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Developers and Preservationists Fight Over Harlem's Yuengling Brewery

By Gustavo Solis | November 12, 2015 6:41pm
 Preservationists and developers are fighting over the historic significance of the building on Amsterdam Avenue and 126th Street.
Preservationists and developers are fighting over the historic significance of the building on Amsterdam Avenue and 126th Street.
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DNAinfo/Gustavo Solis

HARLEM — To developers it's a dilapidated warehouse standing in the way of economic development, but to preservationists it's the last relic of Harlem’s industrial past.

Both sides squared off on the status of the Yeungling Brewery Complex on Amsterdam Avenue Thursday during a public hearing hosted by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which will make a decision on a number of buildings that have been under consideration for decades.

“Twenty-five years of calendaring has had no positive impact on our work whatsoever,” said Scott Metzner principal of Janus Property, the organization that owns the building.

“To the contrary it’s been a constant and unnecessary drain on our time, energy and resources that would’ve been much better invested in the buildings themselves.”

On their corner were former councilman Robert Jackson, Councilman Mark Levine, the local community board, a structural engineer and the former director of the German American Heritage Museum in Washington D.C.

They argued that the structure did not merit landmark designation and could be better served as the site of a new development that could attract businesses to the neighborhood.  

“If you want to look at a real impressive brewery complex go to Yuengling in Pottsville then you will see what a brewery looks like not like what we have in front of us,” said Rudiger Lentz of the German American Heritage Museum referencing the original home of the Yuengling Brewery in Pennsylvania.

Janus touted its record of reconstructing a number of abandoned warehouses in the area, which they call the Manhattanville Factory District. Its buildings are occupied by non-profit groups, business incubators and artists.

The company is currently working on a 340,000-square-foot mix-use commercial, retail, and community facility.

The site is the last remaining Brewery from Harlem's industrial past, said Brad Taylor a member of the local community board.

"In 1879 there were 79 breweries in Manhattan and in 1898 New York produced more barrels of beer than any other city," he said quoting from a previous LPC study. "So don’t tell me we should go to somewhere in Pennsylvania to look for breweries." 

Preservationists criticized politicians and the community board members who accept money from Janus for “selling the community out.” They also criticized political culture that does not prioritize preserving historic buildings.  

“I can tell why [so few buildings are landmarked],” said Michael Henry Adams. “Because of our political leadership of people who sell us out again and again for very little money in the short term and promise of jobs that never appear for our people and our community.” 

Councilman Jackson accepted $2,000 from Janus in 2013, and Levine accepted $1,000 from them the same year, according to campaign finance reports. Donnette Dunbar, the wife of Larry English, the former chair of Community Board 9 who opposes the landmark, works as a PR consultant for Janus.

Groups that support the landmark of the brewery complex include Save Harlem Now, the New York Landmarks Conservancy and the Victorian Society of New York.

Other preservationists argued that landmarking historic buildings should not be seen as an obstacle for economic development. The two do not have to be mutually exclusive, said architect Jill Hanson.

“We can see neighborhoods that have extensive landmark districts and have many landmarks, are they worst environments for vibrant economy? I would argue no,” she said. “The West Village, SoHo and TriBeCa how much are they suffering from landmarking in their neighborhoods?”

The Landmarks Preservation Committee will decide the fair of the brewery and six other Uptown sites sometime next year. People interested in submitting public testimony on any item can still do so through their website.