20 buildings with 1,823 apartments, home to 2,640 residents. The adjacent Walt Whitman Houses are home to 2,485 residents spread out across 15 buildings totaling 1,652 apartments. Grocery shoppers in these houses have a four- to six-block walk to Bravo, or they can go an additional two blocks to the more favored Associated supermarket on the same street.

Residents of the Farragut Houses have the longest walk. Named after David Glasgow Farragut, the first admiral of the U.S. Navy and one of the most colorful commanders of the Civil War, the Farragut Houses are taller and more populous than the other complexes, housing 3,406 residents in 10 buildings. (The population figures come from the New York City Housing Authority, but are in flux somewhat because construction along Myrtle Avenue has displaced some residents.)

“It’s a long walk – it’s about 20 minutes to Bravo, but I’d rather walk 30 minutes to Associated,” said Diana Smith, 57, who grew up in the area and has been a Farragut resident for most of her life. She is also on the board of directors at Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE), a community-based organization in downtown Brooklyn. “There is nothing over here since they closed everything on Myrtle,” Smith said. “If they want to build a supermarket they better make it affordable, so our community can shop there.”

The National Guard Bureau is required by federal law to adhere to a process that involves three laws: the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). The law that is at issue is NHPA, which requires the National Guard Bureau to respect the historical merit of the property. “The stage we are at is the fact-finding phase,” said the Guard’s Leahy. “The indefinite process requires us to consider the effects of our actions and evaluate viable alternatives. We are waiting to send out an official letter. We have to all sit down and try to come up with a viable compromise.”

“At the end, there will be a Memorandum of Agreement for parties, determined through the process, to sign,” she said.

“We are proponents of the supermarket, we just think that it is absurd to rip down the buildings,” said preservationist Bankoff. “The buildings have historical and architectural significance.”

The Conservancy’s Lang added that BNYDC has preserved other historic structures within the Navy Yard. “No question that they [BNYDC] have done good and thoughtful work on preserving some buildings,” said Lang. “Their mission is to bring economic development to Brooklyn, but they also have an obligation to the past.”

Ingersoll resident John Session, 81, had a differing perspective. “Fix it up for what? I used to be in the Navy and it’s a shame what they did to those houses,” said Session, an Ingersoll resident for 55 years. “Most of these kids around here don’t have a job. They should just go ahead, knock them down and build that supermarket. … These kids need jobs.”

Some are open to negotiation – but with conditions. Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries is open to preserving some aspect of Admiral’s Row, according to his chief of staff, Daisy James. But “local small businesses and minority contractors should be substantially involved in any economic development activity that takes place at the Navy Yard,” she said.

Leaning up against a short fence in front of the Walt Whitman houses, managing a baby stroller, 22-year-old Laver Snead, who has spent his whole life in the area simply said,” If they had jobs, I would apply.”

– Abraham Paulos